By Joe Christensen
I’d interviewed Tony Oliva a few times but never really gotten to know him, never fully grasped the legend, until I started working on today’s feature story. I had a lot of fun gathering material. Everyone I talked to seemed so happy for the chance to sing Oliva’s praises. Jim Palmer spoke of a home run Tony hit in the Appalachian League in 1961 that people were still talking about years later. “They said it’s still heading for the mountains,” Palmer said.
Twins minor league director Jim Rantz spoke of a home run Tony hit in Oklahoma City in 1963 that traveled over an outfield light tower. “Furthest home run I ever saw,” Rantz said. Just then, Rantz remembered Harmon Killebrew’s epic blast at Met Stadium in 1967 and said, “Put it in that category.”
Oliva is one the few who hit a ball completely out of Kansas City’s old Memorial Stadium. It happened on June 29, 1969. George Toma, who was then Kansas City’s head groundskeeper, remembers that ball hitting a house across the street.
“We had a hill back there we called Lambchop Hill,” Toma said. “That ball went over Lambchop Hill, over a sidewalk, over a four-lane road, and it would have kept going if it didn’t hit that house. Whenever I see him, I say, ‘Have you paid for the broken window?’ “
Buck Martinez, a rookie catcher for Kansas City that day, recalled the same story this week as he looked up the box score on the Internet. “It was a Sunday doubleheader,” Martinez said. “He went 3-for-4 with a double in Game 1. Then in Game 2, he went 5-for-5 with a double, two home runs and five RBI. So he went 8-for-9 that day. [Laughs] That’s just how I remember it.”
For me, it was unforgettable sitting down several times to talk with Oliva. We met for lunch. He and his wife, Gordette, allowed me and a photographer into their home. Then, my wife and I had a chance to join them as they watched their son, Ric Oliva, play guitar last week in Hopkins. Ric graduated from the Berklee College of Music, which has a list of prominent alumni that includes John Mayer and Quincy Jones. We saw Ric play blues alongside Jimmy Russell in their band “Soul Shack Sessions.” Ric also plays in the rock band “8 Foot 4,” and we’re definitely going to check them out sometime. Music always has been a big theme in the Oliva home.
Everywhere we went, people would walk up to Oliva, asking for his autograph. He’s truly honored when it happens. Tony told me he used to have a real phobia about asking people for their autograph himself. He played in all those All-Star games and never once asked another player to sign a baseball. It wasn’t until years later, at old timer’s games, that he got over it and started a collection that includes the likes of Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Sandy Koufax.
I guess the way to sum it up best is to let Oliva tell the story about the time he was on the same flight to Atlanta with Telly Savalas, star of the TV show “Kojak.” Keep in mind, this is after Oliva had played in all those All-Star games and won all those batting titles:
I love Kojak. I love it. I watched each episode. Every time it was on TV, I watched it. He was on the plane with me, and I recognized him, and I say, ‘I’ve gotta have his autograph.’
I’ve got the pen in my hands, and I want him to write on the back of my picture. It takes me about 20 minutes to decide to go to see him. … When I go there, he was speaking to some lady. I say, ‘I’ll get him later.’
Later, I come back to his seat again, he was sleeping.
The third time I come back there, he was speaking to somebody again.
We get to Atlanta, and some people recognized him. I watched him sign all these autographs. Here I was behind him, I never asked. I was so chicken. And today, I regret that because I was afraid. I know it’s hard to believe.
Actually, it’s not hard to believe. Baseball players, even the best ones, are human. Some just have an easier time showing it than others. And that’s what made getting to know Tony O. so special.