Oliva helps Royals, Twins salute Negro Leagues

July 30, 2012

KANSAS CITY — There’s something a little strange about seeing someone in a 1920 throwback cap texting away on a smart phone. It’s also strange to see someone in full uniform from that timeframe stroll to home plate to a Red Hot Chili Peppers song.

Saturday’s game between the Royals and Twins marked Kansas City’s annual Salute to the Negro Leagues, and the teams were outfitted in special throwback uniforms. The Royals sported the threads of the 1920 Kansas City Monarchs, while the Twins wore uniforms representing the 1909 St. Paul Colored Gophers.

The tribute, though, began long before the gates at Kauffman Stadium were opened. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City was packed full of fans for a special afternoon discussion with Twins legend Tony Oliva.

Seats were filled early, and fans — many in Twins garb — were left standing or sitting on the floor to hear tale after tale from the eight-time All-Star, who spent 15 years with Minnesota.

With the setting of the museum and Saturday night’s festivities at the ballpark, Oliva spent a good deal of time discussing the challenges he faced as a player of color in the 1960s.

“When I get together with friends I played with — black and white players — we sit down and laugh about those days,” Oliva said, “because it was unbelievable.”

Oliva recounted the early days of his professional career, which started in ’61 at the Twins’ Spring Training camp in Daytona Beach, Fla. Coming from Cuba, Oliva spoke very little English. He told a story of a restaurant stop in the South, where Oliva and a player from Nicaragua sat down with a couple of their white teammates. They were asked to leave the restaurant, and Oliva said he didn’t understand. He needed his teammate to translate, and they returned to the bus.

It was just one example of the prejudice that Oliva and so many others faced at the time. He said that on road trips, white players would stay downtown in nice hotels, while black and Latin players stayed in the African-American neighborhoods of cities. Oliva played right field, but said that when his team would travel to play in Chattanooga, he had to play center field because people in the stands would throw rocks and other objects.

“In the big leagues, they called us names, but it was all right,” Oliva said. “Most of the times they called you names because you were playing too good.”

But Oliva also commented on how much things have improved since his early playing days.

“Everything has changed 500 percent for the best,” he said.

Oliva does have a notable Kansas City connection: the famous 517-foot home run he crushed at old Municipal Stadium off the Royals’ Dave Wickersham in 1969.

Oliva told the story again on Saturday, recalling that the ball crossed the street and broke a window of a building on the other side. To this day, Oliva said, whenever he sees legendary groundskeeper George Toma — who worked for the Royals and still tends to the grounds at the Twins’ Spring Training facility in Fort Myers, Fla. — he’s reminded that he still hasn’t paid for that window.

A friend of Toma’s was at the museum on Saturday and brought along a picture of the building, supposedly showing the broken window. Oliva laughed at the picture and held it up, shouting, “proof!”

Later in the day, Oliva — sporting a Monarchs cap — threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Kauffman Stadium. A fellow Cuban, Royals catcher Brayan Pena, received the throw.

In addition to Oliva’s pitch, there was a special ceremony on the field before the game. Five former Negro League players — Ulysses Hollimon, Diego Segui, Earnest Johnson, Jesse Rogers and Bob Motley — were all recognized and tipped their hats to the appreciative crowd.

Fans also received a promotional bobblehead featuring Negro Leagues and Kansas City baseball legend Buck O’Neil.

The Royals are holding an online auctionin which game-worn jerseys of select players from both teams will be auctioned off, with all proceeds benefiting the museum.

Fans can bid on Negro Leagues jerseys worn and autographed by Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler, Alcides Escobar and Alex Gordon from the Royals. Autographed jerseys available for bidding from the Twins include those of Ben Revere, Denard Span, Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer and manager Ron Gardenhire. The auction runs through Friday, Aug. 3. Jerseys worn by other players will be donated to the museum for future fundraising.


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