The most awkward and uncomfortable part about not being elected to the Hall of Fame, Tony Oliva says, is that nobody actually tells you.
Once the votes are counted, the executive director of baseball's Cooperstown shrine places a phone call to each of the newly minted immortals, setting off a jubilant celebration.
But for the near-misses and runners-up? "Nobody calls. You just wait. Then you hear it on the news," Oliva said. "You say, 'Oh, not this time, I guess.' "
Nobody has said "not this time" more than Oliva, one of the greatest hitters in Twins history and one of the most-debated Hall of Fame candidates ever. In 23 elections over nearly four decades, various groups of voters — baseball writers for 15 years, then already-elected Hall of Famers, and more recently a small committee of baseball players, executives and historians — have considered Oliva's case.
He has yet to receive that life-changing phone call.
Only Dodgers first baseman and Mets manager Gil Hodges, who died in 1972 after just four of what is believed to be 27 or 28 elections (Veterans Committee ballots weren't revealed prior to 2003), has been considered, but not elected, more often.
On Sunday, Oliva will wait once more at the home on a Bloomington cul-de-sac where he has lived for nearly five decades, with friends and relatives and kids and grandkids all crowded around, fingers crossed, trying to will that phone to finally … just … ring.
"You think they have my number?" Oliva joked. "Maybe I should check."
Not a bad idea, since this latest interim between votes has been unusually, perhaps cruelly, long. Oliva, 83 years old now, received 11 votes in the most recent Golden Days Era committee vote in December 2014, tying him with Dick Allen for the most — but falling one vote short of the 75% required for election.
"One vote. I think that got as much attention as if I'd been picked," Oliva said. "But what can you do?"
The close call became even more agonizing when the Hall of Fame revamped its process for selecting old-timers in 2016 for the fourth time this century. It reduced the Golden Days Era (1950-1969) committee from its every-three-years rotation to twice per decade, and pushed the next meeting back to 2020. When the pandemic prevented the committee from meeting in person, the vote was delayed by another year.
"It's a long time," Oliva said, then added impishly, "especially to wait for another 'no.' "
That he's able to laugh at what strikes many of his contemporaries as mental torture — the ceaseless cycle of anticipation and letdown — is remarkable. Well, unless you know Tony, his wife said.
"He gets disappointed, sure, but he's too happy a person to let someone else's votes affect his happiness," said Gordette Oliva, his wife of 53 years. "If anything, he enjoys all the support he gets, all the good-luck calls and letters."
And not just from his friends all over Minnesota, where he's beloved. Election "would mean a lot to Cuba. My brother calls, my cousin calls, they always say, people here [in Cuba] are rooting for you," Oliva said. "When I don't make it, I always feel like I've let people down. I've made them disappointed, it's my fault. Maybe this year, we make them happy."
Maybe so. Heck, he's already enjoyed his own congratulatory bash. In 2007, when another vote was to be announced during spring training, Gordette organized an impromptu He-Made-It! party at Potts, a bar and grill down the street from the Twins' Fort Myers complex that's long been a hangout for Twins coaches and staff. She invited all of Tony's closest friends, "which pretty much filled the place," she said. "I just thought, if we're going to stand around and wait, we might as well have some chicken wings."
The phone never rang, but who knows if they would have heard it anyway. "Great, great party. To see everyone together, it was a very happy place," Oliva said. "Good luck, good luck, good luck, and then after awhile — oh well, let's have a good time!"
'Knock on wood'
The irony is not lost on Oliva. His health, long cited as the chief reason for keeping him out of the Hall of Fame, could be the factor that finally boosts him to enshrinement this year.
"I'm very happy to be alive," he said with a grin. "I'd rather be alive than in the Hall of Fame."
But one may beget the other.
Oliva is one of 10 candidates on the Golden Days ballot that will be whittled down Sunday in Orlando by a 16-member committee that includes seven Hall of Famers, five of them ex-players, one of them his former Twins roommate Rod Carew. With the death of former Phillies and White Sox slugger Dick Allen exactly one year ago next Tuesday, only three of the ex-big leaguers are alive to hear the committee's verdict: former Twins teammate Jim Kaat, longtime Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills, and — "knock on wood, still here, not planning to go nowhere" he says — Oliva.
It's not one of the official criteria, and nobody is comfortable discussing it openly. But the Hall of Fame is sensitive to the backlash its sometimes convoluted selection process weathered when Cubs infielder Ron Santo, and more recently players union executive director Marvin Miller, failed on ballot after ballot, only to be elected following their death.
