Yesterday I wrote my argument that Jim Kaat should be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. If you’ve been following the news, you may have noticed that another long time Twin is on the Veterans Committee’s ballot this year.
Tony Oliva should also be elected to the Hall of Fame.
Like Kaat, Oliva has the integrity, character, and sportsmanship to qualify for the Hall. I have never heard a word spoken against Oliva as a teammate or human being, and he has stayed involved with the Twins organization as a fan favorite for four decades after his retirement.
The case for electing Oliva based on his stats may be even more persuasive than that for Kaat. Oliva burst onto the Major League scene in 1964. His .323 batting average led the American League, and he added 34 homers and 43 doubles. Oliva’s great year was no fluke – he won another batting title in 1965 and a third in 1971. He also led the league in hits five times, doubles four times, and once each in runs and slugging percentage. For his career, Oliva hit .304/.353/.406. He has a Hall of Fame Monitor score of 112 (anything over 100 indicates a likely Hall of Famer). Those stats are impressive enough on their own, but when you factor in that the 1960s was the golden era of pitching in the Major Leagues, Oliva stands out even more. He even managed an .833 OPS in 1968, “The Year of the Pitcher” (his .289 batting average was actully 3rd best in the AL that year).
As with most great players, Oliva’s playing ability goes beyond what you see in the stat sheet. In Oliva’s case, the stats were cut short by cruel fate. He was on a fast track to a Hall of Fame career before 1972, when he suffered a serious knee injury and underwent season-ending surgery in July. Medical technology of the 1970s was not as advanced as it is today, and the injury crippled Oliva for the rest of his career. Prior to the surgery, though, he had been selected to eight consecutive All Star Games. In the history of the Twins, only Kirby Puckett, Rod Carew, and Harmon Killebrew have matched that feat. Not coincidentally, all three of them are Hall of Famers.
Oliva did not have a lot of opportunity to play in the postseason, but he made the most of it when he did. He had a career postseason line of .314/.340/.588. The Twins lost all three postseason series in which Oliva played, but it certainly was not because of him.
Finally, as we did with Kaat, we need to look at Oliva’s contribution to the team. He played his entire career with the Twins. Unfortunately, his contributions were often overshadowed by teammates Killebrew and Carew. But his .304 batting average is still eighth all time for the Twins (minimum 1,000 plate appearances), and his slugging percentage is 10th. He’s fifth in runs scored (870), fourth in RBI (947), third in home runs (220) and hits (1,917), and second in doubles (329). If you like the more advanced stats, Oliva is fourth in Twins history in WAR, at 48.6.
Knee injury and retirement did not end Oliva’s contribution to the Twins. He became a coach with the organization, and has stayed involved with the team and the community ever since. From 1986 through 1991, he was the Twins hitting coach, and in the process he helped groom the productive hitters from the Twins’ two World Series titles. This information is relevant to his Hall of Fame case, since the Veterans Committee is instructed to consider the entire career, not just the playing career.
Thus, Tony Oliva is Hall of Fame material. The Veterans Committee needs to recognize that this December.