The Long Wait is Finally Over for Tony Oliva
Tony Oliva, the star right fielder for the Minnesota Twins in the 1960’s and 1970’s, has finally made it into the Hall of Fame. Earlier today the professional baseball’s Golden Days Era Committee voted to induct Tony Oliva into the Hall of Fame 45 years after his retirement in 1976. Congratulations Tony!
There will always be debates about who deserves such an honor. Baseball’s Hall of Fame has always been a respected and cherished institution with super high standards based on drawn out analyses of complex data. Every baseball fan may have a different opinion, but it is hard not to be a fan of the dynamic Cuban phenom who burst on to the scene with a sensational season in 1964. There is no longer a need to debate whether Tony O should be in the Hall. After all there is only one player ever (Bill Madlock) to be denied entry with three or more batting titles. So, for the fans let’s just take a moment to appreciate the accomplishments of the slender slugger form Pinar del Rio Cuba.
After two cups of coffee in ’62 and ’63 playing in 16 games for the Twins and batting .438, Oliva had his breakout season as a rookie in 1964. That year he led the league in batting at .323, and he led in hits, doubles, runs, and total bases. He was named to the All-Star team, an honor he would receive seven additional times. And he was named Rookie of the Year, the first time a ROY would also claim the batting title. He was also the first black player to win a batting title in the American League. The junior circuit had been slow in signing black players, so much so, that by 1964 the National League already had six different black players winning the title.
Oliva was so good that he came right back and won the batting title in 1965 at .321, again topping the league in hits while leading the Minnesota franchise to their first World Series ever and the first since 1933 for their heritage team the Washington Senators. He continued his torrid hitting in 1966, leading the league in hits but coming in second in batting average to the great Frank Robinson. Oliva remained a consistent hitting star finishing third in batting in 1968, 1969 and then had a tremendous 1971 campaign leading the league batting an impressive .337 while also leading in slugging percentage. Tony O twice finished second in MVP balloting losing to teammate Zoilo Versalles in 1965 and Baltimore’s Boog Powell in 1971.
For most of his career the lanky lefty batted third in front of Hall-of-Famer Harmon Killebrew as the Twins battled each year for the pennant. Although the Twins never won a championship, they clashed with the mighty L. A. Dodgers led by Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale in the 1965 World Series, ultimately losing in seven games. Minnesota made it to the ALCS twice in 1969 and 1970 but both times losing to the Orioles despite Oliva’s hot hitting. He batted .385 and .500 in the those two ALCS.
Those of us who got to watch Tony Oliva could not help but be impressed by his tremendous abilities and love for the game. Oliva could not only hit he was a solid fielder, twice leading the league’s right fielders in assists and four times in put outs. But it was his approach at the plate the endeared me. When we were kids, I loved to imitate his batting style. He had a spread-out slightly closed stance and was known to be a free swinger who occasionally lost hold of his bat while swinging, causing his first base coach to run for cover. And for such a slugger— he had 220 career home runs—he was very difficult to strike out. And for that matter he was also difficult to walk. As they like to say today, he “put the ball in play” cutting and slashing and many times swinging at pitches out of the strike zone. He hit to all fields and there would never be any over-shifting on Oliva.
Congratulations to the great Tony Oliva. Your time has come. You are a Hall of Famer. And thanks for the memories.
If you get a chance check out my books: Mickey Mantle’s Last Home and Grandpa Gordy’s Greatest World Series Games