January 9, 2022

Tony Oliva and a rookie season for the ages

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 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.

Extra innings…

-A check of Newspapers.com shows the Sunday, May 3, 1964, Minneapolis Tribune was 228 pages. Those days are gone, I’m sure.

COMMENTS

Hi, I’m Rolf Boone, Twins fan.

I became a fan of the Minnesota Twins after a friendly wager in the early 1980s. I survived Ron Davis, the meltdown in Cleveland, Phil Bradley at the Kingdome and then marveled at a rising generation of stars and two World Series wins in 1987 and 1991. Brad Radke made the 1990s bearable, while Kirby Puckett’s eye injury, exit from the game and eventual death made it almost too much to bear. The new century ushered in more talent — Joe Mauer, Johan Santana, Joe Nathan, Torii Hunter, Justin Morneau — and consecutive seasons of playoff baseball, followed by consecutive seasons of losing baseball. A winning season returned in 2015. So here we are. Go Twins.