Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Tony Oliva

Posted: 24th May 2011 by Graham Womack in Tony Oliva

This is the final edition of Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? due to scheduling changes for this site that will take effect next week. For more information, go here.

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Claim to fame: I don’t know if this rates for anything, but Oliva may have been the first player who I was surprised was not in the Hall of Fame. I started reading about baseball as a child, and when I was eight or nine, my dad gave me some of his books he’d had growing up in the 1960s. Oliva is profiled in one of the books, Heroes of the Major Leagues, and I suppose it’s fitting it was published in 1967. Little did the author know that in five years, Oliva would go from a perennial threat for the American League batting championship to an injury-plagued also-ran. As a kid, I didn’t know the difference and thought of Oliva in the same vein as his contemporary Roberto Clemente. I still do to some extent.

I recognize today that Oliva was a mortal, his 42.4 career WAR, 1,917 hits, and .304 lifetime batting average respectable, but hardly legendary. But that’s a holistic look at Oliva which includes the last four seasons of his career when he never topped .300 and averaged 118 games. His first eight full seasons, up to age 33 tell a different story, about a man who won three batting titles, led the league in hits five times, and doubles four times. More impressively, he did the bulk of this during one of the greatest ages for pitchers in baseball history, the 1960s. Knowing what we know today, it seems Oliva was even a tad underrated in his day.

The fact that Oliva was included in Heroes of the Major Leagues and not Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays or Bob Gibson, among other active stars at the time, seems a little absurd today. That being said, Oliva might not make a bad Veterans Committee pick.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Oliva exhausted his 15 possible years on the Cooperstown ballot for the Baseball Writers Association of America and never came close to the needed 75 percent of the vote for induction. He topped out at 47.3 percent in 1988, an unusually weak year for the ballot and otherwise cracked 40 percent of the vote just one other time. That leaves the Veterans Committee as Oliva’s sole means for earning a plaque.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? I’ll beat a drum I’ve sounded before for Gil Hodges, Ron Santo, and Roger Maris. In the next 10 to 15 years, I believe the Hall of Fame could face a public relations challenge, if not crisis, as more and more players suspected of using steroids become eligible for the Hall of Fame. The first time a Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens or Alex Rodriguez gets his inevitable induction ceremony (and realistically, what are the chances none of these men will make it?) it could reap dividends for Cooperstown to have someone like Oliva also onstage. It could be welcome interference to media and fans.

Oliva represents a connection to a seemingly purer time for baseball, players’ rampant use of amphetamines in the ’60s notwithstanding. The image for Oliva’s time is likely to get only more halcyon and distorted as time passes, nostalgia being what it is. That being said, Oliva might not make a bad statistical choice for Cooperstown either, seeing as he satisfies three of four Hall of Fame qualifying metrics on Baseball-Reference.com. If he’s not at the top of the list of Veterans Committee candidates, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s not far off. Maybe Heroes of the Major Leagues had the idea on Oliva.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? was a Tuesday feature here.

Others in this series: Adrian Beltre, Al Oliver, Alan Trammell, Albert Belle, Allie Reynolds, Barry Bonds, Barry Larkin, Bert Blyleven, Billy Martin, Bobby Grich, Cecil Travis, Chipper Jones, Closers, Dan Quisenberry, Darrell Evans, Dave Parker, Dick Allen, Don Mattingly, Don Newcombe, George Steinbrenner, George Van Haltren, Harold Baines, Jack Morris, Jim Edmonds, Joe Carter, Joe Posnanski, John Smoltz, Juan Gonzalez, Keith Hernandez, Ken Caminiti, Larry Walker, Manny Ramirez, Maury Wills, Mel Harder, Moises Alou, Pete Browning, Phil Cavarretta, Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Rocky Colavito, Roger Maris, Ron Guidry, Ron Santo, Smoky Joe Wood, Steve Garvey, Ted Simmons, Thurman Munson, Tim Raines, Will Clark

  1. Brendan says:

    I will miss the weekly “Does he Belong” features, but thank you for closing the series with three of my favorite Veterans Committee candidates in Dale Murphy, Roger Maris and Tony Oliva. The parallels among these three are obvious. Each was stellar for a brief period early in his career followed by a rapid decline and retirement at a relatively young age. I hope that the VC in time sees fit to induct all three, Murphy and Maris each for their two MVP awards, Oliva for his three batting titles. With that level of validation of these players’ standing relative to their contemporaries, the absence of milestone career numbers does not bother me.

