2022 Golden Days Era Committee Candidate: Tony Oliva

The following article is part of a series concerning the 2022 Golden Days Era Committee ballot, covering managers and long-retired players whose candidacies will be voted upon on December 5. For an introduction to this year’s ballot, see here, and for an introduction to JAWS, see here. Several profiles in this series are adapted from work previously published at SI.com, Baseball Prospectus, and Futility Infielder. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

Tony Oliva

2022 Golden Days Candidate: Tony Oliva
Player Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Tony Oliva 43.0 38.6 40.8
Avg. HOF RF 72.1 42.5 57.3
H HR AVG/OBP/SLG OPS+
1,917 220 .304/.353/.476 131
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Cuban emigré Tony Oliva spent his entire 15-year career (1962-76) with the Twins, and for a while, he appeared to be Cooperstown-bound. A flashy five-tool player at the outset of his career, he took home AL Rookie of the Year honors in 1964, made eight All-Star teams, and won a trio of batting titles, including a pair in his first two full seasons (1964 and ’65), making him the first player to do so; in the latter year, the sweet-swinging lefty helped the Twins to their first pennant. Unfortunately, a series of knee injuries diminished Oliva’s effectiveness, cut into his playing time in his 30s, and led to an early departure from the majors.

Oliva’s origin story is a confusing one. He was born Pedro Oliva II in Pinar del Rio, a rural province of Cuba, the third of 10 children. However, like his countryman Minnie Minoso, there’s some ambiguity of the year of his birth. Baseball Reference and Major League Baseball report his birthdate as July 20, 1938, meaning that he was 24 when he debuted, 26 when he won Rookie of the Year honors (at the conclusion of his age-25 season), and 38 when he played his last game. By the player’s own account in his autobiography, he was born on July 20, 1941, and used older brother Antonio’s birth certificate to acquire a passport and leave Cuba in the aftermath of the 1959 Fidel Castro-led revolution, hence his being known as Tony.

For as much sense as that explanation makes, the custom of a first-born son being named after his father is a common one within various cultures, which would place Pedro II, and not Antonio, as the family’s oldest. What’s more, Oliva’s own wife Gordette contradicted his story in a 2011 interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Patrick Reusse, saying he was born in 1938. “That’s the way the scouts did it then,” she said. “The thought was if the team felt it had a younger player, they were more likely to keep him.”

In any event, at a tryout in Havana the young Oliva caught the eye of scout Joe Cambria, who signed over 400 Cuban players to contracts for the Senators and Twins from the mid-1930s until his death in ’62. Oliva left Cuba in April 1961, but before he could begin his professional career, he encountered visa problems that limited his time in spring training. Given that segregation still reigned in the American South, the Twins had just a limited number of openings on affiliates that could play Black players, and so Oliva was released, but Cambria intervened and helped him find placement on the team’s Appalachian League affiliate in Wytheville, Virginia. Despite living and dining in segregated accommodations, facing a language barrier, and battling a homesickness amplified by the Bay of Pigs mess, which made it virtually impossible to return to Cuba, Oliva hit .410/.447/.639 in 275 PA. It’s worth noting that if the 1938 birthdate is correct, he was two years older than the league’s average player, which would help to explain how he absolutely shredded Rookie-level pitching to that degree.

Oliva struggled in the outfield at Wytheville, making 14 errors and posting an unsightly .852 fielding percentage, but even with those defensive woes, the Twins saw enough to add him to their 40-man roster and promote him to A-level Charlotte in 1962, where he hit .350/.402/.559, won league MVP honors, and earned a September call-up, during which he went 4-for-9 with three walks; he struck out as a pinch-hitter in his debut on September 9, but in his second game went 2-for-3 with a double and three RBI against Cleveland. After spending the 1963 season at Triple-A Dallas-Fort Worth, he went 3-for-7 in another cup of coffee.

Oliva made the Twins out of spring training in 1964, and bolted from the gate with five straight multi-hit games; in his second one, he nearly hit for the cycle, but an outfielder hauled in his deep fly ball. He carried a .425 batting average through May 15, and .392 through June 2, made his first of eight straight All-Star teams, and finished the season with a .323/.359/.557 line with the league’s top batting average as well as highs in hits (217), doubles (43), total bases (374) and runs (109). Meanwhile, his 6.8 WAR ranked fourth, his 150 OPS+ fifth. He netted 19 out of 20 votes for AL Rookie of the Year, and placed fourth in the MVP race. His batting title and Rookie of the Year award were both firsts for a Cuban-born player; among those born in Latin America, only Bobby Avila (1954) and Roberto Clemente (1961, ’64 and two more to follow) had won batting titles, while only Luis Aparicio (1956) and Orlando Cepeda (1958) had taken the rookie honors.

