Tony Oliva (1938)
Outfielder Tony Pedro Oliva played his entire career for the Twins, playing briefly in 1962-1963, making the team for good in 1964 and staying through 1976. He was born in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, and signed as a free agent with Minnesota in 1961, one of the last Cubans allowed to leave the country to play major league baseball.
Believe it or not, the Twins released Oliva, but he continued to train with a friend who was playing for the Twins’ Class A team in Charlotte. Charlotte manager Paul Howser encouraged the Twins to re-sign him, which they did.
His minor league numbers are impressive: in three seasons, he hit .342 with 50 home runs. He got September call-ups in 1962 and 1963, then became the Twins’ starting right fielder in 1964. He was the Rookie of the Year, leading the league in batting (.323), runs (109), hits (217), doubles (43), and total bases (374). He finished fourth in MVP voting. He again led the league in batting in 1965 and finished second in MVP voting to teammate Zoilo Versalles.
Oliva made the all-star team his first eight seasons in the majors, 1964-1971. He finished in the top twenty in MVP voting each of those years, finishing in the top ten five times, in the top five three times, and finishing second twice (1965 and 1970). He also won the Gold Glove in 1966.
Oliva suffered a devastating knee injury in 1972, missing almost the entire season, and when he returned he was not the same player. He was strictly a DH after that, he never topped .300 again (after having done so in six of his first eight seasons), and never hit 20 homers again. He fell to part-time status in 1976 and his playing career ended after that. Tony Oliva hit .304/.353/.476 with 220 home runs in 6,301 at-bats. For eight seasons, he was as good a player as there was in the major leagues.
After his playing career ended, Oliva remained with the Twins as a coach in both the major and minor league teams at various times. He is currently living in Bloomington, Minnesota, and continues to make public appearances for the Twins.
Also posted at wgom.org