Thursday, December 8, 2011

Tony Oliva: Traveling The Rutted Road To Glory

[NOTE: try clicking on photos, get larger size]
"Oliva's got real quick hands, like Stan Musial, and he's got bat control like Willie Mays. Tony always gets a piece of the ball - like nobody I've ever seen." 
- White Sox Manager Eddie Stanky, Baseball Digest, Aug. 1966.
The National Baseball Hall Of Fame announced on Monday the voting result of its Veteran's Committee, in honoring the "Golden Era" stars of the 1947-72 period. Long-overdue recognition finally awarded Ron Santo. The former Cubs third baseman was among the greatest players of the modern era, and his choice was entirely fitting. I join the chorus of others wishing he had been elected long before he passed away just over one year ago.

Q: Who was the best hitter you ever faced?
"Tony Oliva. Because, he could hit any pitch, anywhere. He did not have a weakness." - Hall of Famer Jim "Catfish" Hunter, Baseball Digest, Aug., 1992

Pre-injury, Tony Oliva was a 
multithreat, all-round player.
He was widely regarded as
a prodigy in his first, spectacular
As I am a long-time, ardent fan of both Jim Kaat and Tony Oliva, I had already concluded that the result would not be to my liking well before the voting took place. Understand, my initial infatuation with baseball is due, in no small part, to the fabulous Twins teams of the late 1960's, when I was a tyke. These teams had rosters filled with lyrical, alliterative names like Rich Reese, "Pepe" Tovar, Leo Cardenas, Rod Carew, Jim Perry, and, of course, the late, great, Harmon Killebrew. These names, especially when rendered over the radio by announcing great Herb Carneal (1965 All Star Game audio link), were as much a part of my childhood summers as the buzzing cicadas, Dairy Queen shops and cornfields surrounding my small town in south-central Minnesota. The drive from my home to Met Stadium in suburban Bloomington, Minnesota was a short one, maybe 35, 40 minutes. I looked forward to pregame batting practice in that erector-set of a ballpark. It used to be farmland, cornfields too. Once inside the ballpark, you'd see the expanse of green, with those Twins players looking like giants, or mythical gods to my small eyes. I marveled at Oliva taking batting practice in his prime, before knee injuries and age took their toll. He could spray the ball anywhere. The first game I can recall attending was actually a Met Stadium doubleheader against the defending champion Detroit Tigers (July 29, 1969, BBRef Box) in which Tony, The Killer and Carew each hit homers. A nice way to start as a fan, I think you'd agree...

"He was as good as any hitter of his time...Better."
- Lou Piniella, Hall Of Fame Press Release, Nov. 29, 2011

 I knew that the Hall's voting board probably realized its oversight in not selecting Santo, or Gil Hodges long ago. The "Old Timers" Committee was revamped in 2001 to help correct situations such as this. I had already digested the opinions of Aaron Gleeman from a 2005 post, in which he basically dismantles the notion of Oliva as a viable candidate from purely a statistical standpoint. A truly admirable piece of writing, and analysis - there's a reason why Aaron's baseball opinions are so respected. His conclusion: many others with stats similar to Oliva's are NOT in the Hall, and others - in his view, Dick Allen - are more deserving. When you make adjustments to Allen's length of career to approximate Olivas (total at bats, games played), as Gleeman did, you definitely get the impression that Allen was the better, more valuable player.

Sept. 1, 1969 (BBRef box), : was there ever a more perfect image of extension & balance?
Joe DiMaggio revisited! Closer to the current era, Adrian Gonzalez and Don Mattingly come to mind
as being similar, complete hitters, and also because they hit left handed.
Ahem! While not trying to place myself in the position of arguing the candidacy of Oliva over Allen, I do not find it a stretch to say that Oliva was, indeed, the better player over their first 8 seasons (which ran concurrent, starting in 1964, when they each won the Rookie of The Year Awards in their respective leagues). Oliva, at the plate, running the bases, tracking flyballs, throwing out baserunners, being a buoyant presence in the clubhouse, made the Twins a better team than did the divisive Allen for his Phillies, Cardinals, Dodgers, White Sox, the Phillies again, I forgetting any there? In any event, you get the point. Dick "Don't Call Me Richie" Allen was a great, albeit flawed performer. Even though he was Elizabeth Taylor* in cleats, jumping from team to team...

*or Madonna, Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Anniston, for you younger kids, on the Nocturnal All-Star Team of  Love
"...The guy I watched was Tony-O...When I got to the big leagues, people assumed that Harmon Killebrew must have been my favorite player as a kid. But I always focused on watching Tony swing the bat and hit the ball to all fields."
- former Twins first baseman Kent Hrbek, Tales From The Minnesota Twins Dugout, 2007
Scroll to the :20 second mark to see Oliva
inside-outing a pitch to left ca. 1969

Bear in mind also that this was the period of great rightfielders  like Henry Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson...pretty easy to get lost in the shuffle. Then add to this picture the fact that Oliva played in small market Minneapolis-St.Paul. Barry Larkin also has the same dilemma as a Hall of Fame candidate, playing his whole career in Cincinnati. Gleeman's picture is incomplete, as he apparently never saw Oliva in his prime. You can make the numbers say what you want - they do matter. But you are remiss in not weighing the opinion of people who saw and played against him. His contemporaries. That should be factored for any other eligible candidate, for that matter. Their word has to count for something. For without the anecdotal, eyewitness comments of his peers, you only get a sterile, one-dimensional, statistical view of the player. I think their comments in boldtype speak volumes.

