It's almost preposterous that the Minnesota Twins would publicly boast in
their 1964 pre-season "yearbook" that Tony Oliva -- who had
all of 16 career at-bats -- would challenge for the American League batting
title. But scouts insisted his was "a major-league bat."
So the Twins actually wrote in Oliva's bio, even though no rookie had ever
won a batting title, "This looks like Tony's year to challenge for the
toughest hitting test of them all -- a major league batting title."
Homerism? Even in 1964, when critics were rare, it was not common for
baseball p.r. departments to make statements like that.
As a left-handed rookie in 1964, Oliva led the American League in batting,
hits, doubles, total bases, runs scored and was second -- by one -- in triples.
Oliva did it with an injured finger, which also bothered him in 1965. Twins'
trainer George "Doc" Lentz devised a knobless bat for Oliva in
an effort to eliminate the pain that shot through Oliva's hand when he swung
and missed; the finger did not bother him when he made contact.
Unfortunately, Oliva was known for taking a loose grip on the bat, which
tended to fly from his hands now and then. With no knob on the end, the sight
of a bat twirling from Oliva's hands into the stands, the on-deck circle or the
field was a common sight.
Murder on right-handers
The only player to win batting titles in his first two seasons -- and barely
missing three straight -- Oliva annihilated right-handed pitching despite
illness and injury throughout his professional career. Twins' fans recall his
seven knee operations, but forget about hand and neck injuries and chicken pox
and car accidents.
In addition, all his family was back in Cuba. Because of Fidel
Castro's rise to power Oliva could not return home, and his family could
not travel to the U.S. to watch him play. Worse yet, Oliva came to the U.S at
the height of civil rights unrest, and as a black Cuban suffered racism in the
It is not difficult to make the case that Oliva in his prime was the best
player the Twins ever had: he could hit, hit for power, run, run the bases,
throw and field.
Among former Twins, only Bert Blyleven is discussed as a Hall of Fame
candidate more than Oliva. Blyleven has the numbers; because of his injuries,
Oliva comes up a bit short.
But even if Oliva never makes it,
there's always a
place in fans' memories for a great hitter who was also a stand-up teammate
with exceptional class, poise and personality.