Oliva, O’Neil Hall of Fame inductions long overdue

(l-r) Charles Crutchfield IV, Charles Crutchfield II, Tony Oliva
Photo by Charles Hallman

When Tony Oliva’s name was announced as a member of the 2022 National Baseball Hall of Fame class, three words came to mind: It’s about time. When Buck O’Neil made the same class, four more words were echoed: It took too long.

Cooperstown, a Mayberry-like town in upstate New York, is home to the Hall of Fame, where it takes at least 75% of the votes for a player to be elected. For too many players, it’s an annual waiting game in December and January for a call from the Hall folk.

“You had a different committee” this time around, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum Executive Director Bob Kendrick last week told the MSR. He referred to the Early Baseball Era Committee that finally selected O’Neil (1911-2006), a 10-year Negro Leagues veteran player and manager, who later became the first Black coach in Major League Baseball, and Bud Fowler (1858-1913), who is credited as the first Black professional baseball player in U.S. history.

Fowler once played for a team in Stillwater, Minn. in the then-Northwestern League in 1884. “I think they looked at it in a broader sense,” added Kendrick.

O’Neil and Minnie Minoso (1925-2015) both were bypassed in 2006 by a special Hall of Fame committee that inducted 17 former Negro Leagues players, managers, and executives. Minoso, the first Cuban to play in the majors, was a former Negro Leaguer and the second-ever major leaguer to play in five different decades (17 seasons).   

The 83-year-old Oliva, who played 15 seasons with the Minnesota Twins, was the winner of three batting titles, five-time hits leader, and an eight-time All-Star. He has waited 45 years to get the call from the Hall on Dec. 5.  

“We never gave up,” said Oliva’s wife, Gordette. His daughter Anita told us, “Sometimes it’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of my father. I’ve been waiting for so long. This is something that he has wanted and we’ve waited for for so long.

 “When my father came to the United States [from Cuba], there was still a lot of segregation in baseball. Not only was he Black, he didn’t speak any English. But he never saw that as a huge barrier. He just always saw that as a new opportunity for him to be stronger and for him to persevere.”

Photo by Charles Hallman Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat (on-screen)

“I’ve known Tony for years,” said Dr. Charles Crutchfield II of Oliva. He and his grandson Charles IV attended the Dec. 6 press conference at the Twins ballpark for Oliva and former Twins teammate Jim Kaat, who also was elected to the 2022 HOF class. “I know both personally,” added the longtime doctor.

“He was such a complete player and a great teammate,” said Kaat, who appeared on Zoom, when asked about Oliva.  

However, John Wesley Donaldson, who played for at least 25 different teams over a 33-year career (1908 to 1941) was not inducted, and Dick Allen, a 15-year MLB veteran with a .535 slugging percentage, among the highest of his era, has fallen at least a vote short for induction every time his name is on the ballot. 

“Yes, we’re disappointed that when that opportunity came around, it didn’t work out,” said Peter Gorton, who has spearheaded the effort to get Donaldson in the Hall for many years and runs The Donaldson Network. “If people don’t know about him, we’re available to tell them,” said Gorton.

“He’s very good,” remarked Oliva on Allen not getting in the Hall. “I don’t know what happened.”