If somebody established a Hall of Fame for best neighbors, the Murphys of Bloomington might be unanimous first-ballot selections.
Baseball’s Golden Era veterans committee meets Sunday at the winter meetings in San Diego to vote on 10 candidates for the Hall of Fame. If Twins great Tony Oliva gets in — results will be announced Monday — Dan Murphy and the rest of his self-titled Irish Mafia might celebrate loud enough to be heard in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, Oliva’s birthplace.
A little background is perhaps in order: Tony and Gordette Oliva bought a modest house in Bloomington in 1972, not far from the old Metropolitan Stadium. The Murphys moved in across the street 17 years ago. Since 2010, the extended Murphy family — father Dan, stepmom Vicki Mager, four children, plus assorted aunts, uncles and cousins — have pushed Oliva’s candidacy, seeking the ultimate honor for a three-time American League batting champion and one of baseball’s most gracious former players.
The group started a web site, VoteTonyO.com; recruited friends and fans to send thousands of letters and postcards to the Hall of Fame; and found a volunteer to produce a 66-page coffee table book with statistics and testimonials that all 16 Golden Era Committee voters received.
“They’re so nice,” Oliva said. “They’re too nice. They’ve been working very, very hard to put this together. They never stop pushing. Every single one of them loves baseball a lot. I think they love me, too.”
Oliva, 76, remains in good health, and the Murphys are anxious to see him honored while he is still robust. “When the Murphys get on something, they just drive,” said Erin Murphy, Dan’s daughter. “It’s like a train.”
Longtime Minnesota Twins fans know the story of Oliva’s great, albeit injury-marred, Twins career. The first American League rookie to win a batting title, Oliva was an All-Star his first eight seasons and led the A.L. in hits five times — before a right knee injury wrecked his career. Over 15 seasons, all with the Twins, Oliva batted .304 with 220 home runs. The Twins retired his No. 6 in 1991, and inducted him with the inaugural class of the club’s Hall of Fame in 2000.
For decades, Oliva has been one of baseball’s great ambassadors, generous with his time and devoted to the Twins as a coach and Spanish-language broadcaster. Oliva is one of those people who brightens every room he enters. Erin, 30, never saw Oliva play. But when she needed to interview someone for her 8th grade Spanish class, Oliva gladly sat for it.
“Tony has always done so much for us, and he’s always doing so much for his fans,” Erin said.
That hasn’t been enough to get Oliva into the Hall. He never came close to the 75 percent threshold required for election in 15 years of balloting by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), from 1982 to 1996. And earlier incarnations of the Veterans Committee failed to elect Oliva in 2001, ’03, ‘05, ’07, or ’08.
The Hall revamped the veterans process in 2010, dividing nominees into three eras, rotating elections every three years. Oliva was assigned to the so-called Golden Era, from 1947-72. The first Golden Era voting committee — eight Hall of Fame players, five executives and three baseball writers — convened in 2011.
By that point, Dan Murphy, a former Bloomington police officer, had grown tired of his genteel neighbor being slighted. Erin said her dad walked into their house one day in 2010 and announced, “I’ll be danged if I’m going to sit here and do nothing about it.”
A three-week, ramshackle effort before the 2011 election generated 2,000 letters but made limited impact with the committee. Oliva needed 12 votes for election. He got eight. That was the fifth-best total behind the late Ron Santo, the beloved Cubs third baseman and broadcaster who was a near-unanimous choice with 15 votes.
This time, the Murphys were much more organized and determined. By spreading the word via social media and a booth at TwinsFest, the VoteTonyO movement grew from 100 participants three years ago to about 3,000. The group sent 14,000 pre-printed postcards and 5,000 letters to the Hall of Fame on Oliva’s behalf, including birthday and Christmas cards to living Hall of Famers. The Murphys asked volunteers to add support for Jim Kaat, Oliva’s former teammate who is also up for election.
Erin said the group tried not to bombard the committee with an avalanche of stuff, treading the narrow line between informative and obnoxious. “We tried to be pretty respectful,” Erin said.
It’s hard to know how much the effort will help. The current Golden Era committee is vastly different from the 2011 version, though this one includes Rod Carew, Oliva’s longtime Twins roommate. Carew plans to make a personal pitch for Oliva. “We’re like his paralegals, preparing all the information so Rod can go to court,” Erin said.
Besides Oliva and Kaat, the ballot features four players passed over before (Gil Hodges, Ken Boyer, Minnie Minoso and Luis Tiant) plus four newcomers (Dick Allen, Maury Wills, Billy Pierce and Cincinnati general manager Bob Howsam). Kaat drew 10 votes last time, and Hodges and Minoso nine.
The letter-writing campaign ended on Thanksgiving. Now, all the good neighbors of Bloomington can do is wait, and hope. “One of my favorite parts of all this is, when we get together at family events, there’s no awkward conversation, like, `I haven’t seen you for awhile,’ ” Erin said. “We talk about trying to get Tony into the Hall. It’s a way to bond and do something we can all talk about.”