The Building of the 1965 Twins

This article was written by Daniel R. Levitt and Mark Armour

When Calvin Griffith formally took over the Washington Senators in late 1955 after the death of his uncle Clark, he became the last of the family owners to act as his own general manager. Earlier in the century owners like Barney Dreyfuss and Charles Comiskey had built great teams, often advised by a trusted field manager. But as wealthier, upper-crust men bought into the game, these new owners brought in professional general managers to help them assemble their squads. Money and professional management soon relegated most of the family owners to the second division.

After more than half a century, many writers have a tendency to wax nostalgic on these owner-operators. In fact, these owners, who had no outside source of income, often ran their clubs on a shoestring budget and spent much less on scouting and minor-league operations than the wealthier franchises. By the early 1950s some of these teams were spectacularly unsuccessful. Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics only twice finished as high as fourth in the 20 years from 1935 through 1954, the team’s last year in Philadelphia, and finished last 11 times during the same period. While not quite as inept as the Athletics, the Senators rarely offered a competitive baseball product over their last 20 years in Washington. Setting aside the chaotic years of World War II, the Senators never finished higher than fourth during that period while landing in the cellar five times.

As an 11-year-old child Calvin Griffith Robertson caught a break when he and his sister Thelma left their poor subsistence lifestyle in Montreal and moved in with Uncle Clark Griffith in Washington. Clark, managing partner of the Washington Senators, introduced Robertson to a life in professional baseball. Although never formally adopted, Robertson reversed his middle and last names so that his last name would be that of his new “father,” Clark. After a number of years working in the minors (as both a manager and front-office executive) to hone his craft, Calvin Griffith formally joined the Senators organization in 1942. When Clark died at age 85 after the 1955 season, Calvin assumed control of the club.

One of the Senators’ few bright spots was Joe Cambria, a former minor-league player and longtime minorleague owner who became a legendary scout for the Senators. Although he signed such players as Early Wynn and Mickey Vernon, he gained most of his fame for his efforts in Cuba, which led to the signing of more than 400 players. With the help of Cambria, the Senators organization was at the forefront of signing baseball players from Latin America –particularly Cuba — a talent source that was especially attractive to the Griffiths because it was inexpensive. Cambria helped deliver several extremely talented Cuban ballplayers to the franchise.

The Cuban connection remained strong in the late 1950s. The team’s top two starting pitchers during the Senators’ final years in Washington, Camilo Pascual and Pedro Ramos, were both signed from Cuba, and the former had developed into one of the American League’s best pitchers. Pascual led the league in strikeouts from 1961 to 1963, finished second in 1964, and won at least 20 games in both 1962 and 1963. Future reserve outfielder Sandy Valdespino came north in the mid-1950s. Cambria sent teenage shortstop Zoilo Versalles to the US in 1957.

While still in Washington, the team had also acquired a number of future Twins standouts via the more typical method of the time: signing amateur Americans. During much of the 1950s, the rules required that a player receiving a signing bonus greater than $4,000 spend his first couple of years in the major leagues. Termed a “bonus baby,” this youngster typically received little playing time before being sent to the minors for more active seasoning.

In 1954 the Washington Senators signed Harmon Killebrew for $30,000, though this was partially offset as some of the bonus was earmarked against his salary. Still only 17, Killebrew turned down a multisport scholarship to the University of Oregon. As a bonus baby he played very little for the Senators before getting a chance to start his minor-league apprenticeship in 1956. After an excellent year and a half in the minors, Killebrew hoped to make the team as a regular in 1958. Manager Cookie Lavagetto, however, preferred to stay with the veteran third baseman Eddie Yost.

Griffith, who grew up in the game, was not afraid to meddle in what would generally be considered the manager’s domain. In fairness, he was often correct, which paradoxically may have caused his manager even more consternation. To maneuver Killebrew into the lineup, Griffith traded Yost after the season. Nevertheless, Lavagetto still seemed unwilling to make the slugging Killebrew his regular third baseman until Griffith finally forced the decision upon his manager in the spring. Killebrew responded with 42 home runs. Cincinnati general manager Gabe Paul certainly recognized Killebrew’s ability and offered Griffith $500,000 — a mammoth amount for an owner-operator — for the slugging third baseman. “We knew we couldn’t play the $500,000 at third base,” Griffith said after turning the offer down. “And we were convinced Harmon would develop into a great box office draw.”1 Griffith wouldn’t spend beyond his meager means to build a winner, but he wasn’t looking to pull money out of the franchise — he wanted to win and would do everything he could within his financial wherewithal.

