The Minnesota Twins have been fortunate to have many international players grace their lineups. This has included a bevy of dynamic individuals who have captivated the fans and who have been an integral part of the team’s success.
To commemorate Hispanic History Month, we would like to celebrate a Twins legend. A person who was a talented player, a tireless ambassador of the game, and a wonderful person. I give you the great: Tony Oliva.
Pedro Oliva Lopez Hernandez Oliva was born in Pinar del Rio Cuba, on July 20, 1938. Tony grew up playing baseball and in 1961, he signed a professional contract with the Minnesota Twins.
With a scant few weeks to report to spring training, Oliva was without a birth certificate. He would need this to obtain a passport to the states. Fortunately, his brother Antonio did, and he was able to switch identities with him and make his way to Florida. He was known as Tony from this date forward.
Early days with the Minnesota Twins
Tony tore up the minors with a slash line of .342/.388/.557 with stops at Wytheville, Charlotte, and Dallas-Worth. By the time the 1964 season rolled around, Oliva was promoted to the Minnesota Twins on a permanent basis, and he came out of spring training that year having earned the starting right field position.
To say that the young Oliva was not intimated by major league pitching is a laughable understatement. As a rookie, he hit .323 to win the American League batting title. He also added 32 home runs and 109 runs scored. For these exploits, he was named to his first All-Star Game. He also finished fourth in the race for MVP, and he was named the AL Rookie of the Year.
Not to be outdone, he went on to hit .321 during the 1965 season, becoming the only player to win batting titles in his first two seasons. He finished second only to teammate Zoilo Versalles in the MVP balloting.
He was also one of the main reasons that the Twins earned their first World Series berth when they faced the Los Angeles Dodgers in the fall classic. Unfortunately, the Minnesota Twins lost that series in a heartbreaking seven games to the Sandy Koufax-led Dodgers.
All-Star and Gold Glove
In 1966, Tony was a runner-up to Triple Crown winner Frank Robinson with a .316 average. He again led the league in hits with 191 and went on to win his only Gold Glove of his career that year. Before he tore his knee up, Tony was a magnificent five-tool player. He could hit for power and average; he was speedy on the base paths.
He also was a wonderful fielder with a rocket for an arm. Even the National League players feared his deadly arm as they refused to go from first to third on a single when he was patrolling right-field during his All-Star game appearances.
In the next two campaigns, Oliva continued his mastery of American League pitching by batting .289 over that period. He was also named to the AL All-Star team both years and he continued his prowess in the outfield leading all AL right fielders in putouts with 289 in 1967.
Minnesota Twins division winners
Tony, along with Harmon Killbrew and Rod Carew would help lead the Minnesota Twins to two division titles in 1969 and 1970. They unfortunately faced the pitching dominant Baltimore Orioles and were swept in three games both years.
Oliva for his part hit a respective .309 and .325 in those seasons with almost 200 runs scored and over 200 RBIs over that span. He of course was named to the American League All-Star Game during both campaigns, and he finished second in the AL MVP balloting in 1970 to the Orioles Boog Powell.
Injuries take their toll
Tony would go on to win his third and last batting title in 1971, scorching AL pitching with a .337 average. He was also named to his eighth and last All-Star team. But the baseball gods would turn on the talented outfielder that season in a very cruel way.
Tony had suffered ligament damage in his right knee earlier in his career but on a fateful day in June in Oakland, the course of Tony’s career would change forever. With the Twins leading 5-2 in the ninth, Oliva went to haul in a hard-hit ball to the right-field corner off of the bat of A’s left-fielder Joe Rudi and in the process severely damaged the right knee.
He was able to return after about thirty games and accumulated enough at-bats to secure that third batting title. In September of that year, he underwent surgery to remove the torn knee cartilage. When he arrived at training camp in the spring of 1972, he still had severe swelling in the knee and was unable to start the season with the team.
The Minnesota Twins rested Oliva until June, hoping the time off would lead to the sufficient healing of the knee. This proved futile as he was limited to 30 at-bats and he was placed back on the DL. He underwent a second operation on the right knee to remove 100% of the cartilage, but the future of his career was very much in doubt.
Thanks to the advent of the designated hitter, Tony was able to continue his career. From 1973-1975, he produced a slash line of .283/.338/.401. While these stats do not match his output during his All-Star years, he still continued to be an extremely dangerous Major League hitter.
Two more knee surgeries followed after the 1975 season and in 1976, his big-league career came to a close. He had the dual role of player-coach that season, but he was limited to mostly pinch-hitting duties.
Tony-O continues to this day as a model of class and dignity. He does not show the bitterness of a person whose guaranteed spot in Cooperstown was ripped away from him. Nor does he show the scars from his long separation from his family when he immigrated from Cuba back in 1961.
The Minnesota Twins Hall of Fame inductee remains a hero in his home country and frequently draws large crowds on his many trips home. The Twins retired his number 6 jersey in 1991 to honor this legendary ballplayer. And his exploits will live on in the hearts of Minnesota Twins fans everywhere.