When is the best time to read a baseball book? Let’s throw out early spring.
In April and May, every fan is still excited about his/her team and hoping for the best — including good weather.
Two new offerings worth picking up are “Tony Oliva: The Life and Times of a Minnesota Twins Legend,” by Thom Henninger, and “The St. Paul Saints: Baseball in the Capital City,” by Stew Thornley.
Oliva’s story, at least the gist of it, is well-known to most longtime Twins fans: The young Cuban, whose first name is actually Pedro (Tony was one of his younger brothers), made a grand early impression at old Metropolitan Stadium. He won batting titles his first two seasons — in 1964, when he was the American League’s rookie of the year, and in 1965, when the Twins reached the World Series.
Injuries, though, took a heavy toll. He played most of his first two seasons with a sore knuckle. And later he had seven surgeries on his right knee.
Henninger’s “Tony Oliva” covers all that. It also describes the loneliness Oliva dealt with, cut off from his large family back in Cuba. Oliva started a family here, but he cherished rare meetings with his parents and siblings.
Much of the book deals with Oliva’s hitting ability, his streaks and slumps, and how he played through injuries. It quotes teammates and takes side trips for stories about Zoilo Versalles, Harmon Killebrew and other teammates.
The best parts of the book are the nuggets: The Douglas DC-3 that all the Dallas-Fort Worth players, including Oliva, were scared to fly on in the minors; how Oliva met his future wife, Gordette, a farm girl from South Dakota, in the lobby of the Maryland Hotel where he lived; and how hard he had to work on defense. “The guy could hit, but couldn’t catch a cold,” pitcher Lee Stange said.
Henninger, a lifelong Twins fans and an editor at Baseball Digest, makes the case for Oliva to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame. He compares Oliva’s statistics during his most productive seasons, 1964-71, to players who are in the Hall of Fame from that era, and also details how Oliva fared against the top pitchers.
The cover of “The St. Paul Saints” book shows home plate at Midway Stadium during the presentation of the national anthem. There are three umpires, a catcher, a fan and Mudonna, the team’s pink pig mascot.
Funny, yes. A harbinger of the book, not so much.
The first half of the book is actually a history lesson, covering the old St. Paul Saints who played in the American Association from 1902 to 1961. It talks about the successes and failures of those teams, and the characters who played on them. Few are household names. But they had great nicknames: Bubbles Hargrave, Sea Cap Christensen, Kiddo Davis.
This book is mostly chronological, so the Saints, with Mike Veeck, the promoter extraordinaire with the “Fun is good” philosophy, don’t take the field until Chapter 9.
Veeck was a strong believer in independent teams — that is, teams not affiliated with the major leagues — who were free to try crazy promotions. (Not all worked.) He signed some major leaguers past their prime, including Darryl Strawberry and Jack Morris.
The closing photo is CHS Field, the new Saints’ home, pictured under construction in Lowertown. The home opener is May 21.
The Saints had early success, winning three titles in their first four years beginning in 1993, but only one since then, in 2006. But fun at the games is a constant, and this book adds a little more.
Roman Augustoviz is a Star Tribune sports copy editor.