By Glen Sparks
If only his knee hadn’t hurt so bad.
The pitchers, he could handle. Every year during his prime, Tony Oliva began his assault on fastballs and breaking balls in spring training. He kept it up throughout the summer and into the start of a chilly fall. No, the men on the mound–lefties, righties, starters, relievers–were never the problem.
That right knee did in Oliva. He had surgery on the knee in 1966 and again the following year. In 1971, he tore it up something fierce, hauling in a line drive hit by the A’s Joe Rudi. The pain never went away. On July 5, 1972, doctors removed 100 pieces of cartilage from one banged-up knee.
Rod Carew, the Hall of Fame infielder, wrote about Oliva in his book Carew, “I roomed with a guy with bad knees for years and used to listen to his cry like a baby at night. I’d be asleep and sometimes I’d hear Tony moaning and groaning. … He’d get up during the night and go down to get ice, wandering all over the hotel trying to find ice to put on his knee.”
We’ll find out Monday if Oliva can overcome his tortured knee. He is one of the 10 Golden Era candidates being considered for the Hall of Fame. Like everyone else on the ballot, he needs 75 percent of the vote to get in.
Give Oliva two healthy knees for his entire career, and he might already be enshrined in Cooperstown.
Oliva played 15 years in the big leagues, all of them with the Minnesota Twins. He batted .304 (.353 on-base percentage, 476 slugging percentage, .830 OPS and 131 OPS+) and hit 220 home runs. He drove in 947 runs. Oliva led the American League in hits five times, doubles four times and runs scored once. The Cuban-born ballplayer won three batting titles.
His torrid hitting lasted eight seasons. He was the first Cuban player named Rookie of the Year (1964) and the first player, Latin or otherwise, to win a batting title in his first two seasons. Phil Elderkin of Christian Science Monitor wrote an article about Oliva for Baseball Digest. He began the article this way: “Watching Tony Oliva hit a baseball is like hearing Caruso sing, Paderewski play the piano, or Heifetz draw a string across a bow.”
Besides winning the Rookie of the Year Award in ’64, Oliva also finished second in the MVP voting. He was MVP runner-up in 1965 and 1970. Finally, Oliva played on eight All-Star teams (1964-71) and finished with 43.0 WAR points, with highs of 7.0 in 1970 and 6.8 in 1964.
Bill James rated Oliva as the No. 21 right-fielder of all-time in his Historical Baseball Abstract, published in 2003. He is ranked just a few spots behind Hall of Famer Andre Dawson (No. 19) and ahead of players like Dwight Evans (No. 22) and Roger Maris (No. 28), who sometimes get mentioned in a decent Hall of Fame debate.
James wrote several pages about Oliva in his book Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame? Most telling, in James’ opinion, except for a healthy Frank Robinson (a first-ballot Hall of Fame) “I think (Oliva) was clearly the American League’s best right fielder, when healthy, from 1964 through 1971.”
If it weren’t for that balky right knee…
Oliva retired following the 1975 season, helped in part those last few seasons by the designated hitter rule. He has worked for decades as a coach and in community relations for the Twins. One of the players he helped develop was Kirby Puckett, whose stats are similar to Oliva’s. Puckett was voted into the Hall of Fame in 2001, in his first year of eligibility. Here is a look at Kirby’s stats:
Batting Average: .318
On-base percentage: .360
Slugging percentage: .477
Home runs: 207
Kirby was selected to 10 All-Star teams. He finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting in 1984 and finished in the top three in the MVP voting three times. He also won six Gold Gloves and, maybe most importantly, was the most prominent player on two World Series champion teams.
Of course, as mentioned, Oliva finished second in the MVP race in 1965, a year the Twins won the pennant and lost to the Dodgers in the World Series. He also put up big years in 1969 and ’70 when the Twins won division titles.
In his 15 years on the Hall of Fame ballot, Oliva enjoyed decent, but not overwhelming, support. He received at least 30 percent of the vote a dozen times with a high of 47.3 percent in 1988.
The Twins unveiled a Tony Oliva statue at Target Field on April 8, 2011. Minnesota fans still cheer for one of the popular players in team history. A dozen fans started the VoteTonyO campaign in 2011 with the goal of getting Oliva into the Hall of Fame. They have written thousands of letters to Cooperstown inductees, making a pitch for their favorite right-fielder.
“Tony Oliva means so much to baseball, to his fans, to people everywhere,” according to the web site. “Every child he makes smile, every hand he shakes, every photo he poses for, and every autograph he signs brings joy to someone’s life.”