Oliva followed up that impressive campaign with a .321/.378/.491 showing in 1965, winning his second batting title while also leading the league in hits (185) and ranking third in WAR (5.4) and fourth in OPS+ (141). Along with Zoilo Versalles (to whom he finished second in the MVP voting), Harmon Killebrew, and Don Mincher, he helped power the Twins to their first AL pennant. In the World Series against the Dodgers, he went just 5-for-26, but did double in a run against Sandy Koufax in the Twins’ Game 2 win, and homered off Don Drysdale in a losing cause in Game 4. Koufax held him to 0-for-6 with four strikeouts in Games 5 and 7, which the Dodgers won.

Oliva continued to hit, and hit, and hit. From 1966-71, he batted a combined .310/.358/.499 while averaging 21 homers, a 139 OPS+, and 5.0 WAR. He won his third batting title in the last of those seasons while hitting .337/.369/.546; his slugging percentage also led the league. Four other times in that span, he placed second or third in the AL in batting average; meanwhile, he led the AL in hits and doubles three additional times apiece. In all, for that eight-season run from 1964-71, Oliva ranked among his league’s top 10 in a slash stat 21 times out of a possible 24, and among the top five 14 times. His defense came together as well, culminating in his winning a Gold Glove in 1966, when he was 15 runs above average according to Total Zone. From 1964-70 he was 66 runs above average before falling to -9 in ’71.

Oliva helped the Twins to back-to-back AL West titles in 1969 and ’70. The Twins were swept in both best-of-five ALCS by the Orioles, but he was hardly at fault, as he hit .440/.462/.840 in 26 PA in those two series.

His consistent production was all the more remarkable given the frequency with which he dealt with knee problems, but they eventually wound up sapping his power, curtailing his career. Following the 1965 season, he had surgery to remove bone chips from his right knee, and dealt with torn ligaments that required surgery in ’66 and ’67. The tipping point came when he tore cartilage in his right knee while diving for a ball in Oakland on June 29, 1971, at a point when he was hitting .375/.406/.654. He was never really the same after that; he missed most of the next three weeks, didn’t get a hit after September 13, and underwent season-ending surgery on September 22, though he held on to win that third batting title. Slow to recover, he didn’t make his 1972 debut until June 11, and played in just 10 games before needing another surgery to remove loose cartilage and bone chips.

With the AL adopting the designated hitter role for the 1973 season, Oliva no longer had to play the field — and he never did so again in a regular season game. He notched the first homer by any DH on April 6, 1973, and hit a respectable but hardly characteristic .291/.345/.410 (109 OPS+) that year, then followed with another 109 OPS+ in 1974, and 103 in ’75. In October 1975, he had surgery to remove bone spurs, then another one to clean out an infection — the sixth and seventh knee surgeries of his career. The bottom fell out on his play in 1976, as he hit just .211/.234/.260 in 67 games. He joined the team’s coaching staff the following year, beginning a 15-year run with turns as a first base coach, hitting coach, and roving minor league instructor.

Oliva’s brief career is his biggest obstacle to enshrinement. He made just 6,880 plate appearances, fewer than any post-World War II Hall of Famer whose career wasn’t affected by military service or the color line. He finished with fewer than 2,000 hits, though he did lead the league in that category five times.

Driven by his high batting averages, his rate stats make for a more eye-opening case. From 1964-71, his .313 batting average ranked third in the majors, his .507 SLG 10th, and his .360 OBP 22nd. His 140 OPS+ is tied for 13th in that span. If he wasn’t one of the majors’ heaviest hitters, he was certainly still an entertaining one given those high averages and his speed, which enabled him to reach double digits in stolen bases from 1964-69, with a high of 19 in ’65.

Still, even with good defensive numbers (+56 runs overall) and good baserunning and double play avoidance numbers as well (+8 runs), he had just four seasons ranking among his league’s top 10 in in WAR, and netted 0.5 from 1972 onward. His 43.0 career WAR ranks just 41st among right fielders, within two wins of players such as J.D. Drew, Rocky Colavito, 19th century Hall of Famer Sam Thompson, Jose Canseco, and Darryl Strawberry; he’s 29.1 WAR below the Hall standard (ouch). His 38.6 peak WAR is tied with Reggie Smith for 23rd, ahead of popular candidates such as Gary Sheffield, Dwight Evans, and Dave Parker, not to mention BBWAA-elected Hall of Famers Dave Winfield and Willie Keeler; still, he’s about four wins short of the standard. His 40.8 JAWS is 34th, ahead of only five right fielders, including dubious committee selections Ross Youngs, Harold Baines, and Tommy McCarthy; he’s over 17 points short of the standard.

