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