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Sweet-swinging Oliva won three batting crowns

Batted .292 with 351 homers in 15-year career, all with Minnesota Twins

February 17, 2007 | Kelly Thesier

COOPERSTOWN, NY:   The Twins organization has had many legendary players since coming to Minnesota in 1960 but few have had greater appeal than Tony Oliva.

Tony Oliva

Seven times Tony Oliva finished in the top three in the American League in batting, winning the crown three times. (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

In an illustrious career spent entirely with Minnesota, Oliva earned the respect and admiration of both his fellow players, coaches and also fans. But there has been one honor that has eluded Oliva for over two decades.

Oliva is making his third appearance on the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee ballot.  In the 2005 Veterans election, he garnered 56.3% of the vote to finish third.  A candidate must get 75% of the vote to gain election.  In 15 years on the Baseball Writers’ ballot, his highest vote total percentage was 47.3% in 1988.  Results of the 2007 Veterans Committee election will be announced on February 27, and the Induction Ceremony will take place on July 29 in Cooperstown.

Considered by many to have been one of the game's great outfielders of his era, Oliva spent his entire 15-year career in Minnesota. While playing 11 full seasons between the years 1962-1976, he batted .304 with 220 home runs, 947 RBIs and 870 runs scored. He is the owner of the 1964 American League Rookie of the Year Award and three batting titles.

Among other achievements on his resume, Oliva was the first player in history to win batting titles in each of his first two seasons. He led the AL in hits five times, doubles four times and batted .300 or better six times. There were also eight straight trips to the All-Star Game, from 1964-71, and a 1966 AL Gold Glove.

But one of the greatest highlights of Oliva’s career might have been the 1965 season when the outfielder helped carry the Twins to a World Series appearance against the Dodgers. Oliva batted .321 that season with 98 RBIs and 107 runs scored in addition to a league-leading 185 hits. He finished second in the AL MVP voting that year and while his production slowed a bit during the series, it was enough to leave many of his fellow teammates in awe.

“Tony Oliva was something to watch that year," said Camilo Pascual, a pitcher on that 1965 Twins squad.

But what has likely kept Oliva trapped in the Bermuda Triangle of gray areas by voters was his truncated career. A right knee injury limited his production over his final three seasons and led to an early retirement.

"I put up a lot of great numbers," said Oliva, who now works as a community ambassador for the Twins. "I know my career was short, but I did things no one did before. I wasn't just a great hitter. I did a lot of other stuff. I could run, I could throw and catch. I was an all-around ballplayer."

Oliva’s career might have ended prematurely but his presence with the Twins certainly has not. Since his playing days, Oliva has become a strong force in the Twin Cities community by using his And it’s been a huge part of cementing his legacy in Minnesota.

"When you're around Tony, you always get to hear a great bunch of stories and find out things that you never knew," Twins catcher Joe Mauer said. "That is one of the reasons that everyone loves him so much.”

Oliva is one of 25 former players on this year’s Veterans ballot. The Veterans Committee votes in alternating years and during the last ballot in 2005, no one received the required 75 percent to be elected.

Earning the honor of being enshrined in Cooperstown would certainly be the crowning achievement for Oliva but it’s not something that will erase all that he was able to accomplish during his 11-year career. For Oliva, it’s the appreciation of being able to play at all that is his lasting legacy.

“How could a little guy like me from Cuba get to the U.S. and play in the big leagues?” Oliva said. “It’s a big miracle. I came from a small town in Cuba, from a poor family. But somehow I came here and played with the best baseball players in the world. It’s unbelievable.”

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com.

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