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Smallthoughts: Old School Tuesday …Tony Oliva

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Oliva was the 1964 American League Rookie of the Year. He was an All-Star for eight seasons, an American League (AL) batting champion for three seasons, an AL hit leader five seasons, and a Gold Glove winner one season. On a consensus Hall of Fame track his first eight years, his career was cut short in its prime by a series of severe knee injuries, forcing him to become a designated hitter during his final four years of baseball. He is widely regarded as one of the best players not inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

In 2014, Oliva appeared on the Hall of Fame’s Golden Era Committee election ballot for Hall of Fame consideration in 2015, and missed getting elected by one . None of the candidates on the ballot received the required 12 votes including two other former players from Cuba, Minnie Minoso and Luis Tiant. The Committee meets and votes on ten candidates selected from the 1947 to 1972 era every three years. He spent his entire 15-year baseball career playing for the Minnesota Twins from 1962 through 1976.

His AL leading .323 batting average made him the first player ever to win both the Rookie of the Year Award and AL batting title. He also paced the AL in hits (217), doubles (43), extra base hits (84), total bases (374), runs (109), and runs created (133). Oliva’s 374 total bases tied a rookie record. In spite of such overall dominance, Oliva finished fourth in MVP voting.

In 1965, Oliva won a second straight AL batting title with a .321 average, his back-to-back first and second year wins once again a baseball first. His performances were all the more noteworthy for falling right at the onset of baseball’s “second deadball era”, with only two other AL hitters reaching the .300 mark that season, (Carl Yastrzemski (.312) and Vic Davalillo (.301)). Oliva added 16 home runs, 98 runs batted in, and 107 runs. He led the AL in hits (185), runs created (108), sacrifice flies (10), and batting average (.321), good for a second place finish in MVP voting to teammate and Twins sparkplug, Zoilo Versalles. That season, Oliva became an All-Star for the first time when he was selected to replace Mickey Mantle who was injured and named as an All-Star to the All-Star Game and didn’t make the AL All-Star team. Oliva got into the All-Star game at right field in the 8th inning replacing game starter Rocky Colavito and got a double in the 9th inning after first pinch hitting in the 7th inning and grounding out.

Through the end of July in 1966, Oliva was leading the league with a .328 average, but a 3-for-30 slump in the middle of September cost him a chance at his third straight batting title. Oliva hit .307 and was the runner-up to Triple Crown winner and AL MVP Frank Robinson who hit .316. For the third year in a row Oliva led the AL in hits (191). Additionally, he won his only Gold Glove award, and finished sixth in MVP voting. One of the season’s highlights fell on June 9, 1966, in the seventh inning of a game against the Kansas City Athletics, where Oliva joined Harmon Killebrew, Don Mincher, Rich Rollins and Zoilo Versalles to hit five home runs in a single inning. These five home runs, hit off starter Catfish Hunter (three) and reliever Paul Lindblad (two), still stand as a MLB record for the most home runs in a single inning.

After a somewhat off 1967 – where he led the AL with 37 doubles and finished in the Top 10 in batting average, slugging percentage, hits, total bases, RBIs, runs created, extra base hits, and intentional walks, to give some sense of what an off year for a young Tony Oliva was – his rebound in 1968 was cut short by injury. Missing the last 34 games he once again hit .289, but so depressed were batting averages it was good for third in the AL by a single point (and only batting champ Yastrzemski topping .300 by a single point as well). He returned to form in 1969 to again place 3rd in the AL with a .309 batting average, with 24 homers, 101 RBIs, and league leads in hits (197) and doubles (39). He batted an AL #3 once more in 1970 at .325, with 23 home runs and 107 RBIs. He also led the AL in hits (204) for the fifth time, in doubles (36) for the fourth time, and finished second in MVP voting for the second time, this time to Baltimore’s Boog Powell.

In 1971, Oliva won his third AL batting title with a .337 average and led the league in slugging percentage (.546). These feats at the end of a skein of eight straight All-Star appearances that began his rookie season marked the high point of his career, as severe knee, leg, and shoulder injuries hampered his remaining playing days. His roommate Rod Carew often heard Oliva “moaning and groaning” and getting up to obtain ice for his sore knees during the night. He missed all but ten games of the 1972 season, which required season-ending surgery. Due to injuries and a 1973 American League rule change establishing the position, he became the Twins’ designated hitter that spring and remained in that role his final four seasons.

Smallthoughts: Old School  Tuesday spotlights…Tony Oliva.

MLB debut
September 9, 1962, for the Minnesota Twins
Last MLB appearance
September 29, 1976, for the Minnesota Twins
MLB statistics
Batting average .304
Home runs 220
Runs batted in 947
Teams
Career highlights and awards

 

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