Minneapolis Star Tribune photo: Opening Night,
Oakland vs Twins April 6, 1973

Put it this way: do you see similar comments in print about Ron Santo being "the best third baseman"? Or best hitter, baserunner, fielder, etc.? Not really. At least, not that I'm aware of...this isn't to say Santo wasn't a great player. You'll notice they were saying those things for and about Tony...and I'm merely stating that Oliva deserves a nod of respect, or consideration when people speak of the elite players of his time, though the excellence of his play is fading from the collective memory; the legion of sportswriters, scouts, and players who witnessed Oliva in his time are replaced by a new generation unfamiliar with him, and puzzled by the buzz over a fellow with "only" 220 homers and .304 lifetime average.

Check Tony's first, excellent years in the table. Pitchers in the 1960's were throwing downhill off a 15-inch high mound (10" today). That was just crazy! No wonder nobody was scoring or going yard very much! It was a notorious pitching-dominated era, as countless others have pointed out. He yet compiled a marvelous power/speed profile during a challenging period:
Ask yourself: had Tony's two second-place MVP finishes been firsts instead, what would that have done for his HOF chances? BOLDFACE numbers denote league-leading totals.
MinnPost's Steve Aschburner's take  on the "Cuban Cruncher," as Linkugel and Pappas refer to him below, makes an intriguing point. He correctly stated that Oliva bested Bill Mazeroski, Orlando Cepeda, Bruce Sutter and Jim Rice consistently (often decisively) in the voting by the Hall Of Fame committee during his initial candidacy years (1982-1996). Ironically, each has leapfrogged Tony, and have been inducted in the years since he went off the main ballot. His argument, if I may paraphrase it, appears to be "if them, why not Tony?"

Batting against the White Sox, 1971, Met Stadium
"Oliva, not [Jose] Canseco , is the greatest Cuban hitter who ever lived."
-Camilo Pascual, who scouted and signed Canseco for the Oakland Athletics, in "The New Face of Baseball: The 100-Year Rise And Triumph of Latinos."

While interesting, I find problems with Aschburner's logic: it can be used to justify a lot of bad or illogical choices. I think players like Tony, Roger Maris, Don Mattingly, and Garry Templeton were Hall of Fame talents who've been given scrutiny by voters in recent years, and who lit up their leagues for an abbreviated time. And therein is the distinction I draw. At some point, we have to pay attention to the Hall's 10 year minimum standard of high calibre play. If we are to have this hallowed museum where we profess to honor only the greats, only the people that fit the criterion, then we have to follow through. Tony and these guys don't fit in.

No, it's not what people want to hear and read. Not me. Not Steve Aschburner. Certainly not Tony; while being at his core a high-spirited, kind man, he has also expressed frustration with the voting process. He wants acknowledgement as being one of the greatest players of all time, which is natural. Who can blame him? Players tend to be less inclined to use strict HOF guidelines to gauge their worth. Again, all the quotes I'm supplying attest to his talent. He brought the goods, the numbers, the greatness...but it was for only eight years, if we are being honest with ourselves. While we could quibble over including his 1973 season to tack on another year for consideration (when he came back after recuping for most of '72), even that year is nowhere near Tony's performance of his 1964-1971 period.

1970: with daughter Anita, Fathers - Kids game at Metropolitan Stadium.
Minnie Mendoza (center) and Jim Kaat (left, head on hands) are visible.
"He was one of the best hitters I ever saw. And it was not only what he hit, but when. He always seemed to be getting big hits."
- former big leaguer/current Chicago Stinking White Sox broadcaster Ken Harrelson,
 Nov. 29, 2011 Hall of Fame Press Release (check link to Denard Span's comments, You Tube).

I'm reminded of Ted Williams quoting Whitey Ford who asked:
"You mean, Tony Oliva's not in the Hall of Fame yet?"

So, were left with this: Tony and Jim Kaat will have to wait another three years before they can come up again in rotation for the voters to consider. Perhaps Oliva will have to make peace, as will his fans, with the prospect that he will have even less backing the next time, in 2014, and will remain on the outside looking in. He'll be graceful, no doubt. And we'll do well to make do, remembering the excitement, joy, and memory of our very own, Tony-O.

As our Hall of Fame Broadcaster Herb Carneal ended his postgame, I say to you:

Calvin Griffith's comments, The Sporting News, Feb. 26, 1966


Aase said...

It's the knees my friend, and how much they cut into his numbers. I just think there will always be an excuse for the voters at the HOF. Jim Rice's inclusion continues to confuse me, however.

TWINS TWINKLER! (so named as "TT" was title of player features in Minn. Twins game programs of 1960's) said...

Rice's inclusion isn't troubling to me. More 1- dimensional as a player than Tony (in his prime that is), he still rates higher in the HOF criterion scores:
Black Ink Batting - 33 (50), Average HOFer ≈ 27

Gray Ink Batting - 176 (58), Average HOFer ≈ 144

Hall of Fame Monitor Batting - 144 (92), Likely HOFer ≈ 100

Hall of Fame Standards Batting - 43 (128), Average HOFer ≈ 50

...whereas Tony with:
Black Ink Batting - 41 (37), Average HOFer ≈ 27

Gray Ink Batting - 146 (96), Average HOFer ≈ 144

Hall of Fame Monitor Batting - 112 (134), Likely HOFer ≈ 100

Hall of Fame Standards Batting - 29 (332), Average HOFer ≈ 50

You will notice I arrived at the same conclusion as you did, Tony just comes up short.

Dan said...

Great Blog and I will repost on VoteTonyO facebook and the web.

Check us out Tony O fans, we have much to do before 2014!