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A Tribute to Tony Oliva (Blog #5)


Curt DeBerg

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     As he was approaching his twenty-third birthday, Tony Oliva waved goodbye to his tightly-knit Cuban family and set off for the United States. But the road was rocky in Florida. The Twins decided that his poor fielding trumped his lively bat, so they released him. A dejected Oliva wanted to return home, but that would make his dream of making the big leagues impossible.

     Fortunately, fate intervened. Another Cuban ballplayer, Minnie Mendoza, took Oliva under his wing and introduced him to Phil Howser, the general manager of the minor league team from Charlotte, North Carolina. Howser and Papa Joe were friends, and he trusted Papa Joe’s recommendation about Oliva. Howser watched Oliva practice, and was impressed with the “not-so-young” Oliva's talent. He generously agreed to pay Pedro Jr.’s meals and lodging until he could help Oliva sign a long-term contract. Though there wasn’t a spot on the Charlotte team, the general manager was certain that another Twins affiliate would eventually sign him if he was given more time to prove himself.

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By the 1950s, Ernest Hemingway had already achieved the highest honors in his profession. In 1953, he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Old Man and the Sea, and in 1954, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Hemingway, who liked to be called Papa, loved baseball. But the late 1950s were not a good time for the great writer. While Oliva was spraying balls to all parts of the ballpark, batting fourth for the Los Palacios team in the Pinar del Río province, the peripatetic Hemingway—now in his late fifties—was starting a steep decline into depression. Ingesting copious amounts of alcohol by day, he would consume a large quantity of drugs at night to treat depression, hypertension, a liver ailment and eye problems. 

     Did Papa Hemingway and Tony Oliva ever cross paths? It could have happened. Once in a while, Papa Joe Cambria would invite a friend to join him for  a baseball game. Papa Joe was a scout for the Washington Senators (the Senators moved from Washington in 1961 and became the Minnesota Twins), and he liked to have a drink or two in Havana’s Floridita bar.

     This story is part yarn, part fantasy and part truth. It is left to you, the reader, to decide which parts are true and which are fiction.  

[Note: the above blog was extracted from a book entitled, Ernest Hemingway and Tony Oliva: How the Great Writer Helped the Great Ballplayer. The book can be found on Amazon or by going to http://curtdeberg.com ].

Tony Oliva Hall of Fame.jpg

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