Oliva caps incredible freshman campaign with Rookie of the Year Award

Written by: Craig Muder

Three years earlier, Tony Oliva came to America using his brother’s passport.

On Nov. 28, 1964, Oliva and America were linked again – this time when he was named the American League’s Rookie of the Year.

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Oliva, who grew up in Cuba on his family’s farm, was signed by legendary scout Joe Cambria prior to the 1961 campaign and used his brother Antonio’s passport to leave his home country. He would henceforth be known as “Tony”, which replaced his given name of Pedro.

After a rocky start while getting acclimated in the spring of 1961, Oliva hit .410 for Wytheville of the Class D Appalachian League that summer. After hitting .350 for Class A Charlotte the following year, Oliva established himself as one of the top prospects in the minor leagues.

He made brief appearances with the Twins in 1962 and 1963 before winning the starting right field job in 1964. Hitting safely in his first eight games for Minnesota that season, Oliva quickly became known as one of the top pure hitters in the game.

“I could always hit,” Oliva told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 1964.

Oliva started the All-Star Game in right field for the American League and finished the year leading the league in batting (.323), runs (109), hits (217), doubles (43) and total bases (374). He also hit what would be his career-high for home runs with 32 and totaled 94 RBI.

Along the way, Oliva became one of the most popular players in the Twins clubhouse.

“Tony is a great guy to work with,” Twins manager Sam Mele told the Associated Press. “He surprised us a great deal with both his hitting and his fielding. You know, people underestimated his fielding but he’s fast and he has a great throwing arm. I think he can become an Al Kaline-type of outfielder, a complete player. He’s the kind of hitter who will never be in a prolonged batting slump because he’s so fast.”

Oliva, who would finish fourth in the 1964 AL Most Valuable Player voting and was second to Mickey Mantle (6.7 to 6.5) in Offensive WAR among American League players, earned 19 of 20 votes in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting. Baltimore pitcher Wally Bunker received the vote that prevented Oliva from being a unanimous selection.

In 1965, Oliva became the first player to win his league’s batting title in his first two full seasons when he hit .321. He added a third batting title in 1971 – a season where he severely injured his right knee. He played parts of five more seasons after that, aided by the advent of the designated hitter in the AL in 1973.

Oliva finished his career with a .304 batting average and eight All-Star Game selections. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2022.

“I’m as proud as I can be of (Oliva),” Mele said in 1964, “and extremely happy for him.”

Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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