Knees Blocked Oliva’s Path to Cooperstown by thad mumau

Tony Oliva really did have it all. Except for good knees.

 The only modern-day player to win batting titles in his first two years in the majors, the tall left-handed hitter with the sweet swing limped through the final five seasons of his career.

 Several knee surgeries reduced Oliva to a designated hitter role during that time and also took away the speed that had made him a stolen-base threat. It should be remembered that knee operations were not as sophisticated back then, and neither were the results.

Oliva came to the United States from his native Cuba when he was almost 23 years old. A couple seasons in the minor leagues included a stop at Charlotte where he hit .350 and knocked in 93 runs against Class-A South Atlantic League pitching. 

When he finally stuck as the Minnesota Twins right fielder in 1964, he was a couple months short of his 26th birthday. A pretty late start.

Oliva’s debut big league season was a doozie! He batted .323, with 217 hits, 43 doubles, 84 extra-base hits, 374 total bases and 109 runs scored – all American League-leading numbers. He also smacked 32 home runs and drove in 94 runs.

That earned a near-unanimous selection (he was one vote shy) as Rookie of the Year and a fourth-place finish in Most Valuable Player balloting.

His encore was impressive as well with a .321 average that won another batting title. Oliva placed second behind teammate Zoilo Versalles in the 1965 MVP voting as the Twins won the American League pennant. He was again MVP runner-up in 1970 when he batted .325 with 204 hits, 31 homers and 107 RBIs.

Oliva won a third hitting championship with a .337 mark in 1971. He led the AL in hits five times, four of them with over 190. He struck out an average of only 62 times per season.

Bad knees limited his number of games played, but not his effectiveness. In 13 full seasons in the major leagues, he played 140 or more games only seven times. His career batting average is .304, with 1,917 hits and 220 home runs.

Those are not normally Hall of Fame figures. But neither are 165 wins and 2,396 strikeouts for a pitcher. Yet, Sandy Koufax was an easy choice for a Cooperstown plaque. Mainly because of the left-hander’s overwhelming dominance the final four years of his career. 

Koufax, who was forced to retire at the age of 30 because of excruciating arm pain, is obviously deserving of his Hall of Fame membership. 

So is Tony Oliva to my way of thinking. While he stuck around until he was 38, he was not nearly the same player his last five seasons. 

Koufax making a big splash at the end certainly left a terrific impression with Hall of Fame voters. They should take the time to see that Oliva was an equally big deal at the start of his career.

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