On that day the Twins and Royals squared off in a Sunday afternoon doubleheader at old Municipal Stadium. After collecting two singles and a double in the opener—a 7-2 Twins loss—Tony O capped the twinbill by going 5-for-5 and leading the Twins to a 12-2 victory. It was Oliva’s fourth five-hit game and this time he collected each hit off a different Royals pitcher.
Although Oliva finished a triple shy of the cycle, he stroked two home runs and a 410-foot double that just missed clearing the wall in left-center field for a third homer. The biggest blast was a towering three-run shot in the second inning. It sailed over the right-field upper deck and onto Brooklyn Avenue outside Municipal Stadium.
Kansas City starter Dave Wickersham had given Oliva trouble when he was a mainstay with the Tigers during the mid-1960s, but on this occasion, Tony O turned on a slider for the longest ball he ever hit in the major leagues. Wickersham had “a little slider, a little sinker,” remembers Oliva. “I don’t know how he got me out so easy. There’s always someone who’s got your number. He had my number … but that day I smoked that ball.” As a prolific breaking-ball hitter who usually found sliders to his liking, Oliva finally teed off on Wickersham, one pitch after the Royals righthander had put the red-hot hitter on his backside with an inside offering.
“Tony got up and hit it out the stadium,” recalls Rod Carew. “There’s a house up on a hill in right field. This lady came out and was waving a towel because the ball hit the house.” Royals officials left the stadium to measure the home run’s distance and determined that it traveled 517 feet. The ball—only the 13th to clear the right side of Municipal Stadium since the Athletics had departed Philadelphia for Kansas City in 1955—was retrieved and returned to Oliva.
His power display came just days after his 31st birthday. It was an age when players often began their decline, but Tony O was still an elite run producer. He topped 100 RBIs for the first time in his career that summer and did it again in 1970—a two-year stretch in which he batted .317, slugged .505 and led the American League in both hits and doubles twice.
Oliva was having his best season yet in 1971 when, on June 29, he suffered the devastating knee injury that sabotaged his career. The Twins were in Oakland, and in the ninth inning of a 5-3 Twins win, A’s left fielder Joe Rudi sent a soft, sinking liner to right field. Oliva charged the ball as it tailed toward the foul line, debating whether to dive for it. He almost never dove for balls, but this time, at the last second, he left his feet in an effort to record the out. His right foot slipped as he lunged forward and he landed hard on the knee. He got up, retrieved the ball and threw it into the infield, but soon after the knee began swelling and he couldn’t stand on his feet.
The knee eventually required two surgeries. He returned from the second procedure in 1973 and never played the field again—serving as a designated hitter for the rest of his career—and the power that had fueled his terrific start in 1971 was gone.
When he went down on June 29, 1971, Oliva was batting .375 and slugging .654—easily leading the league in both categories—and his 18 homers had him on course to set a personal high. He managed to come back for a stretch that season—before he underwent the first surgical procedure—and still won his third batting title (.337) and also topped the AL in slugging with a .546 mark while playing 126 games. But playing on one healthy leg the rest of his career, he never again was the same hitter.
PHOTO: Minneapolis Star-Tribune
—From “Tony Oliva: The Life and Times of a Minnesota Twins Legend,” now available in paperback. It can be ordered at your favorite local bookstore or Amazon.com.