Did you know a third of all Minnesotans attend the State Fair each year? Wow, that proves I'm an outsider. I'm sure it's awesome, but I don't get it. Maybe everyone spent their money on Pronto Pups in 1965, because in September, with the Twins near winning the pennant and Mudcat Grant aiming at being the first African-American to win 20 games in a AL season, 547 fans showed up. (Being 50 degrees and drizzly might have contributed some, too.)
Eh, people knew the Twins were locks at that point. And it wasn't common, like now, for fans to anticipate the clinching-game celebration. Minnesota would clinch a few days later, in Washington, and TV viewers complained that spraying clubhouse champagne sent a bad message to kids. (It's not like they were blitzed. Harmon Killebrew, a Mormon, tried some champagne just to be a good sport, and said it tasted kinda weird.)
The party came from a team which really appears to have enjoyed each others' company. Many remained friends decades later. Winning always makes for a happier clubhouse, yet perhaps this team was unusually tight.
It might have started in Spring Training. For the first time (under heavy pressure from the Minnesota governor's office, and over owner Calvin Griffth's grumbling), the team stayed in a non-segregated hotel. Some of the Cuban players could pass for "white enough," but African-Americans like Grant and catcher Earl Battey certainly didn't. (Here's a different version of the story; bottom line, the Twins were late to skip segregated hotels.)
Being fair to Griffith, he probably just wanted to stay at the swankiest hotel in town. The Griffith family had been recruiting players in Cuba since 1911. Some joked that the Twins' new "TC" logo referred to "twenty Cubans." Less amusing were slurs like "Griffith's wetbacks." Griffith helped Cuban players get wives (sometimes children!) out of Cuba after the US embargo began (thanks to connections with Vice President H.H. Humphrey.)
Griffith also stepped in to assist star shortstop Zolio Versalles, who clashed at times with young manager Sam Meles. Versalles suffered from depression and anxiety, compensating by lashing out on occasion. Meles would hit Versalles (called "Zorro" on his rookie baseball card) with fines, and Griffith would return some of the money. It helped Versalles get his record player out of pawnshops more than once -- those record players were essential to Cuban players cut off from home.
It's quite possible these moves towards overcoming inter-cultural roadblocks paid off big during the season. The Twins had so many injury-based call-ups from the minors they eventually voted a then-record 37 World Series shares to teammates.
Those injuries were often bizarre. Jim Kaat was hit by a batted ball in the face so hard, Twins players noted the ball had some of Kaat's teeth stuck in it. And Kaat didn’t miss his next start. Killebrew was injured on a routine play and expected to miss ten days; he missed two months, erasing his chances for a fourth straight home run title and possible MVP trophy. (That game against the Orioles had Twins hitters facing Don Larsen, the World Series no-hitter guy; Harvey Haddix, the 12-innings-of-perfect-game guy; and future HOFer Jim Palmer.)
The MVP went to Versailles — just as rookie third-base coach Billy Martin predicted before the season. (Outfielder Tony Oliva came in second, and Battey tenth.) Martin had moments with Mele too (they'd been teammates and Not Friends on the Yankees.) Who knows what his demons were, but he and Versalles understood each other. Both were prone to fiery outbursts; Martin was also prone to fiery language & fiery beverages.
One player who avoided cussing and boozing (strange enough in 1960's baseball) was valuable reliever Al Worthington, dumped by two teams for being a clubhouse cancer. His crime? He'd become quite devoutly religious, and believed his faith required him to confess the sin of teammates stealing signs.
Grant had been in a little team turmoil himself. As a Cleveland pitcher one time, while the national anthem was being sung, Grant improvised some lyrics of his own: "this land is so not free / I can't go to Mississippi." A Cleveland coach raised in Texas told Grant to stuff it; Grant replied he'd rather live in Russia than Texas. It got worse. If only they'd had the calming effect of Internet interaction available!
Helping these varied personalities play comfortably together was probably manager Mele's finest contribution. Mele tried to force-feed a running game on the team; you can read a nicely written (if sloppily formatted) analysis of that strategy here. (Basically, it didn't work.) But Mele made even backups feel important. Bench jockey Frank Kostro said Mele never ignored a sub and then mumbled "grab a bat, you're up." Instead, Mele let backups know in advance exactly what situations they might be used for.
And no matter his skirmishes with the Versalles/Martin duo, when a reporter asked Mele what his best decision of the year was, Mele quickly responded: "writing Zolio Versalles's name on the lineup card every day."
Season's sad end. The Twins ran into legendary Dodger pitching and lost the Series in seven games. You probably know that Sandy Koufax stayed in the Saint Paul Hotel for Game 1, observing Yom Kippur, a Jewish high holiday. Koufax was not particularly religious, choosing to honor his heritage out of respect. Yet the gesture meant a great deal to American Jews, who until quite recently had also been barred from certain business establishments. Those bans were one reason Jews risked and lost their lives joining the civil rights movement. Koufax did his thing, and never liked talking about it.
Mudcat Grant was originally just as reticent to discuss his 20-win milestone, commenting "when Joe DiMaggio led the American League in hitting, they didn't say he was the first Italian to do it." Actually they very much did (can't blame Grant for not knowing.) Grant ended up profoundly moved by the letters and personal stories he encountered because of that 20-win marker.
Silly story I heard on the radio as the Twins were celebrating this team a month ago; when Don Drysdale had an uncharacteristically terrible Game 1 in the Series, manager Walter Alston had to yank Drysdale in the third inning. Drysdale quipped, "I bet you wish I was Jewish."
Anyhoo, this is already too long. I left out the record Minnesota floods and tornadoes. It was a unique team in a memorable year, with curiously compatible depth and diversity. Here's a brief little video the Twins put up, nice period footage.
See you later for the GDT!