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Tony Oliva

Tony Oliva signing a baseball
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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 U.S.

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.


Where are the 1965 Minnesota Twins?

 


Tony Oliva was born in the summer of 1941 in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, into a family whose siblings could not only be their own baseball team, they could be there own baseball team in a designated hitter league. There were 10 kids in the family.



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