Griffith and his scouts signed three other key members of their pennant-winning team for exactly $4,000 in the mid-1950s, effectively skirting the bonus rule. In 1955 outfielder Bob Allison signed with the Senators after his sophomore year at the University of Kansas. Jimmie Hall, the center fielder for the 1965 club, signed in 1956 after finishing high school in North Carolina. The team signed pitcher Jim Kaat, one of the two rotation anchors on the pennant-winning club, in 1957 after his freshman year in college.

Just before the start of the 1960 season, Griffith made a great trade with the owner of the 1959 pennantwinning Chicago White Sox, Bill Veeck. He dealt 32-year-old outfielder/first baseman Roy Sievers for two young players who became key performers on the 1965 Twins, catcher Earl Battey and first baseman Don Mincher, plus $150,000. Veeck had bonded with Sievers during their days together with the Browns in the early 1950s, which possibly distorted his view.2 Sievers had led the league in home runs in 1957, but in conjunction with his slightly diminished 1959 season, Griffith couldn’t refuse this offer. Battey was only 25 years old, and though slow afoot, he was a superb athlete — when the White Sox originally signed him they had to compete with an offer from the Globetrotters for his services — and Mincher was a powerful, if raw, left-handed bat.3 Even without the money, this trade favored Griffith.

Scout Floyd Baker landed third baseman Rich Rollins in 1960 for a $6,000 signing bonus (the previous bonus rule was no longer in effect) after he graduated from Kent State. “I signed Rollins for his hustle and determination,” Baker said. “Not his ability.”4 Rollins almost didn’t sign when the team told him he would be starting in a Class D league. He recognized that would strand him too far from the majors for a 22-year-old, and he successfully held out to debut in Class B. Rollins would develop into a solid regular, though by 1965 he was no longer the star he appeared to be in his first few years in the majors.

In the late 1950s, the Washington Senators finished last in American League attendance every year and usually by quite a distance. In 1956, when the Senators drew fewer than 450,000 fans, no other team was under 850,000. Thus, when Minnesota’s Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul came calling on Griffith to entice a move, he was more than ready to listen, and the Senators moved to Minnesota for the 1961 season.

The franchise that Griffith moved had finally begun to show some improvement at the major-league level its last year in Washington. After three consecutive last-place finishes, in 1960 the club moved up to fifth place and a record of 73-81. That squad boasted three position players who would star for the 1965 team: Killebrew, Allison, and Battey. In addition, Versalles, Rollins, and Mincher were in the farm system, run capably by Griffith’s brother, Sherry Robertson. Of the future pennant-winning pitching rotation, Pascual had established himself, and Kaat had been handed a little major-league experience as a 21-year-old.

Despite the burgeoning young talent, the team fell to a disappointing 70-90 the first year in Minnesota. Testifying to his dissatisfaction, Griffith fired manager Cookie Lavagetto with the team 23-36 and promoted coach Sam Mele. “The Mele method,” wrote sportswriter Max Nichols, “was to reprimand and encourage individually, to remind players often on points to be worked on, but not to give much actual instruction. Players were expected to improve themselves.”5

Griffith was delighted, however, with the attendance in his new home. The team drew 743,404 fans his last year in Washington, the fewest in the league. In Minnesota the club finished third in the new 10-team league, drawing 1,256,723 patrons. Griffith was not afraid to reinvest his profits in the ballclub — he would not spend more than he took in, but he wasn’t using the club to fund a lavish lifestyle.

The club introduced future star Zoilo Versalles to the starting lineup in 1961. Early in his career Versalles had become known as a hot dog. Cambria had told the Twins: “He’s just a baby, a hot cup of coffee. You don’t light a fire under a hot cup of coffee, you cool him off a little and be nice to him then you’ll find you’ll love him.” Nevertheless, managers Cookie Lavagetto and Sam Mele dispensed discipline and prodding.6 And in his early years Versalles exhibited a swagger and moodiness that masked the fears of a young man in a strange country.

