COOPERSTOWN, NY — A humble little baseball sits in the back of a showcase for David Ortiz on the third floor of the Hall of Fame. No holograms, no elaborate markings. In thick black ink, just below the red-stitched horseshoe, someone scrawled “First HR.” Below that, in lighter pen: “Big Show”.
The Big Papi Show was still in pre-production that day, September 14, 1997, when Ortiz hit the first of 541 home runs on his way to the first vote here on Sunday. His years with the Boston Red Sox made him a transcendent star, but when he made his first homer, he was playing for the Minnesota Twins.
This weekend’s other nominees have come a long way here, elected by a small committee vote in December: Bud Fowler, Gil Hodges, Minnie Miñoso, Buck O’Neil and the other two living members, Jim Kaat and Tony Oliva. , who will represent the Twins — the same franchise that launched Ortiz in 2002, shortly before its Boston debut.
“I’m not going to have a lot of sponsorship opportunities like Big Papi,” Kaat said recently, “unless they have, like, Duracell batteries for long life.”
Kaat and Oliva were born in 1938 and spent 30 combined seasons with the Twins franchise. His induction means that five Hall of Famers played for the twins from 1970 to 1973, including Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew and Bert Blyleven.
According to a Hall of Fame poll, no team had more than five Hall of Famers at one time in the division game era. Aside from the Twins, the others with five are the 1970 Chicago Cubs, the 1980 Boston Red Sox, and the 1982 and 1984 Milwaukee Brewers. None of these teams won the World Series, as Ortiz did three times with the Red Sox, but the 1970 Twins, who were 98-64, had the group’s best regular season record.
“You had to play really well to beat them,” said Jim Palmer, Hall of Fame pitcher whose Baltimore Orioles swept the Twins in a best-of-five American League Championship Series that fall, repeating his 1969 feat. – power, a little speed, well managed and big fans in the old stadium. ”
Kaat played his first two seasons for the original Washington Senators, who moved to Bloomington, Minn., about two weeks after Bill Mazeroski went to Pittsburgh to defeat the Yankees in Game 7 of the World Series. It was the beginning of the expansion era and part of a wave of franchise movement.
“I reported to the instructional league club on October 26, 1960 and I had senators on my chest – and at the end of the day, they were twins,” Kaat said. “That was the day the Washington senators became the twins.
“We as players thought it was a great move because we remember that it was a positive move for the Braves to go from Boston to Milwaukee. Little things, like we hear they make these deals to get a car to drive for the season, stuff like that. So coming here with MLB being new, being welcomed with open arms, I mean, performance was secondary. The fans here were happy to have a big league baseball.”
After a rookie season of 90 defeats, however, the performance was extraordinary. The Twins won 817 games from 1962 to 1970, more than every other team in the AL except the Orioles. Kaat was among the best pitchers at the time, winning 146 games in those seasons, second only to Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal.
Oliva arrived for good in 1964, winning Rookie of the Year and the first of three batting titles. He was one of several Cuban players signed by Senators/Twins scout Joe Cambria, including 1965 AL Most Valuable Player award winner, shortstop Zoilo Versalles. The environment helped in the transition of Oliva, who has never played for another team.
“I remember Jim Kaat saying to me, ‘You’ll feel right at home, because a third of the ball club is Cuban,’ Oliva said. “I was really happy to be here with the Minnesota Twins because it made me feel at home. At that time I didn’t speak a word of English, and they took care of me, they took care of me. They were really nice, all those Cubans.”
Knee injuries robbed Oliva of the longevity of many of her contemporaries; he finished with a .304 average, but only 1,917 career hits. He was also not a singles hitter, as he led the league in hitting percentage and finished with 220 homers, more than 13 members of the 3,000-hit club.
“Everybody says, ‘What’s the highlight of your career, the shutout against Sandy Koufax in the World Series?’” Palmer said. “I’m going to say to Tony, ‘No, the day I killed you twice.’ Wally Bunker used to say, ‘Tony Oliva – oh, leave us alone!’”
Oliva hit .344 in his career against Palmer (although he never hit home) and punished another Hall of Famer, Catfish Hunter, by an average of .333 and eight homers. He hit .314 in three postseason series.
Prior to the ALCS’s two losses to the Orioles, the Twins fell to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1965 World Series. Kaat defeated Koufax in Game 2 (after Koufax refused to shoot the opening shot because he fell on Yom Kippur), but lost to him in games 5 and 7.
“I was pretty realistic in 1965 — I mean, to try and take some runs out of Koufax, we were lucky enough to get two of them in Game 2 and one of them wasn’t deserved,” Kaat said. “So it’s not like we screwed up the show or anything. And then of course I thought we were going back. When you’re in your 20s and you have a good team: ‘Oh, let’s go back.’”
The Twins declined in the early 1970s, even with all those Hall of Famers, and released Kaat in 1973. He revived his career with a 20-game winning streak for the Chicago White Sox under pitching coach Johnny Sain, later jumped to the Philadelphia Phillies, the Yankees, and finally the St. Louis Cardinals.
There, in 1982, Kaat won a championship ring when the Cardinals beat the Brewers and their Cooperstown quartet of Paul Molitor, Ted Simmons, Don Sutton and Robin Yount (the closest Rollie Fingers was injured). By then, everyone else from the 1965 World Series had retired.
“That 17-year wait was the longest any player had to wait to return to the World Series,” said Kaat. “And then getting that World Series ring – I found this out from the Elias Sports Bureau – no athlete in any professional sport has played 24 seasons before winning a championship ring. So that’s what made the 1982 season worth the wait and very satisfying.”
The twins would finally win the World Series in 1987, with Kirby Puckett leading the way, and again four years later. But these teams failed to match their early ’70s predecessors for Hall of Fame membership, where Kaat and Oliva – that longtime duo – will now have plaques forever.