Monday March 27, 2017
Camera Day: César Tovar, 1970
“Can someone get these kids off me?” Chris, César Tovar and me; Met Stadium, 1970.
In my memory we went to many Camera Days at Met Stadium in Bloomington, Minn., but my father's old slides show it was just two: a sunny day in 1969, when I was 6 and Billy Martin was manager, and a cloudy day in 1970, when I was 7 and Bill Rigney was manager. I don't blame Bill Rigney for the clouds. Much.
This photo is from 1970.
At the time, the most beloved players on the Twins were Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva, but right behind them, particularly for me, was this guy, César Tovar, our leadoff hitter and center fielder from Caracas, Venezuela. There was something musical in the name. A family friend, Danny, used to emphasize the second syllable of each of Tovar's names, “See-SAARRRR Toh-VARRRRR,” while spreading his arms wide like an umpire calling “Safe!” Which makes sense: Tovar was speedy, and lean down to his cheekbones. When Martin was manager he stole 45 bases. Even under the more sedate and cautious Rigney he stole 30. The year above, 1970, he also led the league in doubles (36) and triples (13). The next year he'd lead the league in hits (204).
We used to play whiffle-ball in our small, south Minneapolis backyard, with bases represented by the sandbox (home plate), the tree (first), the garage (second), and the middle metal fencepost separating our property from the neighbors (third). Apparently we played before I'd ever seen a Major League game in person, because, according to family lore, after we came back from my first game, and after I hit a single, my father looked over at me next to the tree and began to laugh. Rather than continually keeping a hand on the tree, as I usually did, as if I was only safe on it, now I was several feet away, leading off with my hands on my knees. I was imitating César Tovar.
Why did I identify so much? Maybe because I could. Killebrew and Oliva were gods. How do you identify with a god who could clobber the ball into infinity? But slapping singles and being pesky and playing whatever position they needed you to play? That seemed closer to me. He seemed closer to me. He was a short guy out there, 5' 9“, and he made it work.
”The man was a dream to hit behind,“ Harmon Killebrew says in a book called ”The Greatest Team of All Time: As Selected by Baseball's Immortals, from Ty Cobb to Willie Mays.“ He adds: ”A truly great leadoff man who always seemed to be on base and who distracted the pitcher enough to benefit everyone who batted behind him.“ Killebrew calls him the teammate who never got enough credit.
He did with Billy Martin. ”Tovar was my little leader,“ Martin wrote in his 1981 autobiography, ”Number 1.“ ”He was the guy who got everyone going. When I wanted him to push Leo [Cárdenas] a little bit or if Rod [Carew] was getting down and I needed someone to give him a boost, I'd get César to do it.“
He hit for the cycle once, in 1970, finishing it with a walk-off homerun—only the second player in baseball history to do that. He kept breaking up no-hitters. Baseball Almanac counts five times he did this—providing the lone, often late hit in a pitcher's no-hit bid:
- April 30, 1967 vs. Washington Senators' Barry Moore (single in the 6th)
- May 15, 1969 vs. Baltimore Orioles' Dave McNally (single in the 9th, one out)
- August 10, 1969 vs. Baltimore Orioles' Mike Cuellar (single in the 9th, no outs)
- August 13, 1970 vs. Washington Senators' Dick Bosman (bunt single in the 1st)
- May 31, 1975 vs. New York Yankees' Catfish Hunter (single in the 6th)
He may be best known for being one of four men to play all nine positions in a nine-inning game. It was aping a stunt that Charlie Finely pulled off with Bert Campaneris in September 1965 when the Kansas City A's were no longer in the pennant hunt (which, in Kansas City, was every year). Finley was great at gimmicks and stunts, and Twins owner Calvin Griffith was great at copying other people's ideas, so he trotted out Tovar on Sept. 22, 1968. Campy started out at his natural position, shortstop, then went around the infield and outfield, before taking on pitcher and catcher. In the 9th, he bruised his shoulder in a collission at home plate and had to leave the game. The Twins went the opposite way. Tovar started out at pitcher, went to catcher, and then around the horn. It was against the A's, interestingly, so the first guy he faced was Campaneris. His inning of pitching went: foul out, stirke out (Reggie Jackson), walk (Danny Cater), balking Cater to second, foul out (Sal Bando). At the plate, he went 1-3 with a walk and a stolen base. The Twins won 2-1. Finley gave Campy a convertible for the effort. Tovar got a color TV set.
For years, I kept the December 1, 1972 newspaper with the headline, TOVAR TRADED FOR THREE PHILLIES, which felt like a death-knell on some part of my childhood. By then, Killebrew was old, Tony O injured, and now César Tovar, Pepito to his teammates, was gone, over to a team in the National League no one ever saw, while the big player we got in return had no music to his name: Joe Lis. It was barely a name at all. In one and a half years with the Twins, Lis hit .238 with 9 homers before being purchased by Cleveland.
Meanwhile, Tovar kept getting picked up by Billy Martin. ”Get me César Tovar,“ he told told Rangers ownership in December 1973. ”The little guy can beat you so many ways—his bat, his feet, his brains, his hustle.“ In '74, Tovar hit .292 for him, but after Martin was fired midway through the '75 season, Texas allowed him to be bought by the Oakland A's for their pennant run. In '76, same thing happened with the Yankees, now managed by Billy Martin, who picked up Tovar for another pennant hunt. But he hit only .154 in 13 games for them and was done. His last at-bat came on Sept. 29 vs. Boston. He flew out to center.
His last at-bat in the Majors, I should add. He kept playing—in Venezuela and in Mexico. Rory Costello over at SABR has a great bio on him that details his beginnings in the Cincinnati organization, his post-MLB career, and his death on July 14, 1994 of pancreatic cancer. ”Such was Tovar's stature in Venezuela,“ Costello writes, ”that the nation's president, Rafael Caldera, attended the funeral."