Cooperstown, NY – A modest little baseball game sits at the bottom of David Ortiz’s display case on the third floor of the Hall of Fame. No hologram, no detail marking. In thick black ink, just below the red seam, someone wrote the words “First HR.” Below that, with a lighter pen: “Big Show.”
The Big Papi Show was still in pre-production that day, September 14, 1997, when Ortiz hit his first 541 home runs en route to the first ballot here on Sunday. His years with the Boston Red Sox made him a superstar, but when he made his first Homer, he was playing for the Minnesota Twins.
This weekend’s other recruits took the long way here, and were elected by a small committee vote in December: Bud Fowler, Jill Hodges, Minnie Minoso, Buck O’Neill and the other two living members, Jim Cat and Tony Oliva, who will represent The Twins – the same franchise that launched Ortiz in 2002, before his Boston breakout.
Kat recently said, “I wouldn’t get as many endorsement opportunities as Big Papi, unless they had them, like Duracell Battery, for a long time.”
Kat and Oliva were born in 1938 and spent 30 seasons with the Twins franchise. Their induction meant that five Hall of Famers played with the twins from 1970-73, including Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, and Bert Blyleven.
According to research by Hall of Fame, no team has had more than five Hall of Famers at any one time in the split-play era. Besides 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 those teams won the World Championship, as Ortiz did three times with the Red Sox, but the 1970 twins, aged 98 to 64, had the best group regular season record.
“You had to play really well to beat them,” said Hall of Fame player Jim Palmer, who swept the Baltimore Orioles twins in a top-five streak that fall. Really good balance – power, a bit of pace, good management, and great fans at the old stadium.”
Cat played his first two seasons with the original Washington Senators, who relocated to Bloomington, Minnesota, about two weeks after Bill Mazeroski submitted Pittsburgh to beat the Yankees in Game Seven of the World Series. It was the beginning of the era of expansion and part of the wave of the franchise movement.
“I reported to the club in the coaching league on October 26, 1960 and had the Senators on my chest — and by the end of the day, it was the twins,” Kat said. “It was the day the Washington Senators became twins.
“We, as players, thought it was a great move because we remembered what a positive step the Braves had to go from Boston to Milwaukee. Little things, like we heard they got these deals to get a car to drive this season, things like that. So. Coming out here with MLB being fresh, being welcomed with open arms, I mean, the performance was secondary. The fans here were just happy to have Major League Baseball.”
After a debut season with 90 losses, the performance was extraordinary. The Twins won 817 games from 1962 through 1970, more than every other AL team except the Orioles. Cat was among the best shooters of the era, winning 146 games in those seasons, behind only Bob Gibson and Juan Marechal.
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 Senator/Twin scout Joe Cambria, including 1965 AL Player of the Year winner, short-lived player Zoilo Versalles. The environment helped move on to Oliva, who had never played for another team.
“I remember Jim Cat saying to me, ‘You will feel at home, because a third of the ball club is Cuban,’” Oliva said. “I was very happy to be here with the Minnesota Twins, because it made me feel at home. In those days I didn’t speak a word of English, and they took care of me, they raised me. They were so kind, all those Cubans.”
Knee injuries robbed Oliva of the longevity of many of his contemporaries; He finished with an average of .304, but only a 1,917 career score. Not a singles hitter, he once topped the league in the slow percentage and finished with 220, more than 13 members of the 3,000-strong club.
“Everyone says, ‘What’s the highlight of your career, closing in on Sandy Kovacs at the World Championships?'” Palmer said. “I’ll say Tony, ‘No, the day I hit you twice.’” Wally Bunker used to say, “Tony Oliva—Oh, leave us alone!”
Oliva hit .344 for his run against Palmer (though he never did) and penned another Hall of Famer, Catfish Hunter, with an average of 333 and eight hitters. It came in at .314 in three postseason series.
Prior to my ALCS defeat to the Orioles, the Twins fell to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1965 World Championships. Cat beat Kovacs in game two (after Kovacs rejected the opener because it fell to Yom Kippur) but lost to him in games five and seven.
“I was very realistic in ’65 – I mean, to try and get a couple of Koufax, we were lucky to get two of them in Game 2 and one of them was unearned,” Kat said. “So it’s not like we blew up the series or anything like that. Then of course I thought we’d be back. When you’re in your twenties and you have a good cast: ‘Oh, we’ll be back.'”
The Twins declined in the early ’70s, even with all those in the Hall of Famers, and relinquished Kaat in 1973. He revived his career with 20-game winning streak seasons with the Chicago White Sox under coach Johnny Sen, then bounced back to the Philadelphia Phillies, Yankees and finally the St. Louis Cardinals .
There, in 1982, Cat earned the championship ring when the Cardinal defeated the Brewers and the Cooperstown quartet of Paul Molitor, Ted Simmons, Don Sutton and Robin Yaunt (the nearest Rolly Fingers were injured). By that time, everyone from the 1965 World Championships had retired.
“This 17-year wait was the longest waiting period for any player to return to the World Championships,” Kat said. “And then I got the world championship ring – I found out from Elias Sports Bureau – no athlete played in any professional sport 24 seasons before getting the championship ring. So that’s what made the 1982 season so worth the wait and so beneficial.”
The twins finally won the world championship in 1987, with Kirby Puckett leading, and again four years later. But these bands couldn’t match their early ’70s predecessors for membership in the Hall of Fame, where Kaat and Oliva—that long-lived duo—will have plates forever.