I’ll celebrate Tony’s 80th by sharing a segment from “Tony Oliva: The Life and Times of a Minnesota Twins Legend”:
As a coach for the World Series-winning teams in 1987 and 1991, Oliva introduced a new generation of Twins to a unique Cuban import. It’s made of mahogany—“we call it mahogwa,” he notes—a dark dense, heavy wood not normally associated with baseball. But when he traveled home after his first trip back to Cuba in 1973, Oliva was carrying a bat cut from mahogany. And the bat had a name: this bat was called “Thunder.”
“It’s a Cuban wood that brings back some memories,” says Oliva, who explains that he and his father and brothers sometimes made bats from whatever kind of wood was available. A bat from mahogwa was not unusual in Cuba, though none were quite like Oliva’s bat. “Thunder is a little bit heavy,” he admits.
“I don’t think anybody could have possibly swung it except for Tony, because Tony was so strong in the hands and forearms,” insists Rick Stelmaszek, who spent 32 years coaching in the Twins organization and was part of Tom Kelly’s staff in both 1987 and 1991. “That was his baby. Yeah I know Thunder.”
As the club’s hitting coach, Oliva says he brought Thunder to the Metrodome in 1987 at a point when the club was struggling offensively. The bat was illegal for major-league play, but he encouraged players to hack away with it during batting practice. So the players had a little fun and took their minds off their batting woes.
“It’s the most dense piece of wood,” recalls Tim Laudner, 1980s Twins catcher and clubhouse cutup. “The bat was green and it was probably a 35-, maybe 36-inch bat. That’s bigger than the bat I used, and it had to weigh anywhere from 38 to 40 ounces. It was just a monster piece of wood.”
Twins hitters took their cuts with Thunder with mixed success and good humor. By then, Oliva, nearly 50, could not swing Thunder like he used to, but Laudner says his hitting coach could still put a good swing on the ball when coaches took batting practice. Laudner remembers Tony O “one-hopping the baggie at the Metrodome. Just hanging out these line drives and giggling like a school girl.”
Did Laudner ever use Thunder? “I couldn’t pick it up,” he quips. “I got a hernia just looking at it.”