1B/DH ∙ 1974—76
Tolia “Tony” Solaita (so-LEE-tah) blazed a unique trail to the majors: He is the only MLB player born in the tiny territory of American Samoa, located midway between Australia and Hawaii. There was no baseball being played on the island when Solaita was growing up, but he loved to play cricket. That passion switched to baseball at the age of eight after the family moved to Hawaii. He is also unusual on my top 100 Royals list as a Rule 5 draft acquisition (Joakim Soria is the only other).
The Yankees had signed him way back in 1965 but only gave him one MLB plate appearance for the next nine years while he toiled in the minors. Jack McKeon took a liking to Solaita when he managed him in the minors before McKeon shifted to the Royals system in 1968, and told Solaita the Royals would take him in the 1968 expansion draft. But the Yankees ended up protecting Solaita, and he remained buried in the minors. The Royals, with McKeon now the big league manager, finally got their chance five years later and selected Solaita in the Rule 5 draft in the winter of ’73-’74.
Solaita stuck with the Royals for the next two and a half years, but he still had a hard time getting regular playing time with John Mayberry, Hal McRae, and Harmon Killebrew holding down first base and DH duties much of that time. Solaita took full advantage when given a chance, and nearly matched the great Mayberry and McRae at the plate. He started off 1974 with a homer in the fifth game, and just kept hitting whenever he was sent up there. A couple of injuries suffered by Mayberry allowed Solaita to play first base in 65 games (DHing and pinch-hitting tacked on 15 more). He possessed the perfect combo of taking walks plus hitting for power.
It is easy to see in retrospect that the Royals made a mistake signing an over the hill Killebrew to DH in 1975 instead of just handing the job to Solaita. “I think I can play every day and hit up here,” Solaita said. “I know I can.”[i] The way he crushed the ball in 1975, he should have been given the chance. But the afterglow of Killebrew’s great career was too bright, and the Royals ended up giving Killebrew the bulk of the time at DH while Solaita hit circles around him in fewer chances. Hitting 16 homers in just 275 PAs gave Solaita the best home run rate in the AL. One of them was a massive 550 foot blast in Tiger Stadium, and three of them came in a single game, which was the first time anyone did that at Anaheim Stadium.[ii] He ended up getting just the 12th most plate appearances for the team in 1975 but the fifth most runs created. McKeon, Solaita’s biggest booster, was replaced mid-season by Whitey Herzog.
Solaita remained on the team at the beginning of’76, but continued to have a hard time cracking the lineup with Mayberry at first and McRae reinstated as the usual DH. The roster crunch finally caught up with him in July and the Angels claimed him on waivers. Few Royals players have produced as much given so little opportunity. Solaita’s unique baseball life took him to California, Montreal, Toronto, Japan, and then back to American Samoa to grow the game in his homeland. His life ended tragically and early, but his dream of bringing baseball to Samoa was realized. Kids there today play little league on Tony Solaita Field.
[i] Del Black, “Born to Cricket, Tony Now Loud Royal Chirper,” The Sporting News, June 7, 1975.
[ii] Rory Costello, Tony Solaita, http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/86186fe8