Baseball still held the soul of America’s sports consumers entering the 1960s. You weren’t a major league town unless you had a Major League Baseball team, and ours arrived on the Bloomington prairie in April 1961.
Minnesotans were possessed with this team, with these Twins. We chose our favorite players and also culled out our least favorites.
Harmon Killebrew was the first hero of the masses, but you would hear a surprising number of newbie fans say their favorite player was center fielder Lenny Green or pitcher Shorty Pleis.
My guys were the kid at shortstop, Zoilo Versalles, and the ace starter, Camilo Pascual. The Twins were billing Versalles as “Zorro,” and the popular sobriquet for Camilo was “the Castilian Curveballer.”
Jim Lemon, a slugger who didn’t live up to his advance billing, was the first Twin to hear the wrath of Met Stadium crowds.
I also had friends who were quick to tire of Bob Allison’s streakiness. He became their personal whipping boy, and they repeated the fable that Allison was related to owner Calvin Griffith; “He’s a nephew or something,” they would say.
As a 15-year-old fan, I devoted my bashing to Earl Battey, the slow-footed catcher. He hit into way too many rally-killing double plays for my taste. Heck, he got thrown out at first base when he hit a one-hopper to right field (Lou Clinton was the culprit, I believe).
When big-league baseball was new here, there was little appreciation for the beating a catcher would take. They wore a fragile mask and a flimsy chest protector, and guys like Earl started as many as 143 games, and we — OK, me — could only complain about him trudging down the line and being out by 20 feet on the back end of a double play.
Later in life, I had a chance to talk with Earl several times. More important, I had a chance to talk to his teammates from his seven seasons (1961-67) with the Twins.
This is no lie: After doing so, I actually had a sheepish feeling for those times I was in the Met Stadium crowd and uttered boos toward Earl, or cussed at the radio as Ray Scott or Herb Carneal described Earl rolling into a double play.
Earl Battey should have been my hero, not a goat.
Earl Battey was everything a manager — whether it was Sam Mele back then, or Ron Gardenhire today — could want in a catcher. He could throw, he could receive, he could lead a pitcher, and he would play.
He had gnarled fingers from foul tips, and terrible knees, and throbbing shoulders, and he caught six days a week, caught day games after doubleheaders, because noble men did that in the era that big-league baseball came to Minnesota.
There were no DH days to offer a breather. If a manager wanted Battey in his lineup 130 or 140 times a year, and Mele did, he wrote him in the lineup at catcher.
In 2005, the Twins threw a 50th reunion at the Metrodome for the 1965 World Series team. It was a great occasion, except for the absences of old friends:
Versalles, Allison, Cesar Tovar, Johnny Klippstein and Jerry Zimmerman (Battey’s backup) were deceased.
So was Earl. He died on Nov. 15, 2003, after what was described as a “long bout with cancer.” Just from hearing his teammates, I’m betting that Battey fought that bout stoutly.
Tony Oliva had to do some lobbying with Pascual to get Camilo to agree to attend the 2005 reunion.
“I think Camilo was afraid he would be too sad about the players not here, especially Earl,” Oliva said. “Camilo and Earl were together in Washington … Camilo loved Earl.”
Pitcher and catcher. It’s supposed to be that way.
Frank Quilici, an unlikely hero for the Twins early in the ’65 Series, said: “Earl was a great storyteller, and he could tell them both in Spanish and English. He had the biggest personality on the team. That was as close a group of players as I’ve been around, and Earl probably was the main reason.”
At the reunion, Harmon Killebrew (now also an absent friend) said: “Earl was a fun guy in the clubhouse, but more importantly, he had everyone’s respect. He had sore knees, sore hands, sore everything, but he stayed in the lineup.
“I didn’t realize how good of a catcher Earl was until he was gone.”
Me, neither, Mr. Battey … I’m contrite to say, all these decades later.