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Oliva's numbers show he's Hall of Fame worthy

Former Twins slugger inches closer on latest Golden Era ballot

Tony Oliva, at the peak of his career, passed the eye test. You watched him play and you said: "He looks like a Hall of Famer."

And there is no doubt that for an eight-year span, from 1964-71 with the Minnesota Twins, Oliva was on that track. During that time, he hit .313 with a .365 on-base percentage and a .507 slugging percentage.

Oliva's stature within the game was easily recognized. He was the American League Rookie of the Year in 1964. He made the All-Star team in each of his first eight seasons. He led the AL in batting average three times. He led the league in hits five times. He led the league in doubles four times. Is the picture clearly emerging? At the plate, Oliva was a line drive waiting to happen.

Oliva also won a Gold Glove Award as an outfielder. He was a superior right fielder with considerable range and a fine arm.

Video: Tony Oliva discusses his All-Star memories

Along the way, Oliva became an immensely popular player for the Twins. I understand there are no Hall of Fame votes that accompany that designation, but he was held in suitably high regard by the people who saw him play most often. A statue of him stands at Target Field today.

So what happened to derail Oliva's trip to Cooperstown? A serious knee injury in 1971 is both the short and accurate answer to that question. With knee troubles from that point forward, he was never completely the same player again. In fact, in the latter years of his career, he was limited to being a DH.

So Oliva didn't put up the career numbers that those eight splendid seasons suggested he would. When it came time for his career to be judged by the baseball writers for Hall of Fame worthiness, in Oliva's 15 years on the writers' ballot his high-water mark was 47.3 percent of the vote. He typically had considerable support, but nothing resembling the necessary 75 percent support.

From that point on, Oliva's potential Hall of Fame status was in the hands of various veterans committees. This year, in the balloting by the Golden Era Committee, Oliva received 11 votes from the 16 committee members. He needed 12 for election to the Hall of Fame.

On the one hand, it was encouraging for supporters of Oliva to see that he was that close to selection, that after all this time, he might still receive the ultimate recognition for his career.

On the other hand, there is a kind of cruelty in falling one vote short of election to the Hall of Fame. And for a 76-year-old man, it is three years until the Golden Era Committee takes up his case again.

I don't fault the members of the committee, who form a distinguished cross-section of Hall of Famers, club executives and veteran media members. There is nobody on the committee who would take this task lightly.

It is just that Tony Oliva looked like a Hall of Famer more than four decades ago. And for many of us who saw him play then, that notion has not changed. One more vote for him among those 16 committee members would have been, even after all this time, fair and fitting.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for
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