Admittedly, Tony Solaita is one of the more obscure players in Royals history. His career in Kansas City ended more than 40 years ago, he wasn’t a starter, and he didn’t play on one of the division-winning teams of the late 1970s. (Well, he was on the 1976 team for a few weeks.) Yet I find his story intriguing, an underexplored tale in franchise history. I hope you will, too.
Tolia “Tony” Solaita was born on January 15, 1947 in the village of Nu’uuli in American Samoa. That fact makes Solaita unique not just in Royals history but in MLB history: he remains the only native Samoan to play in the majors. As you might expect, baseball was not a big deal in the South Pacific in the early 1950s, but the Samoans did play a form of cricket, called kilikiti. This was young Tony’s first experience with a bat and ball sport until his family moved to Hawaii when he was 8. There, he was introduced to baseball and quickly developed an aptitude for it, especially once he was familiar with minor details like holding the bat properly (not cross-handed) and using a glove (in one of his first games, Solaita ditched his glove and played barehanded, explaining later that his hands were already tough from playing cricket).
Solaita’s father was in the Marines, so the family moved a lot. From Hawaii it was on to San Diego, then up to San Francisco. Here, Solaita became a high school star at Jefferson High School in the suburb of Daly City, where he was captain of the baseball and football teams. Solaita threw a no-hitter in his high school career, but it was his powerful bat that attracted the attention of scouts. The Yankees signed him out of high school and sent him to rookie ball, where he hit an unpromising .255/.369/.318. He fared a little better in 1966, hitting a combined .264/.384/.361 in rookie and Class A leagues.
After a decent 1967 spent entirely at Class A Fort Lauderdale, Solaita finally had a breakthrough in 1968. At Class A High Point Thomasville in the Carolina League, he hit .302/.434/.672 with 49 home runs and added two more dingers in the playoffs. That got him a callup to the majors, and he debuted on September 16 of that year for one at-bat.
Solaita was now on the Yankees’ radar, but he had a hard time making the roster. New York actually loaned him to the White Sox organization for part of 1969, and he didn’t get called up in 1970 despite a very good .308/.442/.523 line at Triple-A Syracuse. Eventually, the Yankees dealt him to Pittsburgh, where he continued to languish in the minors.
Finally, Solaita caught a break. The Royals named Jack McKeon manager before the 1973 season. McKeon had been Solaita’s manager in that monster 1968 season. When Tony was made available in the Rule 5 draft, McKeon made sure the Royals added him. Kansas City already had John Mayberry entrenched at first base, but Solaita added a nice power bat to a team that really needed it. Solaita hit .268/.361/.406 in 279 plate appearances, and his seven home runs were good for fifth on a team that hit just 89 for the season. The four players ahead of him were all regulars, and he had the fourth-highest slugging percentage on the team. The Royals finished a disappointing 77-85, but Solaita was one of the better players on the team.
The Royals again expected to contend in 1975, and were counting on Solaita again to be a useful piece. Solaita began the year as a backup, mostly pinch-hitting with the occasional appearance at first base or DH. He still had some highlights, including a game-tying, pinch-hit home run on May 1 and a mammoth home run onto the roof at old Tiger Stadium on May 13. Feats like that got him more regular playing time, especially as the Royals struggled to find a reliable DH. He hit .283/.377/.528 in 61 plate appearances in June, which was more plate appearances than he had combined in April and May (50). He didn’t fare quite as well in July (although he still had a decent overall .220/.333/.463 line) but shined with a .279/.439/.558 line in August. He ended the year with a .224/.328/.469 that was basically a repeat of his July numbers. For the year, Solaita hit .260/.369/.515 with 16 home runs in 275 plate appearances. That was good for 1.8 WARP, not too bad for someone playing about half the time. Those 16 homers in 231 at-bats was the best ratio in the league, and only behind Dave Kingman in the majors. He also became the first player to hit three homers in one game at Anaheim Stadium, belting all three shots over the center-field fence on September 7.
