Thursday, January 27, 2022


Jim Kaat and Tony Oliva were selected to the Baseball Hall of Fame this month, joining 1968 Minnesota Twins teammates Harmon Killebrew and Rod Carew. I have two Topps 1965 baseball cards on which Kaat's name is misspelled "Katt."

This is an excerpt from my Aug. 23, 2005 blog post looking back at the first Major League game I saw in which Kaat was one of the starting pitchers and just one of eight future members of the Baseball Hall of Fame on hand:

These days the Twins play in the Baggiedome in downtown Minneapolis, but in the '60's and '70's they were out in the suburbs. My first major league game was at age 11 on June 22, 1968 at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington.

Today the Mall of America sits on the site, but back in 1968 it was baseball under open skies. In the game program (25 cents) it says, "Half of the fun at a ballgame is keeping score," and instructions were provided on how to do so. It didn't say what the other half of the fun was, so I kept score.

Visiting was a mediocre Yankee team, six years removed from winning the World Series and nine years away from winning their next one. Twins pitcher Jim Kaat got the first two Yanks to fly out, but the third connected for a home run. It was my first major league hit, so to speak. Referring to the scoring instructions, next to the name "Mantle" I drew four horizontal bars (four-base hit) and a "7" (to left field) then circled all of it (run scored). The scoreboard flashed the message that it was the 528th home run of Mickey Mantle's career.

Of course I remember that The Mick hit a home run in the first major league game I attended, but documented on the scorecard are forgotten details. For instance, Mantle was playing first base, not the outfield. The designated hitter hadn't been adopted by the American League yet, so I figured the move to first base was because of his knees. Web research today verified that one of the great center fielders of all time spent the last two years of his career at first base due to bad knees, and they were two awful years. He retired after the 1968 season after hitting only .237 with 18 homers in 144 games. The notation on the scorecard that he was playing first base is what compelled me to look it up. Perhaps the "other half of the fun" is looking at a scorecard 37 years later and seeing details and clues that add substance to imperfect memory.

The scorecard also shows: Tony Oliva put the Twins ahead with a two-run homer in the fourth, but the Yankees scratched out four runs in the seventh and won 5-2. Stan Bahnsen, who went on to win Rookie of the Year, allowed six hits (three to Oliva) and struck out nine to get the win. Hall-of-Famer Harmon Killebrew went 0-4. With the help of Baseball Almanac, I have recreated the box score as it would have appeared in the paper the next day.

The box score reveals how the game has changed in 54 years. There was no designated hitter. The game was completed in two hours and 10 minutes, an hour less than the average game today. The winning pitcher, a rookie, pitched a complete game. Kaat was leading 2-1 after six innings, what we call now a "quality start." Kaat lost it in the 7th, but he had 180 complete games in his career so it is impossible to say it was a mistake to leave him in. Back then, the best pitchers were starters and the bullpen was usually populated by the very young, the very old, or the very mediocre. The position of "closer" didn't become universal until the '70's, and "setup man" came long after that. These days, the analytics zealots would have roasted Manager Cal Ermer on social media for the sin of wasting a quality start.

Below is my very first attempt at keeping score. As you can see, I went back and did some edits afterward to perfect my scorekeeping technique. I didn't know yet that a called strike three was a backward K. According to Baseball Reference, there were three backward K's in the game. I see a mistake there in the third inning where I gave Kaat a single, but he shows 0-for-2 in the box score. It was a fielder's choice with Frank Quilici out at second. I had so much to learn.

I was counting members of the Hall of Fame who were in the dugouts that day and came up with eight, including the two who hit home runs: Kaat, Oliva, Killebrew, Carew, and pitching coach Early Wynn for the Twins; Mantle, first base coach Whitey Ford, and 2nd baseman Bobby Cox for the Yankees. Cox, who started the game-winning rally in the 7th inning, didn't get inducted for his playing career, but for his long managerial career primarily with the Braves. I'm not including Yankee GM Lee MacPhail, who may not have been there. Yankee third base coach Frank Crosetti isn't in the HOF but won 17 World Series rings as a player and coach. Other names I recognize from the roster include shortstop/future Royals Manager Dick Howser, and pitcher Al Downing who gave up Hank Aaron's 715th home run. And then there was a former Yankee who was a coach with the Twins in 1968, Billy Martin. Martin spent his last year as a player with the Twins in 1961 and stayed with the organization as a scout and coach. He also worked as a sales representative for Grain Belt Beer during that time. That is so right, but so wrong.

Billy Martin is listed as a coach elsewhere in the 1968 program, but is not on the roster shown here because a month into the season he got sent to manage the Twins AAA minor league team, the Denver Bears (7-22 at the time). The Bears improved significantly during the remainder of the season (66-50) and he became Twins manager the following year. The Twins won the AL West in 1969 but lost badly in the very first ALCS 3-0 to Baltimore. Owner Calvin Griffith favored starting Kaat in Game 3, but Martin chose someone else and lost 11-2. After various incidents over the years, apparently this was the final straw for Griffith, and Martin was fired a week after the season. Much of Martin's bad behaviour was blamed on his drinking, but there were plenty of times he was rather impolite even when sober. His abrasive personality and tendency to drink too much was very well known but it didn't keep the Tigers, Rangers, Yankees, Yankees, A's, Yankees, Yankees, and Yankees from hiring him as manager, only to eventually fire him for the usual reasons. None of his stints lasted three full seasons, and his last and shortest tenure was 68 games with the Yankees in 1988. On Christmas Day 1989 at age 61, he died in a drunk driving accident in which he (probably) was not the driver.

Former Yankee teammates Mantle, Ford and Martin were a legendary party trio in the 1950's. They used to hit Manhattan after home games to drink the night away with the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Rocky Marciano, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra and Rock Hudson. As an 11-year-old, I knew nothing of this, but now I wonder if Mickey and Whitey missed Billy, who was out in Denver, as they threw down a few in some Twin Cities watering hole that Saturday night in 1968. In this team picture from the 1968 program, Martin is in his characteristic hunch (front row, fourth from the left).

Another Twins player listed above is Jim Perry (third row, fourth from the left), who won the Cy Young Award during a distinguished career but is not in the HOF. However, his somewhat controversial brother Gaylord is, and the two of them have the second-most pitching victories by siblings behind Phil and Joe Niekro. My final useless factoid is the 1968 program says Tony Oliva's real name is Pedro Oliva, Jr., but Wikipedia says his birth name was Antonio Oliva Lopez Hernandes Javique. Wikipedia says Pedro is actually his brother's name, which he used in order to appear three years younger as he was trying to establish his baseball career after arriving from Cuba. Other players who have supposedly fudged their age include Albert Pujols, Bartolo Colon, Miguel Tejada, and Little Leaguer Danny Almonte who at age 14 was blowing away 12-year-olds.

What is baseball without trivia, statistics, trivial statistics, and just a few lies?

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