In early 1961 the organization added another Cuban, a man who would become one of the decade’s best players. Pedro Oliva signed with Cambria in February and left for the United States six weeks later. Because he did not have a passport, he borrowed his brother Antonio’s and thereafter adopted the name Tony.

After arriving in America, Oliva, along with 21 other Cubans, went straight to a tryout camp in Florida. The camp had only several days remaining, and Oliva was released after a four-game audition. Determined to get into Organized Baseball, Oliva received some help from Charlotte owner Phil Howser, then part of the Twins’ minor-league system. Howser paid for Oliva’s room and board, let him practice with the team, and then sent him to a rookie league in June. A player who was to become one of their greatest stars had nearly slipped away.

The team responded well to Mele in 1962, and the young talent that Griffith had accumulated finally fulfilled its potential. In a bid to improve the infield defense and support the team’s young infielders, Griffith had swapped Ramos to the Indians for veteran first baseman Vic Power, renowned for his fielding prowess, and hurler Dick Stigman. To accommodate their new first sacker, the Twins moved Killebrew from first base to left field.

The Twins jumped all the way to 91 wins, the most by the franchise since 1933. Killebrew had a great year at the plate, coming in third in the MVP balloting, and both he and Allison finished in the top five in slugging. Rich Rollins joined the lineup, made the All-Star team, and came in eighth in the MVP voting. The Twins also promoted second baseman Bernie Allen to the lineup. Allen had signed the year before for a big bonus after leaving Purdue and joined the Twins’ Class A farm team for the remainder of the season. In 1962 he played in 159 games and finished third in the Rookie of the Year balloting. Jim Kaat became a star, finishing second in innings pitched and sixth in ERA, and Pascual turned in another stellar season, despite missing much of August with an inflamed tendon.

For 1963 Griffith brought back essentially the same team, expecting that his young team could continue to grow. But the team started slowly, bottoming out at 11-20 on May 15. To bolster his squad, in early May Griffith swapped lefty starter Jack Kralik — the team was overloaded with left-handed starters — to Cleveland for righty Jim Perry, a terrific pitcher in 1960 who had seemingly plateaued. The team also inserted Jimmie Hall, who had been filling in for Killebrew and Allison, into the starting lineup in June. After taking over for incumbent center fielder Lenny Green, Hall validated Mele’s trust. He slugged 33 home runs and finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting. The Twins bounced back after their slow start to again win 91 games, well behind the Yankees, who won 104.

This was clearly a talented squad. They hit 225 home runs, tied for the second most ever to that point, and led the league in runs scored. The pitching came through as well. Behind a rotation led by Pascual, Kaat, Stigman, and Perry, the Twins had the third best ERA in the league. Moreover, the team was likely even better than its record: its 767 runs scored and 602 allowed translated to a Pythagorean record of 98-63. Expectations were high indeed for 1964.

While Griffith was satisfied with the talent in his organization, he had a decision to make regarding one of his top farmhands. Tony Oliva had hit .304 with 23 home runs for Dallas-Fort Worth in 1963, after hitting .410 and .350 his previous two years in the minors. In Minnesota, Griffith had an outfield full of stars — Killebrew, Allison, and Hall had all finished in the top five in slugging — but Griffith smartly recognized he needed to move Oliva into the lineup. To accommodate Oliva, Griffith dictated that Mele move Allison to first, put Oliva in right, and bench the aging Power. Pushing Oliva onto the team was a brilliant move, but putting Allison at first instead of Killebrew was certainly curious.

Oliva responded to the Twins’ show of confidence with one of the best rookie seasons of all time. He led the league in batting average, runs, hits, doubles, and total bases. His 374 total bases were the most in the league between Mickey Mantle in 1956 and Jim Rice in 1977. Oliva also worked extremely hard on his fielding. Although he never really became a great outfielder, he improved enough to win a Gold Glove in 1966.

