The Twins were playing in the Hall of Fame Game in Cooperstown, N.Y., on Aug. 8, 1977. Things were far different then, with the induction ceremony held outside the museum, followed by the exhibition game at tiny Doubleday Field.
There were bowling lanes in a basement attached to the museum. A good share of the Twins were bowling downstairs, rather than taking in the ceremony.
There was a group of six being inducted, with only Ernie Banks having reached the shrine by passing muster on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot.
You think us BBWAA voters are tough to get along with now? The great Ernie, Mr. Cub, received 83.8 percent of the votes, meaning 62 out of the 383 voters failed to check Banks in his first year on the ballot.
The other inductees were early players, Amos Rusie and Joe Seward, manager Al Lopez, and Pop Lloyd and Martin Dihigo from the Negro Leagues.
I was traveling with the Twins as a beat writer. All I knew of Dihigo was that he was being inducted posthumously. As it turned out, he was born in Cuba in 1906, and played 12 years in the Negro Leagues and also was a legend in the Mexican League — as both a pitcher and second baseman.
Buck Leonard, an earlier Hall of Famer as a Negro Leagues superstar, once said of Dihigo: “He was the best ballplayer of all-time, black or white.’’
The true drama in Dihigo’s induction was him being the first Cuban to reach the Hall of Fame.
The Twins had a sizable Cuban influence when they arrived in Minnesota: Camilo Pascual, Zoilo Versalles, Julio Becquer, etc., in 1961, and soon Tony Oliva. That probably led to this surprised reaction for me:
“Dihigo is the first Cuban-born Hall of Famer? Really?’’
Yes, really. And there has been only one other: Tony Perez, inducted in 2000.
Fidel Castro can take most of the blame for Perez’s singular status as a big-league Hall of Famer. Yet, watching the pregame All-Star ceremonies, this also was clear:
The incredible Latin American presence in baseball’s talent pool is a relatively recent phenomenon. We could see that when the Latin American-born Hall of Famers were introduced and only nine former big-leaguers were mentioned:
Perez from Cuba; the late Roberto Clemente (1973), Orlando Cepeda (1999), Roberto Alomar (2011) and Pudge Rodriguez (2017) from Puerto Rico; Juan Marichal (1983) and Pedro Martinez (2015) from the Dominican; Luis Aparicio (1984) from Venezuela; and Rod Carew from Panama (1991).
Add Dihigo to the list and that’s 10 Hall of Famers from Latin America. Only 10. That number is going to double in the next decade, and continue to grow.
The American League had four players in its All-Star lineup from Latin America, and 12 of the 20 position players on the roster were from the Dominican (5), Venezuela (3), Puerto Rico (2), Curacao (1) and Cuba (1).
Houston is the dominant team in 2017. Check that lineup, starting with Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve in the middle of the infield. Milwaukee is the surprise team in the major leagues this season. Check that lineup, starting with Orlando Arcia (Ozzie’s kid brother) at shortstop.
Check out the 2017 Twins, for that matter.
Where would baseball find itself in talent without the gold mine of 16-year-olds being discovered annually in Latin America?
It’s not all good news for baseball in that part of the world. There is economic collapse and political upheaval in Venezuela. There is Donald Trump’s plan to reverse a share of Barack Obama’s door opening with Cuba.
Meantime, baseball’s investment in Dominican facilities (including by the Twins) has increased. Venezuelan players are being nurtured there along with Dominicans, and talent keeps on coming.
And there was this hopeful information coming from Miami this week:
The Marlins were supposed to be baseball’s gateway to Latin America when they came into existence in 1993. Even with two World Series victories, that’s never happened because of lousy ownership — first Wayne Huizenga, now Jeffrey Loria.
The latter is so disliked in South Florida that not even Giancarlo Stanton can produce large crowds. Finally, Loria’s going to sell, and it looks as if Jorge Mas, a local billionaire and the son of Cuban immigrants, will be the buyer.
Baseball’s link to Latin America will be stronger than ever with a vibrant franchise in Miami. A committed local owner of Cuban descent could be the person to deliver that on a long-term basis.