Maybe you’ve seen him pitching Wiffle balls in a makeshift ballpark at the State Fair or talking to Twins players behind the batting cage at Target Field or at Tony O’s Cuban sandwich stand on the concourse. You may have bumped into him around town. If you’re lucky enough to be of a certain age, you saw him bat at Met Stadium, driving balls across the outfield with the powerful swing that tormented American League pitchers.
Over the past half century, Tony Oliva has become a fixture of the Twin Cities community. The eight-time All-Star’s official title with the Twins these days is Minor League Hitting Instructor, but his unofficial role is team ambassador.
Sitting in the Twins’ clubhouse before a game last summer, the 77-year-old, clad in a blue TC windbreaker, white baseball pants and black running shoes, reflected on the unlikely path from his humble Cuban roots to his rightful place as a Minnesota legend.
Born July 20, 1938, the third of 10 children, Oliva grew up on a square-acre farm in the Pinar del Río province, where his family raised cows, pigs, chickens, oranges, mangoes, corn and tobacco. He milked cows, planted crops and developed a strong work ethic. The family of 12 lived in a three-bedroom house without electricity and plumbing. “It was crowded,” he recalls. “But you get used to it.”
His father, a former baseball player, carved a diamond into their land and introduced his sons to the island nation’s favorite sport. They whittled bats from the branches of majagua trees. Sometimes their father returned from Havana with gloves and balls. They had to make thoseballs last, and after the covers had worn off, they would wrap them with tape.
Oliva’s talents stood out. He could hit farther, throw harder and run faster than the others. Soon he was playing for the local team. Shortly thereafter, he was invited to play for a better team in the bigger town of Entronque de Herradura, five miles away. That led to a spot on the Los Palacios nine, another jump up in the level of competition, when he was 17.
The talented youngster wasn’t thinking about playing Major League Baseball in the United States. His dream was to play professional baseball in Havana for his favorite team, the Cienfuegos Camaroneros. He worked to improve his natural talents. “I dedicated myself to play more, to practice to be good,” he says. “It’s like school; if you don’t study, you don’t get smarter.”
That paid off. His Los Palacios teammate, Roberto Fernandez Tapanes, who had played minor league baseball in the United States, recommended him to Joe Cambria, the Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins scout who had signed more than 400 Cuban players to contracts.
Oliva impressed Cambria at a Havana tryout, and the Twins offered him a contract for $250 a month — more money than some Cuban families made in a year. That excited him, but he was unsure what his parents would think of their eldest son leaving the island. He asked Fernandez Tapanes to broach the idea with them. “They were happy,” says Oliva. “They said, ‘We want the best for our son.’”
So in April 1961, the 22-year-old left home, figuring he would return after the season’s end. He and 21 other prospects got delayed for 11 days in Mexico waiting for their visas. By the time Oliva got to the Twins’ rookie camp in Fernandina Beach, Florida, tryouts were nearly over. In the four remaining intra-squad games, he hit well but struggled in the field. The Twins simply did not have room for all the prospects, so they released him.
Oliva had come to the United States to play baseball. He did not want to go home and admit failure. Worse, the Bay of Pigs fiasco had further complicated relations between his home country and his host country, making it all but impossible for him to return to Cuba.
Cambria interceded on his behalf, and Oliva wound up with a rookie-league club in Wytheville, Virginia. There, he had to live in the colored section of town and walk three miles to and from the stadium. Such segregation was an indignity he hadn’t known in Cuba. He was embarrassed he didn’t know any English and afraid people would laugh at him if he tried. Someone wrote down “ham and eggs” and “fried chicken” for him, and for weeks that was what he ordered in the single restaurant that served blacks.
He did well, batting .410 — the best average in all of organized baseball — but he missed his family. Mail was slow and unreliable. He communicated by the occasional telegram, which cost upward of $15. Because there was no phone on the family farm, he would make arrangements to call them at a public telephone in town, but sometimes the line for it was so long he couldn’t reach them. Unlike today, when teams teach Latin prospects English and assign mentors to school them in American ways, Oliva and his fellow Latin players had to learn to survive on their own: “Those days, they threw you in there and you had to pick it up,” he says.
After two more years in the Twins’ minor-league system, Oliva earned a spot on the 1964 roster. He felt intimidated the first time he walked into the clubhouse and saw Harmon Killebrew, Bob Allison, Jimmie Hall and Camilo Pascual. “Coming from Cuba, coming from the country and getting to the Big Leagues, I didn’t know if I belonged,” he says.
He quickly proved he did. In one of the most amazing debuts in MLB history, Oliva led the American League in runs scored, doubles, total bases, hits and batting average (.323). He was selected as an All-Star and named Rookie of the Year.
By the time he arrived for spring training in 1965, he knew he belonged, even when he started the season slowly. “I had so much confidence that I knew I was going to finish on top,” he remembers. “I believed I could hit everybody and I could compete at this level.” He repeated as the American League batting champion, the first player in either league to start his career with two batting titles. He was an All-Star eight consecutive seasons and won another batting title in 1971 with a .337 average, the highest of his career. He quickly became a fan favorite. Oliva benefitted from the tutelage of his veteran Latin teammates: Pascual, Vic Power and Zoilo Versalles, who translated for him and taught him the nuances of American culture.
His success made him miss his family back home even more. “When you succeed at something, you like to be able to share that with your family and friends,” he says, the sadness of five decades earlier still visible in his face. “I wasn’t able to do that.”
A decade after leaving Cuba, he finally saw his mother and sister Felicia in Mexico, where he played winter ball during the 1971-1972 season. He was able to introduce them to his wife, Gordette, a South Dakota native he had met when she asked him for an autograph. Married in 1968, they had had the first two of their three children by that time. The following winter, his father and Felicia traveled to Mexico and returned with Oliva to the United States for five months. Those were joyful reunions.
Later in 1972, he returned to Cuba for the first time in 11 years. He had left a young man and came home a seasoned baseball hero. More than 100 friends and family members gathered at the farm to greet him. “When I touched the ground, I felt like I was walking on the air,” he recalls.
He went back again in 1981 and then in 1986. More recently, he has been able to travel home with greater ease and frequency. Though his salary in the days prior to free agency and during Calvin Griffith’s notorious penny-pinching ownership topped out at $105,000, Oliva sent money home whenever he could. Over the years, he bought eight homes for his parents and siblings. “To be able to play ball and get $250 a month and be able to help my family — that was a big deal,” he says.
Strained relations between the United States and Cuba worked against Oliva’s brother Juan Carlos, who pitched 10 years for the Cuban national team. Oliva thinks his younger sibling had the talent to pitch in the major leagues, but he never got the chance.
Knee injuries hampered Oliva throughout his career, and though the implementation of the designated hitter rule in 1973 extended his playing days, he never batted above .300 in a full season after winning his third batting title. Still, when he retired after the 1976 season, he had a .304 lifetime batting average.
Would he do it all over again? No, says Oliva. Had he known he would not be able to return to Cuba and see his family for so long, he never would have signed with the Twins. He would have stayed and fulfilled his dream to play for the Cuban national team. “I did not know anything different,” he says. “I was happy. In those days, the best for me was right there.”
But he is content with the way his life has played out and grateful for all that baseball has given him. “I want to say ‘thank you’ to the fans for being so nice to me,” he says. “I still hear from a lot of them. That’s the best thing — that they will never forget you.”