Forty-five years seems like a long time to hope for something, but you know what felt even longer to Tony Oliva? Those last 10 minutes before his phone finally rang.
"That was 10 loooooong minutes," Oliva said with a laugh.
But at 4:40 p.m., his phone buzzed. It was Jane Forbes Clark, chairwoman of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, ready to invite him to Cooperstown, N.Y., next July to be inducted into immortality. After 23 unsuccessful appearances on a ballot, Tony Oliva, one of the greatest hitters in Twins history, is a Hall of Famer.
"I've been waiting for this moment for 45 years. It's great," the 83-year-old said amid a house full of jubilant friends, neighbors and family members. "It's something special. I never dreamed that something like that would happen to me."
Actually, much of the state of Minnesota has dreamed about it, given Oliva's stellar but truncated baseball career. He's a three-time batting champion and the heart of a league champion and two division winners with the Twins, but said he had just about given up hope of ever being elected to the Hall of Fame.
"The whole day, I said, 'If that call is not coming, it's all over, Tony.' But you know something? I was never feeling bad about myself," Oliva said. "I look around the room, I see my family here, my friends here, I'm happy."
Still, even the most optimistic Twins fan probably never imagined a scenario like Sunday's when Oliva, who received 12 votes from a 16-member panel of Hall of Famers, executives, historians and journalists meeting in Orlando, was elected on the same day as former teammate Jim Kaat (12 votes) and fellow Cuban outfielder Minnie Minoso (14 ). Dodgers first baseman Gil Hodges also received 12 votes, making this four-member group the largest class of Hall of Famers ever chosen by the Golden Days Era committee at once.
That 1970 Twins team that won the AL West by nine games? Turns out, that roster included five Hall of Famers: Oliva, Kaat, Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew — who was supposed to serve on Sunday's committee, but had to cancel due to the rising COVID numbers — and Bert Blyleven, who replaced Carew on the panel.
"To have both Tony and Kitty [Kaat] going into the Hall of Fame makes this one of the happiest days of my life," Carew said from California. "They took care of me when I was a kid in 1967. Tony, Kitty and Harmon were the guys that I learned from as a big leaguer. Tony was my big brother."
Oliva will be inducted July 24, 2022, in Cooperstown, N.Y., along with Kaat, Minoso, Hodges, and any more recent players elected by the Baseball Writers of America, whose votes will be announced in January. In addition, longtime Kansas City Monarchs player and manager Buck O'Neil and Bud Fowler — whose 1884 minor league season with Stillwater, Minn., makes him the first Black player in professional baseball — were elected by an Early Baseball committee that also included Blyleven.
"I'd love to go to and see all the great players there. They're my friends," Oliva said. "I've been several times. I went when Rod got in, I went when Paul Molitor got in. Kirby [Puckett], too."
Oliva was a lifetime .304 hitter in 15 seasons with the Twins, his only major league team. He won batting championships in each of his first two seasons, 1964 and '65, and again in 1971. He was the AL Rookie of the Year in 1964 and runner-up in AL MVP voting in 1965, after helping the Twins reach their first World Series in Minnesota, and also in 1970. He racked up 1,917 hits, 597 of them for extra-bases.
"I always thought I was a better hitter than the pitcher [was a pitcher]," Oliva said. "No matter who was pitching, I thought I could hit him."
But his career was cut short by knee injuries that began in 1971 and eventually limited him to serving as designated hitter for the final four seasons of his career, which concluded in 1976.
He never reached 50% of the vote on the BBWAA ballot, but got closer and closer on various veterans' committees over the years. Still, he got bad news 23 times over 45 years until Sunday. By coincidence, the longest slump of Oliva's career was an 0-for-23 skid in June 1967.
Oliva ended it with a double off Cy Young Award winner Jim Lonborg. And Oliva put all those Hall of Fame disappointments behind him on Sunday.
"I never had the chance for my family to see me play here in the United States. .. My mother, my father, my brothers, some sisters, they never saw me play," mused Oliva, who also served as a coach under Tom Kelly for the Twins' 1987 and 1991 World Series championship teams. "I wish they had this opportunity to be here today, but they're in heaven right now. They would have been very proud that a little country boy from Cuba is in the Hall of Fame today."
Fowler: Starting in Minnesota
Fowler, who was born John Jackson Jr., was the first acknowledged Black professional baseball player — as a 20-year-old in 1878. In 1884, Fowler became the Black player in organized baseball when he played for Stillwater in the Northwestern League. Minneapolis and St. Paul also had teams in the 14-team league.
Fowler had a 7-8 record as a pitcher and batted .302 in 48 games for Stillwater, which had a 21-46 record. In 1895, Fowler helped form the Page Fence Giants, one of the first successful Black barnstorming teams. Early in the 1895 season, the Giants played a four-game exhibition series in Minneapolis against the Minneapolis Millers. Fowler was the player-manager of the team.
Here are the voting results, with 12 (75 percent) of 16 votes needed for election.
Golden Days Era Ballot: Minnie Minoso (14 votes, 87.5%); Gil Hodges (12 votes, 75%); Jim Kaat (12 votes, 75%); Tony Oliva (12 votes, 75%); Dick Allen (11 votes, 68.8%); Ken Boyer, Roger Maris, Danny Murtaugh, Billy Pierce and Maury Wills each three or fewer.
Early Baseball Era Ballot: Buck O'Neil (13 votes, 81.3%); Bud Fowler (12 votes, 75%); Vic Harris (10 votes, 62.5%); John Donaldson (8 votes, 50%); Allie Reynolds (6 votes, 37.4%); Lefty O'Doul (5 votes, 31.3%); George Scales (4 votes, 25%); Bill Dahlen, Grant Johnson and Dick Redding each three or fewer.