Twins great Tony Oliva was a rookie when he made his first All-Star Game appearance in 1964. Oliva went on to make the All-Star Game in his first eight seasons, breaking the record of six held by Joe DiMaggio.
Interestingly, Oliva was actually released by the Twins when he first came to the United States from Cuba. The team believed his outfield play was so bad that he didn’t have a future in the major leagues. But Oliva was offered an invitation to play for the Twins’ Class AA affiliate in Charlotte, and Phil Howser, the GM of that team, was so impressed with Oliva’s hitting that he convinced Calvin Griffith to re-sign him.
In his first minor league season with the Twins, Oliva hit .410.
Oliva was 5-for-18 in his All-Star career, hitting two singles, two doubles and a triple. He collected hits off Bob Gibson, Fergie Jenkins, Don Drysdale, Tom Seaver and Claude Osteen.
Oliva was asked to recall his experience playing in those games compared to how the game is presented now, with the festivities for this week’s All-Star Game at Target Field already underway.
“It is a lot different right now, because in those days we used to come to towns on Sunday, practice Monday, play the game Tuesday,” Oliva said. “Right now, you know, the festival starts on like Thursday, then Friday, Saturday, Sunday, it’s a big difference, a big festival now compared to when I played. Right now, the players get to town on Sunday and the game is on Tuesday but you have the Futures Game, the Home Run Derby, many, many things now that you didn’t used to before.”
Oliva said that the rivalry between the American League and the National League was very important when he played in his All-Star Games.
“I think always the American League and the National League was a big thing for us, to play in the All-Star Game and try to beat the National League,” he said. “I think the only thing today is that the winning of the All-Star Game that could be the [team with home-field advantage] in the World Series, makes it a little bit different.
“But I think for me, it didn’t make much of a difference because we tried to beat the National League. I don’t think the players play harder today than when I played. I think we played harder, too. We tried to beat the National League because it is the All-Star Game, and everyone wanted to participate in the game and would like to be able to play in the game.”
Oliva’s AL teams won just one All-Star Game in his eight attempts, but five of the losses were by one run and three of the losses came in extra innings.
In terms of teammates and opponents Oliva rattled off some of the greatest players in baseball history: “Oh well, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Harmon Killebrew, Mickey Mantle, Al Kaline, many, many. [Roberto] Clemente, [Orlando] Cepeda — there were big, big superstars in those days, too.”
Remembering some of his best games in the Midsummer Classic, he said: “I had some good games, like in 1965 I played against Bob Gibson and hit a [leadoff] double. That ball, if we scored we tied the game. I had some good games, but we lost that game.”
Oliva was a right fielder with the Twins but recalled one All-Star Game where he got to patrol center field, in 1966, when the AL manager was the Twins’ Sam Mele.
“We played the All-Star Game in St. Louis, and it was very, very hot that year, and I played center field that year for the American League.”
Oliva also mentioned that a big difference in today’s All-Star Game compared to back then is the amount of people that can attend the game. This year the Twins will have a capacity around 40,000 at Target Field, and median ticket prices were moving in the $300 range leading up to the game. The stadiums were bigger in past years than they are today.
“Great crowds, big crowds because the ballpark in those days was large, a little bit bigger than the ballparks right now,” he said. “We played in the Met and we got [46,706] people [in 1965]. We played in St. Louis, too, and in New York and in any of those ballparks there was a big, big crowd.”
Another big difference for Oliva? His highest salary with the Twins was $105,000 in 1972.
Oliva had to retire at age 38 because he had two bad knees and continued to play with pain when many other players would have called it quits earlier.