The only player in major league history to win batting titles in his first two full seasons, Oliva was one of the most graceful, natural hitters of all time, but had his career cut short by a bad knee. The native Cuban was signed by scout “Papa Joe” Cambria upon the recommendation of Roberto Fernandez, a former outfielder in the Senators’ organization. In his first year in the minors, Oliva won the Silver Louisville Slugger award as the top hitter in professional baseball when he hit .410 playing for Wytheville in the Appalachian League.
Following brief .400-hitting trials with the Twins in 1962 and 1963, he earned a permanent spot in their outfield in 1964. That year Baseball Digest’s scouting report on rookie prospects underestimated Oliva. It read, “Fair hitter, can make somebody a good utility outfielder.” Oliva enjoyed a sensational Rookie of the Year season, leading the AL in batting (.323), hits (217), runs (109), and doubles (43). His 217 hits established an AL rookie mark. He also led the majors with a club-record 374 total bases, 84 extra-base hits, and 71 multi-hit games.
Oliva surprised the Twins with his power as he walloped 32 home runs. He recalled, “They wanted somebody on base for [Harmon] Killebrew and [Bob] Allison. When I started to play I hit home runs too. I think the long ball was contagious on the Twins.”
Oliva suffered no sophomore jinx. He once again led the AL in batting (.321) and hits (185) for the pennant-winning Twins. He ultimately would lead the league in hits five times. He was named the AL player of the year in 1965 by TSN. In Game Two of the 1965 World Series he helped defeat Sandy Koufax when he doubled off the Dodgers’ ace in the sixth inning of the Twins’ 5-1 win.
In 1966 Oliva hit .307, second best in the AL. He also captured a Gold Glove award as the league’s best defensive right fielder. In 1969, Oliva tied Joe DiMaggio‘s record of having been named to the All-Star team in each of his first six seasons in the league but missed the game with the chicken pox. He won his third batting title in 1971 (.337) despite a serious knee injury suffered in Oakland while chasing a Joe Rudi fly ball. With the exception of ten games in June, he missed the entire 1972 season because of his ailing right knee, which went under the surgeon’s knife seven times during his career.
Because of his knee, Oliva was used mainly as a designated hitter and pinch hitter (Frank Quilici, the manager said, `Go up and pinch-hit for Craig Kusick, the DH.’ After I batted, I stayed on the bench for an inning then went upstairs to take a shower thinking I was out of the game. I forgot that I was the new DH. While I was taking a shower, they came looking for me since it was my turn to bat. I was embarrassed. I was all wet. I never dressed so fast in my Rod Carew had walked and the umpire was looking for me. I had to rush. When I got up to the plate they walked me on four pitches.”
Oliva’s actual name is Pedro, but he used his brother’s passport to enter the U.S. to play pro ball in 1961, and he’s been known as Tony ever since.