Despite Oliva’s performance and 221 home runs, the 1964 Twins fell all the way to sixth with a 79-83 record, and the season was viewed as a bitter disappointment. Moreover, the team lost Bernie Allen in June to a career-altering injury. He severely tore ligaments in his knee when Don Zimmer took him out at second with what Allen remembered as a “cross-body block” after a “lollipop” throw from Versalles.7

Griffith, ever the activist, refused to concede the season and made three key moves in June, willingly and astutely spending the money his 1963 league-leading attendance afforded him. To bolster his faltering bullpen — 1963 hero Bill Dailey suffered arm problems and couldn’t repeat his outstanding performance — Griffith purchased two veteran relievers: Al Worthington from Cincinnati and Johnny Klippstein from Philadelphia. Both would excel in 1965. Griffith also picked up starter Jim “Mudcat” Grant in exchange for fifth starter Lee Stange, utilityman George Banks, and about $25,000.8 Grant had started the season poorly, but had been a reliable, league-average pitcher over the previous several seasons.

Griffith blamed much of the season’s fiasco on Mele. He felt that his manager failed to sufficiently rest his regulars. “Mele has not rested players to my satisfaction,” Griffith said. “Whoever manages the Twins next year [hardly a vote of confidence for his manager] will sit down with me in the spring and discuss a general policy of resting players.”9

Griffith also believed the team played “stupid, shabby baseball,” a sentiment subscribed to by a number of sportswriters.10 “By 1964 the Twins’ mental errors had become the talk of the league,” wrote Max Nichols. “Fundamental plays were beating them. Outfielders threw to the wrong bases almost daily. Infielders blew rundowns. Pitchers failed to cover first base. Infielders slept.”11 The team had once again underperformed its Pythagorean record, this time by eight games. Minnesota’s run differential of 737 runs scored and 678 runs allowed would typically result in a record closer to 87-75. Whether the difference between a team’s actual won-loss record and that projected by its runs scored and allowed is mostly a function of random variation or can be attributed to some fundamental team characteristic remains unresolved within the baseball analytic community. In any case, something was clearly going on with the Twins. They had underperformed their run differential by a whopping 15 games over the past two years. And at a time before baseball observers understood the direct mathematical relationship between run differential and wins and losses, there was a widespread sense that the Twins were underperforming due to mental errors and a lack of fundamentals.

Griffith decided not to fire Mele but he rearranged the team’s coaching staff, bringing in two independent, strong-willed men. He signed Johnny Sain to be the pitching coach for roughly $20,000, making him one of the highest salaried coaches in baseball. Sain had been the pitching coach on the pennant-winning Yankees until he was let go after the 1963 season when he asked for a raise and a two-year contract. Sain spent 1964 working at his automobile dealership, but eagerly jumped back into baseball when Griffith came calling with an open checkbook. Whether due to Sain’s influence or other factors, the Twins’ ERA fell from 3.58 in 1964 to 3.14 in 1965, and the pitchers swore by Sain.

“No man alive knows more about that little baseball and how to throw it than Johnny Sain,” Worthington said. Mudcat Grant told reporters: “He made a winner out of me. He’s given me a second curve. It’s a quick, hard pitch. He can get it out of you. He has talent. He’s a great teacher.”12

To shore up the infield defense and add some spark to the club, Griffith hired fiery Billy Martin as the infield and third-base coach. Martin’s playing career had ended with the Twins when Mele released him at the end of spring training in 1962. Most recently, Martin had been a Twins scout. He immediately took an individual interest in Versalles and the two became very close. In fact, during spring training in 1965 Mele fined Versalles $300 for saying he was only leaving the field because Martin had told him to after Mele benched him for lackadaisical play.13 This quickly blew over, and Versalles went on to the best season of his career, winning the MVP award in 1965. In Martin and Sain, Mele had a couple of great coaches, but they would require continuous monitoring and judicious handling.

Griffith also hoped to pull off at least one blockbuster trade to rearrange his talent. At the winter meetings he reportedly worked out a deal with the Mets. The Twins would receive second baseman Ron Hunt, already an All-Star at 23 (to address the uncertainty from Allen’s injury rehab); catcher Chris Cannizzaro; and solid starter Al Jackson. In exchange Griffith would send the Mets Hall, Battey, Perry, and either Rollins or Allen. Luckily for the Twins, Mets president George Weiss eventually turned this deal down.14 In a minor trade the team obtained second baseman Cesar Tovar from Cincinnati for a promising lefty, Gerry Arrigo, who never developed. Tovar went on to a number of fine seasons as a multi-position player with the Twins.

