Jim Kaat and Tony Oliva are inducted into the Hall of Fame

COOPERSTOWN, NY — A humble little baseball sits at the bottom of a display case dedicated to David Ortiz on the third floor of the Hall of Fame. No hologram, no elaborate markings. In thick black ink, someone scrawled “First HR” just below the red-stitched horseshoe. 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 introduction to the first ballot here on Sunday. His years with the Boston Red Sox made him a standout star, but when he hit his first homer he was playing for the Minnesota Twins.

The other candidates inducted this weekend have come all the way here and were elected by a vote of a small committee 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 them in the Twins – the same franchise that Ortiz released in 2002, just before his Boston breakthrough.

“I’m not going to get a lot of support options like Big Papi,” Kaat said recently, “unless they have a Duracell battery for long life.”

Kaat and Oliva were born in 1938 and together spent 30 seasons in the Twins franchise. Their inclusion means five Hall of Famers played for the Twins from 1970-1973, including Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew and Bert Blyleven.

According to Hall of Famer research, no team in the Division Play era had more than five Hall of Famers at one time. Besides the Twins, the others with five are the Chicago Cubs of 1970, the Boston Red Sox of 1980, and the Milwaukee Brewers of 1982 and 1984. Neither of these teams won the World Series, as Ortiz did three times with the Red Sox, but the Twins did of 1970, who were 98-64, had the group’s best regular-season record.

“You had to play really well to beat them,” said Hall of Famer pitcher Jim Palmer, whose Baltimore Orioles defeated the Twins in a best-of-five American League championship series that fall, their 1969 feat repeated. “They had a really good balance – power, a bit of speed, well managed and great fans in the old stadium.”

Kaat played his first two seasons for the original Washington Senators, who relocated to Bloomington, Minnesota, about two weeks after Bill Mazeroski scored a home game for Pittsburgh to beat the Yankees in Game 7 of the World Series. It was the beginning of the expansion era and part of a wave of franchise movements.

“I reported to the clubhouse in the Apprenticeship League 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 twins.

“We as players thought it was a great move because we remembered what a positive move it was for the Braves to move from Boston to Milwaukee. Little things like we heard they’re getting these deals to get a car to drive for the season, stuff like that. So coming here when MLB was new, welcomed with open arms, I mean performance was secondary. The fans here were just happy to have baseball in the big league.”

After a 90-loss debut season, however, the performance was exceptional. The Twins won 817 games from 1962 to 1970, more than any other AL team except for the Orioles. Kaat was among the best pitchers of the era, winning 146 games during those seasons, behind only Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal.

Oliva finally arrived in 1964, winning the Rookie of the Year award and the first of three batting titles. He was one of several Cuban players signed by Senators/Twins scout Joe Cambria, including 1965 AL’s Most Valuable Player Award winner shortstop Zoilo Versalles. The environment helped make the transition for Oliva, who never played for any other 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 so 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 very nice, all those Cubans.”

Knee injuries deprived Oliva of the longevity of many of his contemporaries; He finished with a .304 average but only 1,917 career shots. He wasn’t a single hitter either, once leading the league in batting percentage and finishing with 220 homers, more than 13 members of the 3,000-hit club.

“Everyone says, ‘What was the highlight of your career, the shutout against Sandy Koufax in the World Series?'” Palmer said. “I’m going to tell Tony, ‘No, the day I hit you twice.’ Wally Bunker used to say, ‘Tony Oliva – oh leave us alone!’”

Oliva hit .344 for his career against Palmer (although he never hit him with a homer) and penalized another Hall of Famer, Catfish Hunter, with a .333 average and eight homers. He hit .314 in three postseason series.

Before the ALCS’ two losses to the Orioles, the Twins fell to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1965 World Series. Kaat beat Koufax in Game 2 (after Koufax refused to pitch the opener because it fell on Yom Kippur), but lost to him in Games 5 and 7.

“I was pretty realistic in ’65 – I mean, to try and get some runs from Koufax, we were lucky enough to get two of them in Game 2 and one of them was undeserved,” Kaat said. “So it’s not like we screwed up the series or anything like that. And then of course I thought, we’ll come back. If you’re in your 20s and you have a good team, ‘Oh, we’ll get back to you.’”

Despite all those Hall of Famers, the Twins declined in the early 1970s and renounced Kaat in 1973. He revitalized his career with back-to-back 20-win seasons for the Chicago White Sox under pitching coach Johnny Sain, then dropped out to the Philadelphia Phillies, the Yankees, and finally the St. Louis Cardinals.

It was there that Kaat won a championship ring in 1982 when the Cardinals defeated the Brewers and their Cooperstown quartet of Paul Molitor, Ted Simmons, Don Sutton and Robin Yount (closer Rollie Fingers was injured). By then, everyone else from the 1965 World Series had retired.

“That 17-year wait was the longest a player had to wait to return to the World Series,” Kaat said. “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 getting a championship ring. So that’s what made the wait for the ’82 season worthwhile and very rewarding.”

The twins would eventually win the World Series in 1987, with Kirby Puckett at the helm, and again four years later. But these teams couldn’t match their early ’70s predecessors to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, where Kaat and Oliva – this enduring duo – will now have plaques forever.