For his first eight full big league seasons, few in baseball could conceive of a better hitter than Tony Oliva.
For his last five years, eight knee operations gradually robbed Oliva of his marvelous skills. But no injury could remove Oliva’s impression from those who saw the left-handed line drive master at his peak.
“There are a lot of other guys I’d rather see up there in a clutch situation," Hall of Famer Whitey Herzog said. "You can’t make a bad pitch on him.”
Born July 20, 1938 in Pinar del Río, Cuba, Oliva was raised on his father’s farm but followed his passion and became one of the country’s best baseball players. Oliva signed with the Twins in 1961 and came to the United States the following year using his brother’s passport, immediately establishing himself as a big league prospect. He played a handful of MLB games at the end of the 1962 and 1963 seasons before earning a starting job in 1964.
That year, Oliva was the runaway winner of the American League Rookie of the Year after hitting a league-leading .323 with 32 home runs and 94 RBI – to go along with AL-highs in runs (109), hits (217) and doubles (43) while totaling 374 total bases, tying the rookie record.
His knock-kneed stance and golf-like swing left some wondering how Oliva produced his impressive totals, but the results spoke for themselves.
Oliva won another batting title in 1965 when he hit .321, becoming the first player ever to win batting crowns in his first two full seasons. Oliva finished second in the AL Most Valuable Player voting that year, leading the Twins to the AL pennant with 16 homers, 98 RBI and a league-best 185 hits.
In 1966, Oliva led the AL in hits for the third straight year (191) while winning a Gold Glove Award for his play in right field. His batting average dropped to .289 in both 1967 and 1968 as pitchers dominated play, but he rebounded with a .309 average and a league-best 197 hits in 1969 while leading the Twins to the first AL West title. He was even better in 1970, hitting .325 with 23 homers and a career-high 107 RBI along with his fifth AL hits crown (204) en route to another second-place finish in the MVP race. The Twins again won the AL West crown.
But in 1971, a play in the field forever altered Oliva’s career. On wet grass in Oakland, Oliva dove for a fly ball and injured his right knee. He finished with season batting .337 – good for his third AL batting crown – then missed all but 10 games the following year while rehabbing the knee.
He returned as a designated hitter from 1973-75, then spent 1976 as a coach/pinch-hitter in his final season.
Oliva retired from baseball following the 1976 season with a career .304 batting average. He totaled 1,917 hits, 329 doubles, 220 home runs and 947 RBI – and was named to the AL All-Star team in eight straight seasons (1964-71). During those eight seasons, he received MVP votes every year.