  2. Cyril Morong says:

    An interesting comparison is Kirby Puckett, who is in the Hall. Puckett edges him in WAR 44.8 to 42.5.

    They both had 2 top 5 finishes in WAR. Oliva beats him 4-3 in top 10 finishes. Oliva had about 1000 fewer PAs. Maybe the voters saw

    Puckett as a more complete player. Oliva did win 1 Gold Glove although Puckett had 6.

    Puckett made it in his first year of eligibility with 82.1% of the vote. Oliva topped out at 47.3% of his his 7th year (so alot of

    people thought he was good enough). Puckett had 2.56 MVP shares, good enough for 49th. He had 7 top ten finishes and 3 in the top 5.

    Oliva does well, too, with 1.90, at 102nd place. 5 top 10 finishes and 3 in the top 5.

    Oliva led his league in hits in 5 of his first 7 years. He had 6 top 10 finishes in OPS+ in his first 8 years with 3 in the top 5.

    He made the All-Star team in each of his first 8 seasons.

    I don’t see where or how Puckett can be a first ballot Hall of Famer and Oliva does not make it at all. I am not sure Puckett

    deserves it, Oliva’s career seems just as worthy. Oliva beats him in OPS+ 131-124.

    Oliva was the 3rd best player in the AL from 1964-71 in WAR

    Carl Yastrzemski 52
    Brooks Robinson 43.6
    Tony Oliva 41.8
    Harmon Killebrew 39.8
    Jim Fregosi 39.5
    Al Kaline 35.2
    Don Buford 35.2
    Frank Robinson 34.4
    Bill Freehan 30.6
    Rico Petrocelli 30.2

  3. Bob B says:

    Nice write up… but I’d have to be on the “no” side of Oliva being a Hall Of Famer. As for the others mentioned towards the end of the article, I also think Hodges and Maris shouldn’t be in the Hall but continue to be baffled as to why Ron Santo is STILL not in the Hall Of Fame.

    Cyril Morong makes a nice comparison in comment #2 with Oliva and Puckett. I’m skeptical of Puckett ‘deserving’ to be a Hall Of Famer, but it certainly makes you think when Oliva spends 15 years without getting in and Puckett sails in on his first try. It just doesn’t make much sense to me.

    [Note, however, I do tend to be career oriented when it comes to the Hall Of Fame so players with shortened careers such as Puckett and Oliva tend to fair poorly in my views].

  4. I think Puckett was helped a lot by his lovable image during his playing career and the sympathy factor resulting from him retiring early due to glaucoma.

  5. Cyril Morong says:

    He definitely had a good image. Maybe Oliva did not. I don’t recall anything bad being said about him when he was playing. And he might have gotten sympathy for glaucoma. If that is true, why didn’t Oliva get sympathy for his injuries? Are they seen in some different way, like maybe they were more avoidable?

  6. Edward Moore says:

    Tony O. belongs in the Hall, period. When he played, the pitching was alot better, not this watered down product we see today. And of course he faced guys throwing off a mountain(higher mound) his first few years in the league.

    Sure Puckett won two World Series rings and was a very good fielder, but I think Tony O. was a better hitter and played in a tougher era. I loved Kirby, who didn’t, but I respected and feared Oliva when he stepped to the plate, not so much with Puckett.

  7. Doug McNeely says:

    Tony O. definitely belongs in the Hall. Sure the knees took their toll but he was such a clutch hitter and hit for high average combined with power. I saw him throughout his career and even met him while I was coaching legion ball. What a great man and he still is. Now that the Killer has passed, he will be even more important to the Twins past. It is time to get him in.

  8. I’d love to see an argument about how he’s NOT a HOFer. Between WAR and OPS+ he’s qualitatively better than a number of players in there. Tony O for the HOF!!!!

  9. Dan says:

    Check out what Tony Fans are doing and how you can help at votetonyo on facebook or the web!