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Jul 04

Tony Solaita

Tony Solaita 1968 NY Yankees. Photo: OOTP Developments Forum)

Tony Solaita 1968 NY Yankees. Photo: OOTP Developments Forum

Personal Life:

Tolia ‘Tony’ Solaita (born January 15, 1947 in Nu’uuli, Tutuila – died February 10, 1990 in Tafuna, American Samoa) was the first Baseball player of Samoan heritage. He was the fourth of seven children born to Tulafono Ioane Solaita and Lili’aifao Maugalei Soliai Solaita.

Solaita attended Mira Costa College in Oceanside, California. He was signed to his first contract off campus by New York Yankee scout – Dolf Camilli.

 

Professional Career:

When Solaita began his pro career in 1965, he didn’t show his power for a couple of years, although his .324 mark led the Gulf Coast League in 1966. But the next year he lifted his home run total to 14. In 1968 came the breakthrough. Solaita joined High Point-Thomasville in the Single-A Carolina League, playing under career baseball man Jack McKeon. He clouted 51 homers for the Hi-Toms, including two in the playoffs–more than any other player in Organized Baseball. Solaita was voted Topps Minor League Player of the Year, and his reward was a chance to play at Yankee Stadium.

Solaita also played most of the 1969 season on loan to two White Sox farm clubs. He then returned to the top Yankees affiliate, Syracuse, but did not get the call-up he fully deserved in 1970.

In February 1973, Solaita was traded to the Pittsburgh chain for 14-year minor-leaguer George Kopacz. With the Charleston Charlies, he got his career back on track, and then the benevolent Jack McKeon interceded. McKeon had moved up to manage the Royals that year, and in December they drafted Solaita off the Charleston roster. The manager would later state, “Tony ranks among the top two or three players I have managed when it comes to on- and off-the-field considerations.”

1975, he had 16 homers in 231 at-bats, the best ratio in the American League, and second only to Dave Kingman in the majors. On September 7 that year, Solaita became the first player to hit three in a single game at Anaheim Stadium, driving all of them over the center-field fence.

After about a year, Solaita was sent to the California Angels. Though he missed a chance to go to the playoffs, near the end of the 1976 season, the Angels staged a “Samoan Salute to Tony Solaita” with pre-game entertainment by Polynesian dancers and musicians. It was also a savvy public relations move, what with the 40,000-strong Samoan community in Southern California. (It was around this time, that there were more Samoans in the U.S. than in American Samoa.)

Solaita split the 1979 season between the Montreal Expos and the Toronto Blue Jays (where he once again backed up John Mayberry). He produced rather well in spot duty, but the Jays made him a free agent. In early 1980, he signed a multi-year offer to play in Japan with Nippon Ham Fighters, where the financial rewards were often the best of the day and embarked on a new phase of his career.

During his four years as DH (designated hitter) with the Nippon Ham Fighters, Solaita posted remarkable power numbers, averaging 39 home runs and 93 RBI (run batted-in) per 130-game season. On April 20, 1980, he became only the second player to hit four straight homers in a Japanese game. The first was the great Sadaharu Oh.

He was most impressive in 1981, tying for the Pacific League lead with his 44 home runs and winning the RBI title with 108. In the second half of the split season, Solaita had 14 of his 17 game-winning hits, and he led the Fighters to their second Pacific League pennant in franchise history. He hit two homers as Ham took a 2-1 lead in the Japan Series, but the perennial power, the Yomiuri Giants, wound up winning.

After leaving the Nippon Ham Fighters, the San Francisco Giants showed interest in having Solaita come back to the U.S. and play for them in 1984. That winter, he later told his brother Ben that baseball had become a job, it was no longer fun. So at age 37, Tony Solaita retired.

Solaita’s dream after retiring from professional Baseball was to set up his own Baseball program back in his homeland of American Samoa. He fulfilled that dream with his brother Ben, but while Solaita’s program was starting to take off with over 600 children registered, Solaita tragically died of a gun wound in 1990 by a local villager angry over land granted to Solaita by village Matai’s to run his program. Solaita was 43 when he died.

 

Highlights & Awards:

  • During the winter of 1993, the Tony Solaita Baseball Field was expanded and renovated, with a grand re-opening in March 1994
  • Inspiration behind the launch of American Samoa Baseball Association in 1991
  • Minor Leagues: Tony Solaita file, National Baseball Hall of Fame Library
  • Major Leagues: Total Baseball, 6th Edition (New York, NY: Total Sports, 1999)
  • Japanese Leagues: Daniel E. Johnson, Japanese Baseball: A Statistical Handbook, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1999)
  • Puerto Rican Winter League: José A. Crescioni Benítez, private database.

Legacy:

  • First Samoan to play professional Baseball in the United States

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source – Rory Costello

5 comments

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  1. Miss M

    i have a question about this bio. in the PERSONAL LIFE section at the end it says MIRA COSTA COLLEGE. does that mean he attended that college and if so what state is that college located.

    you know i love your page!!!

    1. Admin

      Talofa Miss M,
      Tony attended Mira Costa College and the campus is located in Oceanside, California 🙂 We appreciate your question and continuous support of the website!

      Admin

  2. Miss M

    Talofa Admin – thanks so much for answering my question within the article. i read this bio again with tears in my eyes, due to Mr. Solata’s passing.

  3. Rory Costello

    May I please request that you link to the full biography from which you drew this abbreviated version? I believe many of your readers may enjoy all the detail.

    http://home.roadrunner.com/~vibaseball/toliasolaita.html

    Fa’afetai tele lava!

    1. Admin

      Talofa Rory,
      We’d be glad too! Thank you for your original full biography on him 🙂

      SB Admin

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