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Excerpt for my Tribute to Tony Oliva and Ernest Hemingway


Curt DeBerg

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Ernest Hemingway loved to tell stories. Hemingway biographer Carlos Baker called these stories “yarns.” His good friend, Aaron Hotchner, called them “practical joke fantasies.” Like all good storytellers, Hemingway exaggerated. Often, though, such talk gave him inspiration, and sometimes found its way into his writing.

     Tony Oliva tells a few good stories, too, but his greatest story wasn’t a joking matter, nor one that he has shared, to this day, with anyone but his closest family members. The most plausible story is the one recounted by  Oliva’s biographer, Thom Henninger. In Tony Oliva: The Life and Times of a Minnesota Twins Legend (2015). In order for likeable young Oliva to have a realistic chance of being signed to a long-term contract by the Twins, he needed legal documentation showing that he was  less than twenty years old—if a prospect was over twenty, the Twins would likely pass. Oliva, though, was actually nearing his twenty-third birthday, an age that would most likely be out of the ballpark for Twins owner Calvin Griffith.

     Papa Joe Cambria believed in Oliva, though. The young man could hit almost any pitch in and out of the strike zone, and he could drive the ball to every anywhere. If the Twins saw what he saw, Cambria knew that Oliva was major league material. 

     How did Cambria make the Twins believe that Oliva was three years younger? No one really knows except for Tony and his family, but one thing is for certain: he needed help. Such aid, I suggest in this story, could have come from another Cuban Papa: they called him Papa Hemingway.

     With Cambria’s help, Oliva arrived in the U.S. under either his own name, or his brother’s name. The big question is: what is his real name? Is it Pedro Jr. or is it the next sibling, the next brother younger brother, Antonio, born almost three years after Pedro Jr.?

     According to Henninger, the first boy is Pedro Jr. and the next is Antonio. Pedro Jr. used his brother Antonio’s birth certificate to fabricate his age in order to obtain a travel visa to the United States. Under this scenario, Pedro Oliva, Jr. is the real name of the man we know as “Tony” Oliva. And it is for this reason that  the Twins organization believed “Tony” (birth name “Pedro Jr.”) was three years younger than he really was.

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