Every year at the Minnesota Twins training camp in Fort Myers, Florida, you cannot miss the presence of Cuban Tony Oliva, who along with Panamanian Rod Carew observes players bats in hand, during the team’s practices at Hammond Stadium.
Oliva has been a member of the Twins organization throughout his life as a player, coach and ambassador. A true legend of the sport who now when he returns to spring training and Target Field in Minnesota to impart his wise advice to players, especially younger ones, will carry with him the title of “Hall of Famer”.
The former Cuban outfielder had to wait 45 years to finally receive the call to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Golden Age Committee in December 2021, but in the eyes of many he already had the status earned by his career in the Major Leagues.
Oliva, who was born on July 20, 1938 in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, signed with the Twins in 1961 and quickly established himself as one of the organization’s top prospects by hitting .410 with 10 home runs and 81 walks in his first year in the Minor Leagues.
After two other successful campaigns in the minors and brief promotions to the big team, the outfielder came to stay in the Big Leagues in 1964 by producing one of the best rookie seasons in history.
That year, Oliva won the first of three batting championships with a .323 average and hit 32 home runs, as well as driving in 94 runs. He also led the American League in runs (109), hits (217) and doubles (43), and took home the Rookie of the Year award.
Oliva won another batting title in 1965 with a .321 average to become the first player to win batting crowns in his first two full seasons. Overall, he finished second in the American League MVP voting and was key in winning the American League pennant with a league-high 16 home runs, 98 RBIs and led the league with 185 hits.
With those first two seasons and in subsequent ones, Oliva consolidated himself as one of the stars of the diamond. In the eight-season period (1964 to 1971), he was named every year to the All-Star Team, was batting champion three times, led the league in hits five times, and in doubles four others.
A knee injury suffered in 1971 caused him problems the following season and he only saw action in 10 games. Oliva returned to the active roster in 1973 with an average of .291, 16 home runs and 92 RBIs, but he wasn’t the same, and at the end of the 1976 season, he announced his retirement.
He finished with a lifetime average of .304 with 220 home runs, 1,917 hits, 329 doubles and 947 RBIs in 15 seasons. Had it not been for the injury, his final numbers would have been even better, which is why he is considered one of the best outfielders of his generation.
Oliva was on the Hall of Fame ballot for 15 years from 1982 to 1996 and his best voting percentage for the Baseball Writers Association of America was in 1988 when he had a 47.3%.
He then fell short of several votes made by the now-defunct Veterans Committee, and in 2011 and 2014 he was also unsuccessful in the golden Age Committee’s vote by receiving eight and 11 votes, respectively. In that 2014 vote he only lacked one vote to enter the “Niche of the Immortals”, so the 2021 vote was highly anticipated.
For years many in baseball and especially fans, claimed that his plaque should be in the Hall of Fame, while Oliva did not lose hope and displayed his gratitude to baseball for everything it gave him.
“I never dreamed I could come here and play baseball,” Oliva told Minnesota’s Pioneer Press days before the 2021 vote. “I never dreamed that I could do all these things that I did here. I never dreamed that the Minnesota Twins would have a statue of me in front of the stadium.”
— Minnesota Twins (@Twins) December 5, 2021
However, the wait came to an end on December 5, 2021, when Olivas’s cell phone rang, while at home surrounded by his family, and he received the news that he was elected to the Hall of Fame along with his compatriot Minnie Miñoso, as well as Gil Hodges and Jim Kaat by the Golden Age Committee.
“When I got the call I felt very satisfied and grateful,” Oliva said during the MLB Network show announcing the results. “Now I can say thank you to all those people who supported me for all these years and worked hard for me to be in the Hall of Fame. Many people believed that I should have been admitted 40 years ago, but it didn’t happen.”
“Being able to get the call … and being able to say thank you to people means a lot to me,” he added.
The road to the “Niche of the Immortals” in Cooperstown, New York, was a long one for the 83-year-old former slugger who left that Caribbean island in search of realizing his dreams. Now Oliva begins another chapter of his life, that of a rightful “Hall of Famer”.