Tony Oliva is headed to the Hall of Fame along with former teammate and pitcher Jim Kaat. While Kaat’s overall body of work might jump off the page a bit more, take a close look at Oliva’s rookie season and it’s hard not to say that he doesn’t belong in the pantheon of peers because he tore the cover off the ball in 1964.
How many rookie ballplayers can say this? Oliva collected 20 hits in his first 58 at bats, good enough to hit .345 by the end of April of that year. On May 2, he contributed two home runs to a four-homer cause to beat the Kansas City Athletics, 7-3. The four consecutive home runs hit by the Twins tied a record at the time.
“To heck with the home run records,” Twins manager Sam Mele told the Minneapolis Tribune. “I’ll settle for the victory and more consistent hitting over the season.”
Although Mele was unimpressed, K.C. manager Ed Lopat, a former pitcher (the “junkman”), who won 166 games, mostly with the New York Yankees, had already seen enough of Oliva.
The newspaper posed this question: What’s the proper way to pitch Oliva?
“Don’t ask me,” Lopat moaned. “We haven’t gotten him out this series.”
After hitting .345 in April, Oliva collected 31 hits in 64 at bats and was hitting .425 by May 15. At the end of the month, his average dipped to .383, but he was well on his way to a standout rookie season. The final tally:
-Total bases: 374 (led the majors)
-Hits: 217 (led the majors)
-Runs: 109 (led the American League)
-Doubles: 43 (led the AL)
-Batting average: .323. (led the AL)
On Nov. 28, 1964, Oliva was the runaway winner of the Rookie of the Year award in the AL.
“Naturally, I’m honored with the Rookie of the Year selection,” he told the Minneapolis Tribune. “My only wish is that the Twins could have won the pennant. Maybe next year?”
Truer words were never spoken because the Twins did just that, finally dethroning the Yankees with a record of 102-60 to win the AL pennant in 1965.
-A check of Newspapers.com shows the Sunday, May 3, 1964 Minneapolis Tribune was 228 pages. Those days are gone, I’m sure.