Unfortunately for Solaita, the Royals had fired McKeon in late July. New manager Whitey Herzog was obviously willing to use Solaita for the remainder of the season, but he apparently preferred not to carry two left-handed first base/DH types. Solaita began the 1976 season as a Royal, but played sparingly. As so often happens, that made it harder for him to produce when he did play, and with a disappointing .235/.286/.294 line in just 77 plate appearances in mid-July, he was waived.
The Angels snapped him up, and Solaita would play in southern California through the 1978 season. After splitting the 1979 season between Montreal and Toronto (and again backing up Mayberry, this time as a Blue Jay), Solaita became a free agent. Finding limited interest in his services from major league teams, he decided to try playing in Japan.
On the field, it was a good move. Solaita’s power played well in Japan, as he belted 155 home runs in four seasons with the Nippon Ham Fighters. In 1980, he became only the second player in Japanese history to hit four straight home runs in one game, the first being the legendary Sadaharu Oh. He led the league in home runs in 1981 with 44. But off the field, he had to deal with the trials of being a non-native player. For example, in that 1981 season, he finished a distant third in the MVP vote, despite leading the Fighters to just the second pennant in team history. The year before, when he had broken the team record for home runs in a season, no one bothered to tell him about his feat. He would get intentionally walked at odd times when he was battling a Japanese player for the home run title. Eventually, Solaita decided baseball was not fun anymore, so he retired.
Soon after, Solaita and his brother Ben took a vacation to their native land. It was the first time they’d been back to American Samoa since their childhood, and Tony fell in love with his homeland. He convinced his wife, and Ben and his wife, to relocate their families to Nu’uuli. Solaita had a dream, one he’d had even during his playing days, of establishing a baseball program for the youth of American Samoa. Land was donated for the program, and the Solaita brothers spent much of 1984 clearing it before beginning play in 1985. Hundreds of kids got their first baseball experience in the early years, and Solaita began taking travel teams to Taiwan, Hawaii, and even Los Angeles.
But things took a tragic turn. In American Samoa, much of the land is owned by the community and doled out by the matai, the village chiefs. Solaita had been given a parcel of land and established a meat market. Another man in the village became angry with this, arguing that he should receive that land. When he was overruled, he began vandalizing Solaita’s property. On the morning of February 10, 1990, less than a month after his 43rd birthday, Solaita confronted the man. After an argument, Solaita turned to walk away and was shot in the back. He passed away en route to the hospital. The shooter, Harry “Tapu” Taylor, served just seven years in jail after a plea agreement in the case.
But Solaita’s legacy lives on. The field kids play baseball on is now named after him. It has been expanded and renovated and looks like a lovely setting for baseball. A peek at the American Samoan Baseball Association’s Facebook page shows a lot of smiling youngsters, which is what youth baseball should be about. Whether any of them makes it to a major league stadium near you is immaterial. Solaita’s life may have ended tragically, but knowing Samoan children are enjoying baseball makes this story a happy one. Even if you hadn’t heard his name before reading this, I hope you will take pleasure in knowing what Tony Solaita accomplished.
Tony Solaita’s best games of 1975:
9/7 @ CAL: Hit three home runs, scored three runs, drove in four, singled, and walked in 8-7 win.
6/18 vs. CAL: Homered twice, singled, walked twice, scored five runs, and drove in four in 13-0 win.
5/13 @ DET: Homered, singled twice, scored two runs and drove in two in 8-7 win.
7/3 @ TEX: Homered twice, driving in three runs in 10-5 win.
6/5 @ CLE: Went 3-4 with a double and drove in two runs in 8-7 loss.
About the card:
I prefer action shots to the posed spring training ones, but at least with the latter you can get a look at a player’s face. By all accounts Solaita was a kind man, and I think you can see that in his face here. However, he ought to be worried that the stadium around him appears to be in danger of sliding off the earth. On the back, I note that Topps put Solaita’s given name, not Tony as they did on the front. I wonder if that confused many people. And it strikes me that the things Solaita did well (walk, slugging percentage) weren’t reflected on this card, as it contains neither one of those stats. I think he’d be more appreciated today.