Had Oliva at least completed a Hall-caliber peak, like Dick Allen, the late Thurman Munson, or the just-retired Buster Posey, his case would be much easier for me to support. Where it differs from someone such as Miñoso is that the latter was tearing up the Negro National League and the Pacific Coast League during the years that his talent merited placement in the majors. While Oliva’s own path to the majors could have been accelerated by the Twins under different circumstances, what he might have done had his knees been stronger and had sports medicine been more advanced is a compelling but more nebulous what-if, not unlike the cases of pitchers like Bret Saberhagen and Johan Santana, whose elbows or shoulders couldn’t hold out long enough.

Still, Oliva has not lacked for supporters among voters. He spent 15 years on the BBWAA ballot, debuting with just 15.2% but more than doubling that within two years, and peaking at 47.3% in 1988. Current BBWAA candidates aside, only one other player has polled that high without ever gaining entry: Gil Hodges. Picking up a table from my Roger Maris entry in this series:

Highest Share of BBWAA Vote Without Eventual Election
Player Year Highest % 2022
Curt Schilling 2021 71.1% BBWAA 10th Year
Gil Hodges 1983 63.4% Golden Era Committee
Barry Bonds 2021 61.9% BBWAA 10th Year
Roger Clemens 2021 61.6% BBWAA 10th Year
Scott Rolen 2021 52.9% BBWAA 5th Year
Omar Vizquel 2020 52.6% BBWAA 5th Year
Tony Oliva 1988 47.3% Golden Era Committee
Billy Wagner 2021 46.4% BBWAA 7th Year
Todd Helton 2021 44.9% BBWAA 4th Year
Roger Maris 1988 43.1% Golden Era Committee
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Oliva didn’t get any closer via the writers, thereafter topping out at 40.7% in 1992, generally hovering in the mid-30s, and finishing at 36.2% in ’96. He was considered by the old Veterans Committee in both 2000 and ’01, and then fared comparatively well via the expanded version of the committee, which consisted of all living Hall of Famers, and Frick and Spink Award winners. In 2003, he received 59.3%, second only to Hodges, with similar showings in ’05 (56.3%, third behind Hodges and Ron Santo), ’07 (57.3%, fourth behind Santo, Jim Kaat, and Hodges), and ’09 (51.6%, third behind Santo and Kaat). He netted 50% on the first Golden Era Committee ballot in 2012, when Santo was elected, and then 68.8% three years later; along with Dick Allen, he missed by just one vote.

Repeating a sentiment I voiced seven years ago, I wouldn’t be shocked if Oliva is elected on this ballot, even though I view it as containing more worthy choices, starting with Miñoso and Allen. Still, the Hall has its share of short-career, hard-luck players who are enshrined, and I understand his appeal to voters. If he’s going to get in, we should at least hope that it happens while he’s alive to enjoy it.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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tomerafan
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tomerafan

To me, the five biggest Hall oversights among post-integration Major League Baseball players are, in order, Gil Hodges, Minnie Minoso, Dick Allen, Tony Oliva and Keith Hernandez.

Three are on this ballot. (Hodges is at the top for his managerial experience and WS title. Minoso, I am cheating because I am counting his Negro Leagues accomplishments while saying that I am only considering players post-integration.)

I still can’t fathom how Kirby Puckett sailed into the HOF and Tony Oliva has been denied entry. Oliva was the better hitter.

BenZobrist4MVP
Member
BenZobrist4MVP

To me, Bobby Grich, Graig Nettles, and Lou Whitaker all are bigger oversights than Oliva or Hodges, but I agree that Minoso, Allen, and Hernandez are toward the top of the list.

MikeD
Member
Member
MikeD

I definitely lean more toward the “big hall” camp, although all that means is I’d add in about a dozen additional players, including the likes of Nettles, Whitaker and Munson, as well as Allen, Murphy, Grich and a few others. Not sure that really means Big Hall considering the game has been around 150+ years and our ability to evaluate players has improved.

I do lean toward peak value players, so having the highest total career WAR isn’t a necessity. Some players, like a Whitaker, may get in by compiling consistently very good years on their way to higher career WAR. Someone like Oliva might get in on shorter peak value. In some ways, being regarded as one of the best in the game is important in what I seek from a HOFer. Oliva’s B-R page is covered in black ink. He was an All-Star eight straight years. Three batting titles, led the league in hits 6 years, MVP votes for eight years, during which he compiled a 141 OPS+. His career started a bit later than it should have, and injuries curtailed his ability at the end, but for eight years running he was a superb player. It wouldn’t feel wrong at all if one of the best players of the 1960s, an offensively depressed period, was inducted into the HOF. There’s the plaque for Tony Oliva, one of the greatest players of the 1960s. Yes, it would feel right he was in the HOF.

Joe Brady
Member
Joe Brady

Grich should’ve been a 1st ballot HOFer.