One might assume winning the Rookie of the Year award puts a player on the fast-track to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. For Tony Oliva, it was the jumpstart he needed—but for most, it’s anything but a guarantee of having a bust in the most sacred of baseball fraternities.
Established as a national award in 1947, Jackie Robinson was the inaugural winner and would eventually have the award named after him in 1987. Two years later, in 1949, the award was split to recognize a winner from both leagues.
Since its inception, more than 140 players have won the award—but only 17 of them have been elected to the Hall of Fame. What started as a 1-for-1, the Rookie of Year fell into quite a few slumps throughout the years if you consider it a barometer of future success.
Carlos Beltran, Scott Rolen, Ichiro Suzuki, Albert Pujols, Justin Verlander, Buster Posey, Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Craig Kimbrel and Jacob deGrom are all recently retired or current players who could grow the list in the future.
Still, even if all of those names are voted in, the percentage of Rookie of the Year winners who went on to the Hall of Fame is still surprisingly low, hovering around 10%.
Oliva was one of the few to do both, but also had to wait 45 years for his call to Cooperstown. The Minnesota Twins legend is arguably one of the best Cuban-born hitters to ever play Major League Baseball, a list that includes Minnie Minoso, Rafael Palmeiro and Tany (Atanasio) Perez.
In honor of his upcoming Hall of Fame induction on July 24, here’s a look back at six classic cards of #6.
1963 Topps RC
After a brief taste of the big leagues in 1962 (nine at-bats), collectors were already getting acquainted with Oliva thanks to this card in the 1963 Topps set. He spent most of ’63 in the minors, too, but made the most of his seven at bats, hitting .429.
His rookie card uses his formal given name of “Pedro Oliva,” while featuring three other rookies that include Ed Kranepool.
An ungraded Oliva rookie card can be owned for around $40-$50, while a mid-grade example runs in the $200-$300 range. Anything graded better than an “8” can sell for several thousand. It’s popular, but not rare by any stretch and several dozen can usually be found on eBay.
1964 Topps Giants
In his first full season, Oliva led the league in batting average (.323), hits (217), runs (109), doubles (43) and total bases (374). His breakout season earned him Rookie of the Year honors, an All-Star appearance and placed him fourth overall in MVP voting.
While Oliva shared his rookie card in 1963 and 1964 Topps, another Topps release in 1964 allowed him to have his own personal space. The 1964 Topps Giants was a star-studded set, featuring more than 20 Hall of Famers that account for more than a third of the set.
Surprisingly, it’s still a very cost-friendly option. An ungraded Oliva can be owned for $10-$20, while a high grade version can cost less than $100. The back of the card reads like a newspaper column, noting that Oliva hit better than .400 in his brief stint in the Appalachian League.
1970 Topps “The Tony Oliva Story” Booklet
Comics and sports cards have been fused in a variety of ways throughout the years, but the 1970 Topps Booklets are some of the earliest examples.
Inserted into packs of 1970 Topps, each booklet came with a story that about the player that it featured—24 in all. Oliva’s features a comic strip that illustrates his meteoric rise to the big leagues, as well as the injuries that slowed him in 1967 and 1968.
Despite those injuries, Oliva still managed to hit .289 in both seasons, but his power hadn’t quite returned yet. Healthy again, Oliva managed to hit .309 with 24 home runs and 101 RBI in 1969, followed by .325 batting average, 23 home runs and 107 RBI in 1970. He finished second to Boog Powell in the American League MVP race.
Aside from the comic strip design, another great feature of 1970 Topps Booklets is that most can be owned for a few bucks.
1971 Kelloggs 3-D
The only thing better than a delicious bowl of cereal for breakfast is getting a baseball card for your trouble. Kellogg’s understood the struggle in the 1970s and began inserting cards into their cereal boxes.
The 1971 release was a 3-D design that featured some of the biggest stars in the game. Quality control apparently wasn’t as important as great tasting cereal, as 43 of the 75 cards had some sort of unintended variation.
Prone to cracking, higher grade examples can cost quite a bit, so keep an eye out for ungraded versions that could grade well. You can own a copy of a 1971 Kellogg’s Oliva for as little as $10-$15, or as much as $150, depending on how important condition is. Keep in mind the ’71 Kellogg’s cards were never issued in set form so they’re much tougher than the cereal maker’s other issues.
’71 was another All-Star performance by Oliva, leading the league in hitting at .337 and once again hitting more than 20 home runs.
The 1972 season could have easily been the beginning of the end of Oliva, as complications from a knee surgery at the end of the 1971 season left him hobbled and on the disabled list until mid-season.
He finally felt healthy enough to play in June of 1972, but was put back on the shelf after only 28 at-bats. Even with the pain radiating from his knee, Oliva managed to hit .321. When he underwent another knee surgery later that season, doctors found and removed more than 100 cartilaginous fragments from his battered knee in an effort to get Oliva back on the field.
While he could still hit, Oliva’s range in the field was limited. There was no designated hitter in either league in 1972, which made the outlook for a prolonged career after surgery bleak at best.
Tony O’s ’72 Topps card can be had for under $15 in nice shape. He’s also on a Leaders card for his ’71 batting title and in the ’72 Topps Posters set.
Oliva received welcomed news in 1973 when the American League instated the designated hitter. He immediately repaid the gesture by hitting a home run in his first at-bat as a DH in the 1973 season opener against the A’s and Catfish Hunter. It was the first home run hit by a DH in the history of Major League Baseball.
The break from the field also allowed Oliva to regain some of his offensive prowess, hitting .291 with 16 home runs and 92 RBI for the year. But his knees were still barking with every sprint, slide and swing.
While Oliva posted a very respectable .285 batting average in 1974, the power was beginning to wane. He hit 13 home runs in both 1974 and 1975, before the knee pain became too much to play with. Oliva tried one more time to play through the pain in 1976 as a player-coach, but a .211 batting average after 128 at-bats was the writing on the wall for Oliva’s last season. He made the easy transition to first base coach in 1977 after announcing his retirement after the 1976 season.
1976 was the last Topps card for Oliva from his playing career, it’s one from this list that certainly won’t break the bank.