Thursday, April 23, 2009

Award Context: Tony Oliva's 1964 Rookie of the Year

When the Twins signed Tony Oliva out of Cuba in 1961, they assumed they had acquired a 23-year-old.  Diligent research by the Twins public relations director Herb Heft revealed that the Twins had actually received a 21-year-old who was not named Tony but rather Pedro.  Pedro Oliva, with the assistance of legendary Cuban scout Joe Cambria, switched records with his older brother Tony and decided to retain his namesake and birthday when he finally landed stateside.  Thus, Pedro Oliva became Tony Oliva who would make a rapid progression through the Twins minor league system.
While assigned to Class D Wytheville of the Appalachian League in 1961, Oliva led all of organized baseball with a .410 batting average and was promoted to the Class A Charlotte in the Sally League by the end of the year. In 1962, the Twins called up Oliva in September and gave him 12 plate appearances where he went 4-for-9.  The next season, Oliva was tearing up Class AAA Dallas, hitting .304 with 23 home runs, and was once again recalled to Minnesota where he went 3-for-7 in his seven September games. 
By 1964 Oliva had earned himself a spot within the Twins starting outfield with his big stick.  It was this ability at the plate that earned him a solid reputation league-wide.  With the conclusion of the month of May, Oliva had hit .402 (49-for-122) with nine home runs and 18 extra base hits.  Early reports began dubbing Oliva the left-handed Hank Aaron.  Arthur Daley of the New York Times titled him "the new wonderboy".  After hitting a grand slam and a solo home run against the Angels, then Los Angeles manager, Bill Rigney, quipped "I haven't noticed too much he can't hit.  It looks like we'll have to throw him spitters and hope we drown him." 

At the All Star Break of his rookie season, Oliva was hitting .335 (113-for-337) with 18 home runs while driving in 51 and scoring 63 more on his own, lifting the Twins to a 43-37 record, fourth in the American League.  The Twins' outfielder would be the only rookie among those selected for the 35th All Star Game at Shea Stadium and would finish the night 0-for-4, including a strikeout by the Dodgers' Don Drysdale, in front of the 50,000 fans on hand at the midsummer classic. 
The Twins would begin to fall out of contention post-All Star break, ending the year on a 35-47 stretch, and the focus quickly shifted for Oliva whose batting average was encroaching on the all-time rookie record of .343 set by Dale Alexander in 1929.  Oliva, too, would slow as his average would peak at .340 on July 30th after a 2-for-5 night against the Yankees.  For the rest of the season, Oliva would hit .291 (68-for-234) but would still wind up with a .323 batting average that would best Baltimore's Brooks Robinson (.317) for the AL Batting Title.  Oliva's name would also end up near the top of just about every major category in AL that rookie season:
  • 1st in hits (217), runs scored (109), doubles (43) and total bases (374).
  • 1st in extra base hits with (84), which far exceeded runner-up Rocky Calovito's (67) total. 
  • Tied for 3rd in triples (9) behind teammates Zolio Versalles (10) and Rich Rollins (10).
  • 3rd in Slugging Percentage (.557) behind Boog Powell (.606) and Mickey Mantle (.591). 
  • 4th in OPS (.916) behind Mantle (1.015), Powell (1.005) and teammates Bob Allison (.957) and Harmon Killebrew (.924).
  • 6th in home runs (32).
For this performance, Oliva received almost unanimous support for the Rookie of the Year, obtaining 19 out of 20 votes.  The lone vote went to Baltimore's Wally Bunker who had compiled a strong season in his own right, throwing 214 innings for the Orioles and while going 19-5 with a 2.69 ERA, but the fact that Oliva wound up being the first rookie to win the batting title help propelled him to the top of the voting list. 
Oliva's promising career would become mired with various injuries including what was ultimately a career-altering knee injury suffered on a diving attempt at Athletics' Joe Rudi's line drive. 

Also found at