This article was written by Steve West
A cold, wet winter is normally brightened by the approach of Opening Day, but in 1965 Opening Day was the last thing on most people’s minds in Minnesota. A very cold winter was followed by deep snow in the northern part of the state during March, and when rain came in early April, the snow melted, causing a rapid rise in the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers.1 By Opening Day, Monday, April 12, Minnesota was suffering through what as of 2014 was still the worst flooding on record, with numerous areas across the state dealing with more than 20 feet of water. (Chaska, just southwest of the Twin Cities, reported a high of 34.5 feet.)
The previous day, President Lyndon B. Johnson had declared a “major disaster” in 39 counties across the state. The Minnesota National Guard had been mobilized and was working side-by-side with thousands of people to sandbag towns along the rivers, desperately trying to save lives and property. The eventual toll would include several deaths and more than $200 million in property damage, plus many thousands of people displaced from their homes.
On Sunday night, the Minnesota Twins held their annual “welcome home” baseball dinner, with several players unable to make it because of flooding near their homes in Burnsville, on the south side of the Minnesota River. On Monday the high water made it impossible for those players – including starting pitcher Jim Kaat – to make it from their homes to Metropolitan Stadium. A call to the team’s traveling secretary, Howard Fox, was necessary, and he was able to make arrangements with local radio station WCCO to pick up the players in a helicopter – two at a time – and carry them to the parking lot outside the ballpark.2
Once the players, and a crowd of just 15,388, made it to the game, they sat in cold and windy conditions, with a temperature of 44 degrees at first pitch. The stadium was undergoing expansion, with the NFL Vikings building a $1.2 million double-deck grandstand in left field, meaning that section of the park was closed to spectators.3 The grounds crew had worked miracles to get the field ready for play, removing 40 inches of snow and ice from the field in the week prior to the game.4 The weather was bad enough that the Twins announced the cancellation of Tuesday’s game before Monday’s game began (with the visiting New York Yankees complaining that they did that only because they would get a much bigger gate during the summer).
The Yankees came in as defending American League champions, having won the flag five years in a row, and were favorites for another pennant, although they were aging and going through several personnel changes. After the Yankees lost the World Series in 1964 to the St. Louis Cardinals, they had fired manager Yogi Berra and surprisingly appointed former Cardinals manager Johnny Keane to take his place. Mickey Mantle was also making the full-time move from center to left field to try to give some rest to his aching legs.
The Twins were picked to finish in the first division, although they were not considered serious contenders for the pennant. A couple of years with 91 wins had been followed by a slump to 79 wins and sixth place in 1964, and there were questions about whether they could bounce back. Even manager Sam Mele wasn’t sure: “I think the Twins have to be better but I can’t say how much.”5
When the game began, Yankees starter Jim Bouton walked a couple of Twins batters in the bottom of the first, allowing one to score on a groundout. Then an error by new Yankees center fielder Tom Tresh gave the Twins a 2-0 lead in the second. That was the first of many errors this cold day, as the Yankees ended with five and the Twins with three. Meanwhile Kaat retired the first 10 batters he faced, and helped his own cause with a two-run single in the fourth. He gave up a solo home run to Elston Howard in the fifth inning (caught by one of the construction workers in the bleachers), and two more runs on a groundout and sacrifice fly in the seventh, but went to the ninth with a 4-3 lead.
Twins third baseman Rich Rollins had to leave the game early after wrenching his knee, and was replaced by Cesar Tovar, who was making his major-league debut. With two out in the ninth, Tovar dropped a Joe Pepitone pop fly, allowing Art Lopez (also making his debut, pinch-running for Mantle, who had singled to center) to score from second (he had advanced on a groundout) and tie the game. The game went into extra innings. Jerry Fosnow took over pitching duties for the Twins, after Don Mincher had pinch-hit for Kaat in the bottom of the ninth. Pedro Ramos entered the game to pitch for the Yankees in the bottom of the 10th.
Lopez returned the error in the bottom of the 11th, losing a fly ball in the wind in left field that let Twins leadoff hitter Bobby Allison go all the way to third. The Yankees intentionally walked the next two hitters, and then secured two outs on a pop fly and strikeout. Next, Tovar came to bat. He made amends for his earlier error, stroking a single to center – the umpire ruled that a diving Tresh trapped the ball, although many thought it was caught6 — to bring home the winning run and send the small crowd home happy. “I had to get a base hit,” said Tovar. “You could never find a better spot to make up for an error.”7
So the season was off to a winning start for the Twins, and for Jim Kaat the day ended with another helicopter ride, returning him and the other players across the rising floodwaters to their homes that evening.
1 Jeff Boyne, “Mississippi River Flood of 1965,” crh.noaa.gov/arx/?n=flood1965.
2 Max Nichols, “Marooned By Flood, Three Twins Reach Game in Helicopter,” The Sporting News, April 24, 1965, 22.
3 “Stadium Expansion OKed,” Fergus Falls (Minnesota) Journal, December 16, 1964, 8.
4 Dick Gordon, “Twins’ Field Crew Chases Away Winter,” The Sporting News, April 24, 1965, 19.
5 Jack Hand, “Managers See 6-Team NL Race, 3-Team AL Chase,” Clearfield (Pennsylvania) Progress, April 12, 1965, 10.
6 Tom Yuzer, “Twins’ Opener an Exciting One,” Fergus Falls (Minnesota) Daily Journal, April 13, 1965, 12.
7 “Tovar Sheds Goat’s Horns With Winning Smash in 11th,” The Sporting News, May 1, 1965, 18.