Reusse: Cuba, Castro and Tony O

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 20, 2013 - 9:23 PM

From a farm in Cuba to the major leagues with the Twins, Tony Oliva, who just turned 75, has had quite the journey.

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Tony Oliva

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You find Entronque de Herradura on a map and even today it looks as if this is the middle of nowhere. The village is located in Pinar del Rio, the westernmost province of Cuba, an area of mountains and lush valleys.

Pedro and Anita Oliva had a farm of 150 acres, where they raised chickens and cows for food, and grew tobacco and other crops. Pedro earned a reputation in the area for having the finest touch for rolling Cuban cigars.

There were 10 children, six boys and four girls. There was much work on the farm, but on Sundays, there was baseball.

“We would play three games … play all day,” Tony Oliva said. “After a while, I could hear the older men who were watching, talking in low voices to each other, saying, ‘If that boy gets to Havana, he won’t be back.’

“They were talking about me.”

Havana was the home to the four teams of the Cuban League. This was the best of baseball’s winter leagues, with major leaguers such as Camilo Pascual pitching 300 innings for the Washington Senators and then coming home to pitch more than 100 in the offseason.

Roberto Fernandez Tapanes was an outfielder who played for the Havana Cubans in the Florida International League in the early 1950s. The founder of that team was Joe Cambria, who would become known as “Papa Joe” to the many Cuban players that he signed for the Washington Senators’ organization.

“Fernandez Tapanes discovered me,” Oliva said. “He would bring teams to play in our area on Sundays, and he saw me play in Palacios. I was hitting third for our team … hitting good. He said to me, ‘Would you want to play professional?’

“I thought he was talking about playing in Havana, in the Cuban League. I had listened to those games at night, on our scratchy radio, and had dreamed of being able to play there.”

The conversation was taking place soon after Fidel Castro, the leader of the Cuban Revolution, took power on Jan. 1, 1959. Fernandez Tapanes, along with Tony Oliva, and his parents, had no idea to the full extent of changes this would bring.

Private land was seized and Pedro and Anita’s farm went from 150 acres to a tiny plot, a couple of acres. In 1961, Castro outlawed professional sports, officially putting the end to a Cuban League filled with major leaguers.

Fernandez Tapanes introduced Oliva to Cambria, and Tony was in a last-ever group of Cubans (22 at the start) that Papa Joe would send to the Griffith organization — freshly relocated to Minnesota.

“We left on April 9, 1961, and had to enter the U.S. through Mexico,” Oliva said. “We were there for 10 days, before leaving for Florida on April 19.”

There was a considerable brouhaha in Cuba-U.S. relations during that period. The CIA-inspired and ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion had occurred on April 17.

“The Bay of Pigs was terrible for many people, but it’s probably the reason I was able to play baseball in the United States,” Tony said.

Four of the Twins’ six full-season minor league teams already had departed Fernandina Beach, Fla., when Papa Joe’s final shipment of Cuban talent arrived.

“We worked out for five days and they told 10 of us to go home,” Oliva said. “But we couldn’t go home, because travel was shut down after the Bay of Pigs. I think Joe Cambria made a call for me.”

The call was to Phil Howser, running the Class A Charlotte Hornets for the Griffiths. Oliva and two other Cubans were told to go to Charlotte and wait for further instructions.

“Minnie Mendoza was playing second base for Charlotte,” Oliva said. “I owe a lot to him. He kept telling Phil Howser, ‘Don’t send Tony back. He’s a great hitter.’ ”

Eventually, Howser placed Oliva with the short-season team in Wytheville, Va. Tony hit .410.

He had a handful of September at-bats for the Twins in 1962 and 1963, and came to stay as the American League’s Rookie of the Year and batting champion in 1964.

Truly came to stay. He and his wife Gordette raised their family in Bloomington, and now that home is a gathering place for four children, and five grandchildren, and right now, siblings visiting Tony from Cuba. Tony and Gordette also visit his family most winters in Pinar del Rio.

Tony turned 75 on Saturday, with a small birthday celebration on a deck at Target Field.

“We had a place in Miami for a few winters, but after two or three weeks, we would say, ‘Let’s go home,’ ” Tony said. “Minnesota, and also Cuba … those are the only places where I feel like I’m home.”

 

Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. preusse@startribune.com

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