Santo had openly yearned for induction, making his posthumous election in 2011 particularly poignant, while Miller, whose leadership helped revolutionize how players are paid, fumed at the "farce" and "insult" of being judged by some of the executives he had battled with over the years.
Miller eventually asked for his name to be removed from future ballots, and requested that if he was ever elected, as he was in 2019, seven years after his death, his family not attend the induction ceremony.
"Ron Santo, no, no, no. Then right after he died, it's [nearly] unanimous," Oliva said. "Marvin Miller, he did so much for baseball. Why did they wait?"
They aren't the only examples, either. Oliva took part in a meet-your-heroes baseball cruise in the winter of 2005, about three months before a special committee on the Negro Leagues would consider a long-overlooked class of nominees. Fellow Cuban and close friend Minnie Miñoso, the former White Sox star outfielder, was on board, too.
"We hugged, and I said, 'Minnie, this is the year for sure,' " Oliva said. "He told me, 'Man, I hope so. If I don't make it, I'll never see it.' "
The committee chose 17 new Hall of Famers at its March 2006 meeting — all of them deceased. Miñoso, 80 at the time, and longtime Kansas City Monarchs star player and manager Buck O'Neil, 94, were passed over, to nationwide outrage.
By coincidence, Miñoso and O'Neil could both be elected this week — posthumously, of course. Another committee on the Negro Leagues will consider O'Neil, and Miñoso is on the same ballot as Oliva, competing for the same votes. Committee members can vote for only four candidates, and 12 votes from the 16 voters are required for election. And the next vote won't take place until 2026, when Oliva will be 88.
Would he like to be honored at the same induction ceremony as his Cuban compatriot? "That would be wonderful. I know Minnie would have liked that," Oliva said. "But it's not up to us, is it?"
More than stats
Oliva's credentials for baseball immortality haven't changed in the 45 years since his final at-bat for the Twins — at least not the on-field record. A three-time batting champion, Rookie of the Year in 1964, eight straight All-Star selections and runner-up finishes in MVP voting in 1965 and 1970. One of the cornerstones of an AL champion and two division winners. He led the AL in hits five times, and even in slugging in 1971, at a Killebrew-like .546.
But his career was cut short in his prime when his right knee slammed into a sprinkler head while diving for a line drive in 1971, causing the first of at least a dozen surgeries over the years and leaving him a hobbled DH for his final few years. "I hit .291 on one leg in 1973," he said. "I wasn't the same, but I could still hit."
The bad knee cost him a month of the 1971 season and all but 10 games the following year, then forced him out of the game in 1976. It cost him the gaudy statistical totals like 3,000 hits that attract Hall of Fame votes.
"By pure stats, career stats, Oliva is probably out. But I kind of equate him to, from my generation, Dale Murphy, a player we all thought was a Hall of Fame during his career," said Adam Darowski, a baseball historian and host of the "Building the Ballot" podcast about the Hall of Fame. "Murphy's numbers don't quite come up to that standard, but over his peak years, he was a Hall of Famer. And maybe that's enough. In Oliva's case, I feel like eight years should be a long enough stretch of great play to put you over."
Oliva has also been a bench coach and hitting coach for the Twins, on the staff of both of their World Series championships in 1987 and 1991. He's a Spanish-language broadcaster and a goodwill ambassador for the only franchise he ever played for. Just last week, he was the star attraction at a Target Field soiree for sponsors, giving hitting tips to amateurs in the batting cage.
"He's done so much for the game," Gordette says. "But I think about how much more he could have done around the world, traveling to places as a Hall of Famer."
Has he done enough to earn that phone call on Sunday?
"The committee could look at it a couple of different ways: They could look at Allen and Miñoso and say, we've got to right this wrong. They were alive the last time they were on the ballot, we messed up, we've got to put them in," Darowski said. "Or they could say, let's not do that to Oliva and Kaat. I think that one of either Miñoso and Allen will get in, and one of Oliva and Kaat. But it's just a guess."
Either way, the Olivas say their life won't change much.
"We've been so blessed. For Tony to make it to the United States, for us to meet, for us to have our family," Gordette says. "The Hall of Fame would be nice, but we don't lose sight of how blessed we've been."
They're reminded of it every time they go to a baseball game.
"Hey, they've got a statue of me at [Target Field]. A statue!" Oliva marvels. "That's pretty good, too."
National Baseball Hall of Fame
What: Announcement of vote by 16-member Golden Days Era Committee. Former Twins Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat and eight others are on the ballot.
When, where: Sunday in Orlando.
How it works: Candidates need at least 75% of vote to be part of 2022 induction class in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Results: Will be announced at 5 p.m. on the MLB Network.