Griffith had built a great team. For 1965 Allison and Killebrew switched positions, so Harmon was now back at first and Allison was in left. Hall and Oliva rounded out a terrific outfield, at least offensively. Rollins and Versalles anchored the left side of the infield, and Battey was one of the league’s best catchers. Only at second base, manned by Jerry Kindall, did the Twins have anything less than a star-quality hitter, though Rollins had regressed significantly since his first years in the majors. Don Mincher provided a powerful left-handed bat off the bench. The rotation was anchored by Kaat, Pascual, and Grant. Sain and Mele tapped 20-year-old righty Dave Boswell, signed after high school in 1963, to be the fourth starter, leaving Perry in reserve should one of the top four falter. Worthington and Klippstein were the two key men in the bullpen.

The depth would come in handy. After a great start to the 1965 season, winning his first eight decisions, Pascual tore a muscle in his back near his shoulder. He tried to pitch through it for a month before undergoing surgery in July. Boswell missed much of the season with mononucleosis and pneumonia. To fill some of the void, Perry stepped in and pitched well enough to finish ninth in the league in ERA.

Mincher provided a valuable bat when Killebrew missed time with an elbow injury. Furthermore, to get Mincher’s bat into the lineup when Killebrew was healthy, Mele experimented with a platoon in which Killebrew played third base against right-handers and Mincher played first. This cost the slumping Rollins, who also occasionally filled in at second, some playing time at third.

In his decade at the helm Griffith had masterminded the turnaround of one of baseball’s most hapless franchises. While in Washington he had brought in a number of talented ballplayers on the cheap. Only Killebrew cost more than the bonus limit and many came at little or no cost through Cambria’s Cuban connections. When Minnesota proved to be the financial bonanza he had hoped, Griffith spent his additional revenues on building his pennant winner. He purchased players, included money in trades, and paid top salaries to his stars.

Griffith had developed good baseball instincts at the foot of his uncle Clark, and was not shy about involving himself directly with the team. When he sensed Killebrew was ready, he forced his manager to make room for him despite a veteran incumbent blocking the position; several years later he forced the issue for another future star, Tony Oliva. When Griffith felt his team wasn’t playing up to par after 1964, he revamped his on-field staff with expensive, big-name coaches, and the team responded. Under this baseballsavvy owner willing to spend his profits, the young and talented Twins appeared poised for many years of pennant contention.

 

This article originally appeared in "A Pennant for the Twin Cities: The 1965 Minnesota Twins" (SABR, 2015), edited by Gregory H. Wolf.

  • 1. Dave Anderson, “The Riddle of Harmon Killebrew,” Official Baseball Annual, 1963.
  • 2. John Steadman, “He Made It the Hard Way,” Sports Review, May 1958.
  • 3. “Iron Man in an Iron Mask,” Dell Sports, July 1962.
  • 4. Joe Donnelly, “The Rich Rollins Surprise,” Sport, October 1962.
  • 5. Max Nichols, “Sam Mele: A Study in Pressure,” Sport, April 1966.
  • 6. Bill Libby, “Versalles in Search of Himself,” Sport, February 1964.
  • 7. Dean Urdahl, Touching Base With Our Memories (St. Cloud, Minnesota: North Star Press, 2001), 5.
  • 8. Terry Pluto, The Curse of Rocky Colavito (New York: Fireside, 1995), 69.
  • 9. Jon Kerr, Calvin: Baseball’s Last Dinosaur (Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown, 1990), 67.
  • 10. Ibid.
  • 11. Nichols, “Sam Mele.”
  • 12. Ed Rumill, “He Proves Yanks’ Letting Him Go Wasn’t Sain Move,” Baseball Digest, September 1965; Pat Jordan, “In a World of Windmills,” Sports Illustrated, May 8, 1972.
  • 13. Francis Stann, “Erstwhile Moody Versalles Wins Acceptance,” Baseball Digest, October-November 1965; Nichols, “Sam Mele.”
  • 14. William Leggett, “Everybody Pick Up a Drum,” Sports Illustrated, August 23, 1965.