Flashback to 1960: There are no major league sports in Minnesota.
We read histories today of the Millers and Saints, those minor league teams that were really quite impressive fixtures in the Twin Cities. But that was nothing compared to getting ushered into the "big show." The ball got rolling in 1961. You might even go back to 1956 when Metropolitan Stadium opened, a stadium built for the specific purpose of attracting major league baseball. The Millers played at the Met for an excruciatingly long time: five years.
Finally, word came that Calvin Griffith was bringing his Washington Senators to Minnesota. It was part of a trend of some well-established East Coast teams pulling up stakes and heading west. The Dodgers and Giants made the move, then the Senators who came to occupy Met Stadium in 1961. I was enthralled by Met Stadium as a boy. I remember walking up and down those ramps on the side. I remember consuming those Frosty Malts and soft drinks, priced at just a fraction of today.
The Twins did fine commanding our attention in the first four years. We made a run at the Yankees in 1962. Finally along came 1965, our fifth and blessed year, and what would turn out to be the apex of the Met Stadium experience. The All-Star Game was played here. The Beatles came to play their music. Just before the '65 All-Star break, we had the breathtaking thrill of appreciating a Harmon Killebrew home run that was like a virtual knockout punch for the Yankees. The Yankees with their big-time reputation and storied history had succumbed to this new assemblage of players called the Twins.
The Midwest glowed. We got the World Series in the fall. We stretched that Series to seven games, losing in the end to the incredible Sandy Koufax of the Dodgers. These were the old Brooklyn Dodgers with quite the storied history too, having broken the color barrier. Our Twins did fine with players of color. Owner Griffith eventually showed his Neanderthal side in terms of verbiage, making comments for the Waseca Lions Club that were immediately notorious. However, Griffith was a pacesetter, certainly by the standards of the American League, in how he enlisted players of color including several Cubans.
Our Twins won 102 games in 1965. We were seven games up on the second place White Sox. Ironically this was a season when Killebrew was held back by injury. I will not argue with those who say Hammerin' Harmon may have been overrated. Some even wondered if he belonged in the Hall of Fame. I certainly think he belonged in the Hall because of how much his stature as power hitter meant to Minnesota. However, he couldn't do much outside of hitting home runs. I sometimes wondered: Would we have done just as well with a superior-fielding, lefthanded throwing first baseman who had speed and who could hit at least .260?
Well, we had Harmon and we loved him. Just as we loved Tony Oliva.
Sad story of our first shortstop
Zoilo Versalles was a story unto himself. Vic Power called him "crazy." Versalles was 17 years old when he arrived in Key West from Cuba. He didn't speak English. He wasn't sure how to handle our segregated society. But he made it to the Twins when he was age 21, assigned to play the key shortstop spot.
Versalles was the MVP in league when we won the pennant. From that peak he descended sadly. Sportswriter Doug Grow asked Griffith about the cause of the decline. The answer: "drugs." Versalles had taken painkillers for a bad back. He drifted from the correct dosage, often taking too much.
Griffith was not up to date in terms of his philosophy of running an organization. He seemed to know nothing about organizational team building and conflict resolution. I think this was a generational defect. I saw those of his age stripes seem clueless about how to effectively monitor an organization's effectiveness. It's a science today. Back then you just hired "good people" and assumed everything would be fine. What about the back-biting that so often surfaces? So many of the older types had been in military service, I think they mistakenly assumed that younger people would have the same qualities that are instilled with military discipline.
Here's what happened: The Twins of the late 1960s, who broke our heart, got fractured into several cliques. This is reported in a fine SABR post about the Twins.
Ugh. I hate that sort of thing. Many of us have in our background an experience like what I'm alluding to here: dysfunction leading to conflict among individuals, hindering the organization. (IMHO, I worked within the dysfunctional type of model when I was with the Morris Sun Tribune newspaper in the 1980s and '90s.)
The fall of the early Twins
I won't review the several specific heartbreaks that us Twins fans experienced in the late '60s. It's too painful. It was a mistake for me to ever develop an emotional bond with this or any other sports team. It was common in the '60s for Minnesota boys to have that bond, to take losses personally.
You set yourself up for nothing but heartbreak when this happens. Why did each league have just one team advance to the post-season? In '67 the heartbreak could have been alleviated if we just could have advanced as some kind of wild card, instead of being edged out at the very end by Boston. Jim Kaat threw his arm out as a result of the desperation we felt trying to surpass the Red Sox.
The heartbreak of '67 stayed with us for a long time.
Baseball instituted its divisional format in 1969. We won the West Division in both '69 and '70 but there was very little optimism both seasons in Minnesota, about whether we could beat Baltimore. Our fatalistic feelings were affirmed when we got swept by Baltimore both seasons. Dave Boswell threw his arm out for good, as a result of the desperation we felt to win a playoff game, a game we lost anyway. It's sickening.
Boomers became indifferent
After 1970, the decade to come was anticlimactic compared to the heady days of Met Stadium when the Twins were fresh. My generation no longer felt special excitement about the Twins or the Met. Our parents, when young, had only the Gophers to be excited about, just football really. We had been given so much. Eventually us boomers yawned. We found time for soccer (the "Kicks") but were more interested in the socializing than the game.
If only the Twins could have won the pennant in '67. Maybe there's an alternative dimension where I can watch the Twins win the pennant. Where I can see Ron Kline come through.
Let us never forget the transformational magic the Twins brought in the early 1960s. That Killebrew home run before the All-Star break in 1965 might be the most exciting moment in Minnesota history. The World War II generation was bringing their kids to the ballpark. We had survived the Cold War.
And, those Frosty Malts sure tasted good!