Oliva, Kaat teammates again in Hall of Fame

Part of the HOFVISITS series
Written by: Evan Gerike

Jim Kaat and Tony Oliva made Minnesota their home, and Minnesota welcomed them with open arms.

Kaat and Oliva were teammates for 12 years with the Twins from 1962-73, making three postseason appearances together over that span.

They first met each other in the rookie league. Now the two will be teammates in immortality, enshrined together in the Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday, July 24.

“It’ll be great (to go in with Kaat). I met Jim Kaat in 1961. We played in St. Petersburg in the rookie league together,” said Oliva, who along with Kaat participated in conference calls on July 15 in advance of Hall of Fame Weekend 2022. “It’ll be special to be able to go with Jim Kaat into the Hall of Fame after over 60 years we’ve known each and were teammates.”

Kaat and Oliva were selected with Gil Hodges and Minnie Miñoso by the Golden Days Era Committee. Bud Fowler and Buck O’Neil were selected by the Early Baseball Era Committee, while David Ortiz was the lone selection by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, rounding out the seven-person class. The Induction Ceremony will be televised live by MLB Network.

Kaat was a beacon of longevity in baseball, so much so he joked he might only be getting endorsement offers from Duracell battery.

He pitched for 25 years before retiring in 1983 with 283 wins and 17 saves. He entered the league with the Washington Senators before moving with the team to Minnesota. After 15 years with the Twins’ organization, Kaat made stops with the White Sox, Phillies, Yankees and Cardinals.

Kaat’s ability to pitch with finesse, rather than power, allowed him to remain in the game for so long.

“We had an expression in my early days, you never really learn how to pitch until you suffer an arm injury,” Kaat said.

Kaat’s first injury came in the minor leagues in 1959. He tweaked his shoulder in a game, then never was a power pitcher after. He adopted a new style of throwing, thanks in part to coaches like Eddie Lopat.

“I learned, as they would say, you don’t have the stuff to get hitters out, so you need to give hitters an opportunity to get themselves out,” Kaat said.

Once in the majors, he’d pitch every three or four days if needed. More of his starts came on three days’ rest than any other time frame. In September of 1967 he got 197 outs in nine games, including six complete games. He pitched an average of 40 games a season over his long career and worked 4530.1 innings, the 25th highest total all-time.

A starter for most of his career, Kaat pivoted to the bullpen with the Yankees in 1979. He also was an elite fielder and his pitching form, which he modeled after his idol Bobby Shantz, allowed him to finish in a perfect fielding position. He mastered it, winning 16 consecutive Gold Glove Awards.

His durability, he said, ranks near the top of his list of accomplishments.

“I wanted to play this game for as long as I could,” Kaat said. “Steve Carlton and I used to say ‘Let’s play ‘til we’re 50.’”

Oliva’s career was much shorter. Knee problems late in his career forced him to retire after 15 seasons, all with Minnesota, but he had already racked up three batting titles, eight All-Star appearances and a .304 lifetime average.

Although he didn’t speak any English upon his arrival with the Twins, there were so many Cuban players – Zoilo Versalles, Sandy Valdespino, Camilo Pascual – that he didn’t have a problem fitting in with the club. Oliva, born in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, will also be entering the Hall of Fame with fellow Cuban Miñoso, one of his idols growing up.

The people of Minnesota welcomed Oliva, making him feel appreciated and giving him a new home in the Twin Cities.

Soon, the Twins started giving back. In just their second season in Minnesota, the Twins finished in second place with the help of Kaat and Versalles. They finished third in 1963 before Oliva won Rookie of the Year in 1964.

“Those teams not only hit home runs, they hit for high averages too,” Oliva said.

In 1965, the Twins won the pennant. Kaat started a major-league best 42 games, going 18-11 with a 2.83 ERA. Oliva batted .321, finishing runner-up in the MVP race. They lost the World Series in seven games to the Los Angeles Dodgers, with Kaat outdueled by Sandy Koufax in Game 7.

Oliva would make it back to the playoffs twice but would never return to the World Series. Kaat wouldn’t return until he was with St. Louis in 1982.

The Cardinals’ World Series victory made Kaat the first athlete of the four major sports to play 24 seasons before winning his first ring.

Evan Gerike is the 2022 public relations intern in the Hall of Fame’s Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program for Youth Leadership Development
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Part of the HOFVISITS series