BALLAD OF THE BALLOT: Decades-long wait for Jim Kaat, Tony Oliva finally over, now Hall of Famers

·5 min read
From left, Tony Oliva, Jim Kaat and Bob Allison of the Minnesota Twins celebrate after Game 2 of the 1965 World Series. Oliva and Kaat have been elected to the baseball Hall of Fame.
From left, Tony Oliva, Jim Kaat and Bob Allison of the Minnesota Twins celebrate after Game 2 of the 1965 World Series. Oliva and Kaat have been elected to the baseball Hall of Fame.

After winning 283 games and 16 Gold Glove awards, Jim Kaat first hit the Hall of Fame ballot in 1989.

He received just 19.5% of the vote, far from the 75% needed for election. He actually dropped in vote totals the next two years before jumping up into the 20s, peaking at 29.6% in 1993.

Kaat, a Zeeland native, would spend 15 years on the Baseball Writers ballot for the Hall of Fame and didn't get closer than that when he was dropped from the ballot after 2003.

Kaat wasn't surprised. He knew there were better players than him on the ballot.

Then it was off to the Veterans Committee, which has since split into four different eras to be voted on separately.

Minnesota Twins legends Jim Kaat, left, Bert Blyleven, center background, and Tony Oliva, right, throw the ceremonial first pitch during the 2002 American League Championship Series.
Minnesota Twins legends Jim Kaat, left, Bert Blyleven, center background, and Tony Oliva, right, throw the ceremonial first pitch during the 2002 American League Championship Series.

He was a finalist on several versions of this committee coming as close as missing by two votes in both 2012 and 2015.

Then the call finally came on Sunday, 32 years later. Kaat said it was a call he never thought would come.

How could he?

More: Jim Kaat elected to Hall of Fame with Tony Oliva, Minnie Minoso, Gil Hodges, Buck O'Neil and Bud Fowler

Year after year, decade after decade, he got closer and closer but never received that call. He often said he didn't think about it, but how could he not when he was just two votes away?

But now 32 years later, Kaat is finally no longer waiting.

Kaat wasn't the only player with a monumental wait, in fact his wait was somehow shorter than three other legends who finally were elected.

His Minnesota Twins teammate Tony Oliva first hit the Hall of Fame ballot 43 years ago, nearly a half century. Oliva was a three-time batting champion, eight-time All-Star and one of the best players in the game before knee injuries halted his career.

In 1982, Oliva debuted on the writers ballot with 15.2% of the vote. He wickly climed into the 30s and topped out at 47.3% in 1988 before dropping off the ballot after 1996. Like Kaat, Oliva then went to the veterans committee where he got a lot of support, but never quite enough, missing by four votes in 2012 and a single vote in 2015.

Thankfully both Oliva and Kaat were alive to receive that long awaited call, informing them that they were finally Hall of Famers.

That wasn't the case for everyone.

Minnie Minoso finally made the Hall of Fame after technically a wait of 52 years, but it ws really more like 35 years. He debute on the ballot in 1969 but then was taken off of it because he came back to play multiple times. He hit the ballot for good in 1986, gaining 20.9% of the vote and never got much more than that despite staying on the ballot for 15 years.

Mr. White Sox was the first Black Latino star in the major leagues and paved the way for other Latino stars like Roberto Clemente and Oliva while making nine All-Star teams. Minoso had been extremely close to election in the Golden Era committee, but died in 2015, after missing by four votes that year (he missed by three in 2012), before he knew he was a Hall of Famer.

So did Buck O'Neil.

O'Neil was elected in the Early Baseball committee. It was the first time he was voted on since 2006 when there was a special Negro Leagues committee that voted in 16 Negro Leagues players and executives. O'Neil and Minoso, who started his career in the Negro Leagues, were the only living players on the ballot and neither one of them were elected.

O'Neil was gracious enough to speak on behalf of the posthumous inductees in Cooperstown that year. Class all the way.

The longest wait though was for Gil Hodges, or should I say, his widow Joan Hodges.

Hodges was elected on Sunday more than a half century after he first hit the ballot. The Brooklyn first baseman slugged 370 home runs, won the first three Gold Glove awards and helped the Dodgers to two titles, then managed the Miracle Mets to the World Series title in 1969. He died in 1972, and Joan, the rest of his family and Brooklyn fans have been waiting a long time. Joan is 95 and she and her children received the call at the Brooklyn home she has lived in since she and Gil moved in when he started with the Dodgers nearly 70 years ago.

The wait is cruel. O'Neil, Minoso and Hodges did not live long enough to receive that call. The same thing happened to Ron Santo.

It was worse for the family of Dick Allen.

Allen was a finalist who missed by one vote the last time the Golden Era was voted on. It seemed like sure bet that he would make it this year along with Oliva, who also missed by one vote last time.

The vote was postponed a year because of the pandemic and just one day after the vote was supposed to happen last year, Allen died.

He should be a Hall of Famer, but again Sunday, he heartbreakingly missed by one vote for a second time. Allen's wait will continue until the next ballot in five more years, when hopefully he will be elected.

Minoso, O'Neil and Hodges never lived to know they truly were Hall of Famers.

Thankfully, Kaat and Oliva did. Both were emotional when getting the call, especially Oliva. How could they not be?

With four players who have waited more than 30 years being elected, it was an emotional day for the duo, the Hall of Fame and those who have been waiting alongside them.

The wait is finally over.

— Contact Sports Editor Dan D'Addona at Dan.D'Addona@hollandsentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanDAddona and Facebook @Holland Sentinel Sports.

This article originally appeared on The Holland Sentinel: Hall of Fame wait for Jim Kaat, Tony Oliva finally over, now Hall of Famers

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