Walk the Hall with Tony O and watch baseball history come to life
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – You cannot leave behind a world crisis caused by a Russian madman with a visit to this hamlet founded in 1786. You can leave behind for a few hours the reality that baseball is in crisis, now that owners and players have decided to add not playing to a growing public lethargy.
The National Baseball Museum and Hall of Fame dates to 1939 and remains on Cooperstown's main street. The Hall is an independent nonprofit, not an arm of Major League Baseball. That's why as you walk through the place, you encounter displays covering the game's steroids era and an accounting of work stoppages that now has to be updated.
The lockout didn't matter much here Wednesday, the day for a visit to the National Museum for Tony Oliva, the first of seven 2022 inductees (on July 24) to have made a date for the Hall's offer of an "orientation."
Jim Kaat and David Ortiz will be here in the weeks ahead, and the other four are deceased: Minnie Minoso, Gil Hodges, Buck O'Neil and Bud Fowler, a pre-1900 player. Relatives have been invited to make orientation visits.
Tony was accompanied Wednesday by his wife, Gordette, and daughter, Anita, named after Tony's mother from the countryside of Pinar del Rio, Cuba's westernmost province.
The Olivas' visit started with a showing of "The Generations of the Game,'' a recently produced 16-minute film that reminds you that despite four-hour games and endless pitching changes and infield shifts and wanting to put 14 teams in the playoffs, there are still reasons that baseball can hold a place in your soul.
And Tony Oliva, now 83, a Twins employee in one form or another since shortly after leaving Fidel Castro's Cuba in March 1961, is among those reasons.
Asked his reaction to the film when the lights went up, Oliva said in a halting voice: "It's wonderful … it's beautiful."
There's a short interview in the film with Juan Marichal, the great Giants pitcher, in which he emotionally expresses amazement that a kid like him from a tiny place in the middle of the Dominican Republic can "go all the way to Cooperstown."
And Oliva is a kid like him. "Oh, yes," Tony said. "Almost the same story."
Later, as Oliva went through a 90-minute tour featuring artifact-filled displays, video displays, items chosen from the massive storage area especially for him to ponder and finally the plaque rooms, there were several reminders that Tony O. sees everything and recalls most of it.
Later in the day, when Ortiz's departure from the Twins in 2003 was being discussed, Tony gave brief résumés of the "two guys that started off ahead of David with Boston," but he didn't quite have the names.
A Red Sox fan was there and confirmed Tony had offered correct bios on both: Jeremy Giambi and Kevin Millar.
Early in Wednesday's tour, the Oliva party walked into the room dedicated to the Negro Leagues. As you enter, there's a blown-up photo of the 1904 Philadelphia Giants.
Tony smiled at all those Black faces and said: "Hi, guys."
This was charming to those of us who have listened to Tony's assessment of players for decades, and invariably found a generous level for optimism for Black or Hispanic players — some great, some not close.
Tony: loyal to his roots, as well as to Minnesota — 100% in both cases.
The Latin America display was nearby, with Cuba getting full credit for embracing the game in the 1860s and triggering its popularity in Puerto Rico, Venezuela and beyond.
Zoilo Versalles, shortstop and 1965 MVP, and Oliva were part of a display featuring that first Twins' World Series team. He has referred to Zoilo as his "brother" from those early times with the Twins.
A half-hour later, Tony was looking at a collection of World Series rings from winning teams and said of losing Game 7 in 1965: "Nothing to celebrate. You're like the vice president. You have nothing to do."
Oliva had seen a photo of Sandy Koufax earlier on the tour and said, "There's that guy," in honor of Sandy's 2-0 complete-game win over the Twins in 1965's Game 7.
He walked past an Ichiro Suzuki display and said, "He could hit a little bit," meaning a lot.
There was a tribute to Tigers great Al Kaline in a display case and Tony said: "The best player I ever saw play was Willie Mays. He was in the National League. In the American League, it was Al Kaline. I saw the way he could do everything, and said, 'I want to hit and play outfield like Kaline.'"
He paused and said, "I was the worst outfielder you ever saw. I had never played a night game, would say, 'I got it, I got it,' and the ball would land 20 feet behind me. And if a ground ball came to me, it would go through my legs. Even if I got down on my knees, it went through my legs."
Pause. "But I took thousands of fly balls and won a Gold Glove [in 1966]. A Gold Glove means you're the best. From worst to best … that's pretty good."
Down in the storage room, Oliva was handed a bat belonging to Rod Carew, his road roommate for 11 years and first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1991.
Oliva went into Rodney's stance and said: "He was batting against Nolan Ryan, who was throwing 105 [miles per hour]. Nolan threw a pitch, Rod didn't move, and the pitch went behind him.
"I was on deck. I yelled, 'What happened, Roomie?' Rod said, 'I think the ball went through me.'"
Downstairs, amidst the plaques, more media members and more TV cameras were waiting.
Oliva was pointed to the Harmon Killebrew plaque, the other half of the Twins' "KO Punch" from 1964 to 1971 before injuries took a toll.
"I always say, 'Harmon Killebrew was too nice to be a baseball player,'" Oliva said. "You throw him two straight fastballs. He might miss the first one. You throw him the next one … 'bye, bye baby.'"
He was brought to a circular room at the back of the plaque area and shown the spot on a corner wall where his will be located. He followed the tradition of signing the small foundation that awaits the plaque.
Oliva had been given a jersey emblazoned with "Hall of Fame." He answered questions for nearly a half-hour, then went to the opposite corner of the room to look again at Kirby Puckett's plaque.
He was quiet for a moment and said: "He called me 'Papa.' He died so young."
Do you cry or laugh when you see Puck here? "Both," said Tony Oliva, Hall of Fame, Class of 2022 — late, but not too late.