The Twins’ Tony Oliva led the American League in hits in five of his first seven seasons. He won batting titles in the first two (1964-65).
Yet, his most amazing effort might have been in 1973, the first year of the designated hitter, when he hobbled through 146 games on a permanently damaged right knee, with 16 home runs, 92 RBI and a .291 average.
That knee suffered its most devastating blow on June 29, 1971, at Oakland Coliseum.
The Twins led 5-2 in the ninth. The A’s Joe Rudi sliced a ball to right and Oliva made a semi-dive. His knee landed directly on a sprinkler head.
Harmon Killebrew wasn’t playing that night because of a swollen big toe on that would become a chronic, painful injury.
The first decade in Minnesota had been terrific for the Twins, and 6-29-71 became the day of infamy for the desultory second decade.
On the morning of June 30, Oliva was batting .375 and headed to a third AL batting title. Harmon had 498 career home runs and was destined to become the 10th big-leaguer to reach 500.
Bob Fowler was the Twins’ beat reporter for the St. Paul newspapers. He had a tendency to miss curfew … and didn’t we all in the ’70s?
Fowler arrived at the Oakland Hyatt around 4:15 a.m. Oliva and Killebrew were at the front desk, leaving the team to fly back home to have their injuries assessed.
Dramatic retellings of the scene were frequent from Fowler, who died in 2009 from ALS:
“Due to my bad habits, I had the scoop. The KO Punch that had led the Twins to success was flying home together. I called the [afternoon] Dispatch sports desk, prepared to write a lengthy report, with exclusive quotes from Tony and Harmon.’’
Dramatic pause: “They wanted three graphs.”
Tony started 52 of the Twins’ final 83 games and limped to the batting title at .337. Harmon finally reached 500 on Aug. 10, then hit another in his next at-bat.
Yet, the Twins were headed for dark days, and Fowler had the scoop, which in 2020, he could have fit into a tweet.
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• As the Strib’s Phil Miller reported, Oliva’s next shot at Hall of Fame has been pushed back to 2021. The “Golden Age’’ committee last voted in 2014, and Tony missed getting in by one vote.
• Oliva finished second to teammate Zoilo Versalles as AL MVP in 1965. Tony was named Sporting News’ AL Player of Year for 1965 (and 1970).
• Oliva also finished second as MVP in 1970. Baltimore’s Boog Powell won and Killebrew was third.