Jim Kaat and Tony Oliva were among the first Major League Baseball stars to call Minnesota home after the Washington Senators moved to the old Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington and became the Twins.
Decades later, the teammates became official members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Class of 2022 on Sunday, during an induction ceremony in Cooperstown, N.Y.
During his speech, Kaat, 83, recalled struggling as a pitcher for a minor league team in 1958. Kaat said he wouldn’t have made it to the big leagues if his manager Jack McKeon — who attended the ceremony — hadn’t believed in him and kept him in the rotation.
“And Jack called me over one day and he said ‘kid, you’re going to pitch in the big leagues. You’re pitching for me every four days. You might pitch a little in relief between starts,’” Kaat said. “So, come September, 240 innings later, I learned a lot about myself; I learned a lot about pitching; I learned a lot about being a supportive teammate.”
Kaat started with the Senators the next year and was part of the Twins team that won the American League pennant in 1965.
Oliva was also part of that squad that made it to Game 7 against the Dodgers. Oliva played right field and was one of the best hitters in the game during the 1960s and early 70s. He was an eight-time all-star until a series of knee injuries slowed his production.
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He said Cooperstown reminded him of his childhood in Cuba.
“I’m here today. I can’t believe I’m here. I’m looking to the left, I’m looking to the right, I’m making some memories,” Oliva said. This place right here looks like my home in Cuba where my father built a field [where] the young kids was able to play baseball.”
Kaat and Oliva played too long ago to be eligible for election to the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. They were chosen instead by the Golden Days Era Committee, which votes on candidates who made their main contributions to the game in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Oliva wondered if he would ever get the big call, until it came in December.
“I was so happy, you'll never know how happy I was,” he told the crowd in Cooperstown. “I think I was on my last bus. If I don't go into the Hall of Fame [this] time, it's all over for Tony … I'm 84 years old."
David Ortiz — who’s best known for his 14 seasons and three World Series wins with the Boston Red Sox — began his major league career in Minnesota.
Unlike Kaat and Oliva, he didn’t have wait too long to join the Hall. He’s only the 58th player to be elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
Ortiz — who was a first baseman and designated hitter — thanked the two other Twins veterans for their encouragement in his early years.
“It’s an honor to be on this stage with you, Mr. Tony Oliva, Mr. Jim Kaat,” Ortiz said. “Those guys always were around when I was with the Twins giving us good advice. Congratulations to the two of you.”
Ortiz said fellow Hall-of-Famer, the late Kirby Puckett, was such a great mentor that when Ortiz went to Boston he started wearing Puckett’s number 34 in his honor.