The Minnesota Twins were fortunate to have many international players on their lineups. This also included a group of dynamic personalities who cast a spell over the fans and who have contributed significantly to the success of the team.
To commemorate Hispanic History Month, we’d like to celebrate a Twins legend. A talented player, a tireless ambassador for the game and a wonderful person. I give you the great: Tony Oliva.
Pedro Oliva Lopez Hernandez Oliva was in. born Pinar del Rio Cuba, July 20, 1938. Tony grew up playing baseball and signed a professional contract with the Minnesota Twins in 1961.
Oliva only had a few weeks to report for spring training and did not have a birth certificate. He would need this to get 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. From that point on, he was known as Tony.
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-Wort. When the 1964 season began, Oliva was permanently promoted to the Minnesota Twins, and he left spring training in the correct starting position that year.
To say the young Oliva was not implied by major league pitching is a ridiculous understatement. As a rookie, he beat .323 to win the American League hit title. He also added 32 homers and 109 runs scored. For these exploits, he was named his first all-star game. He also finished fourth in the MVP race and was named AL Rookie of the Year.
In order not to be outdone, he reached .321 in the 1965 season and became the only player to win hit titles in his first two seasons. He finished second in the MVP election behind his team-mate Zoilo Versalles.
He was also one of the main reasons the Twins got their first place in the World Series when they played against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the autumn classic. Unfortunately, the Minnesota Twins lost that streak in a heartbreaking seven games against the Sandy Koufax-guided Dodgers.
All-Star and Gold Glove
In 1966 Tony was runner-up in the Triple Crown winner Frank Robinson with an average of .316. He led the league again at 191 and won his only gold glove of his career that year. Before cracking his knee, Tony was a great five tool player. He could strike for strength and average; he was quick on the Basic Paths.
He was also a wonderful outfield player with a missile for his arm. Even the National League players feared his deadly arm when they refused to go from first to third on a single as he patrolled right field during his All-Star game appearances.
For the next two campaigns, Oliva continued his American League pitching championship by hitting .289 rackets during that time. He was also appointed to the AL All-Star Team in both years and continued his skills in the outfield, leading all AL rightfield players in putouts with 289 in 1967.
Winner of the Minnesota Twins Division
Tony, along with Harmon Killbrew and Rod Carew, helped lead the Minnesota Twins to two division titles in 1969 and 1970 Baltimore Orioles and were swept in three games in both years.
For his part, Oliva scored 0.309 and 0.325 respectively in those seasons with almost 200 runs and over 200 RBIs in that period. He was called up in both campaigns, of course, in the American League All-Star Game, and finished second in the AL MVP vote for the Orioles in 1970 Boog Powell.
Injuries take their toll
Tony went on to win his third and final batting title in 1971, scorching AL pitching with an average of .377. He was also named to his eighth and final all-star team. But the baseball gods would attack the talented outfielder in a very cruel way this season.
Tony had torn ligament damage in his right knee early in his career, but on a fateful day in June in Oakland, the course of Tony’s career would change forever. When the twins led 5-2 in the ninth game, Oliva brought a hard hit ball from A’s left field player into the right corner of the field Joe Rudi and badly damaged the right knee.
He was able to return after about thirty games and collected enough at-bats to secure the third hit title. In September of the same year, he underwent an operation to remove the torn knee cartilage. When he arrived at the training camp in the spring 1972, he still had a severe swelling in his knee and was unable to start the season with the team.
The Minnesota Twins rested Oliva until June in hopes that the break would lead to adequate knee healing. This proved pointless as it was limited to 30 AT bats and it was put back on the DL. He had a second surgery on his right knee to remove 100% of the cartilage, but the future of his career was very questionable.
Thanks to the advent of the designated hitter, Tony was able to continue his career. From 1973-1975 it produced a slash line of .283 / .338 / .401. While those stats don’t match his performance during his all-star years, he was still an extremely dangerous major league hitter.
After the 1975 season, two more knee operations followed and in 1976 his career in the big league ended. He had the dual role of player-coach this season, but he was mostly limited to his duties.
Tony-O is still considered a role model for class and dignity. He doesn’t show the bitterness of a person whose guaranteed place is in Cooperstown was snatched from him. Nor does he show the scars of his long separation from his family when he immigrated from Cuba in 1961.
The Minnesota Hall of Fame of the Twins He remains a hero in his homeland and often attracts large crowds on his many trips home. The Twins withdrew their number 6 jersey in 1991 to honor this legendary ball player. And his exploits will live on in the hearts of Minnesota Twins fans everywhere.