Al Oliver was a professional Baseball player who played in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization among others.
This is a transcript of a phone call I had with Al Oliver.
Thank you for agreeing to this interview for the members of Baseball Nation.
Q: Baseball Nation - What would you say you miss most about playing the game?
A: Al Oliver - I think the camaraderie as far as the players are concerned. I had the opportunity, of course, to play with some good and great players and just players period. I always enjoyed going to the ballpark everyday and just having fun and basically I was very fortunate to have played on some good teams. So naturally, the better the teams you play on, of course, the more fun you are going to have. That’s the one thing I do miss and that’s the camaraderie.
Q: Baseball Nation - Is there one person in your career as a baseball player (fellow player/manager/coach) who had a significant impact on the way you approach the game? Why?
A: Al Oliver - I would probably have to say that it would have to be Roberto Clemente. The reason why he had an impact with me is that he understood me as a person. He understood being a self-assured person, being a confident person. A lot of people can’t distinguish the difference between say a confident individual as opposed to one being cocky, which is a word that I never did hear growing up and never knew what it meant. Evidently he had heard that when he came up and of course he wasn’t cocky, he was confident, but he saw the self-confidence that I had in me. Wanting to play every day, I wasn’t given that opportunity early in my career to play everyday. As a result of that, he picked up on it. I recall him coming over to me one time and saying to me, “Just stay in shape, keep doing what you’re doing when you get a chance to play and one day you’ll get an opportunity to play on a regular basis and there is no question in my mind, once you do you’ll become one of the best players ever to play.” It could not have come from anyone else and the reason why is that, I had lost my dad the same day I found out I was coming to the Major Leagues and I lost my mother when I was 11. To have that type of player come to you and more important to see what was inside of Al Oliver, what made him tick, I think that was very important coming from him
Q: Baseball Nation - What was it like to be in a clubhouse with both Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell?
A: Al Oliver - It was fun, you know we had guys on that team; we had a lot of characters. I always said we had a team of characters with character. Speaking of Roberto, he was more laid back. He didn’t say a whole lot until someone pushed one of his buttons. Someone might say to him, like if there was a tough pitcher going that night, they would throw jab at him like, “You can’t hit that guy.” That would usually stir him up and get him fired up and he would go out there and do some damage. He was that type of guy. He was one that led by example, by the way he carried himself off the field and on the field and the way he hustled and played on the field up until the day he played his last game, he always hustled. For young, up coming players like myself to see that there was no excuse that we should not have done the same.
Then on the other hand, we had Willie Stargell who was more people orientated, not to say that Roberto wasn’t because he was and that was quite obvious in the plane going down in the off-season of 72. Will was more hands on than Roberto. Will was the type of person that would give team parties if we had a losing streak, and fortunately for us we didn’t have to many of those in ’71 and ’72. If he saw there was a need for it, he would throw a party and he had this concoction that he called “Purple Passion” and me being a non-drinker, he would mix this grape juice with grain alcohol in it and whatever else he had in there, he put in there. His purpose was just to keep the team loose. With that kind of concoction, that’s going to loosen up anybody. Luckily he always did it when we had an off day. Those were the things that Will did.
I know in my particular situation, he knew I didn’t like being platooned. He and Dock Ellis got together one spring training and made some orange juice and put some alcohol in it at spring training down in Fort Myers, Florida. Basically what they were doing was trying to calm me down because I didn’t understand why I was being platooned. Being that I played ball everyday up until that time, I did alright against lefties and righties but the Pirates had something else on their agenda. That was Will’s way of trying to loosen me up and he had a good pulse on each player. He knew what to say and what not to say. He always liked my fire, my positive attitude, the confidence that I exhibited day in and day out, rather I was playing or not. It was just something that was a part of me. He always respected that. Someone can look at that in kind of a way like he is different. Not everybody has a positive attitude all the time. Even if you go 0-4 you have confidence you can come back the next day.
We got along well. He introduced me to my wife. Out of that marriage came 2 kids, a daughter and a son. He was the best man at my wedding, he was more nervous than I was at that time. We are divorced now but he knew basically what I liked and didn’t like in women. He did a good job.
Speaking of Will, in 1979 I was in Texas and that is when they went to the World Series. He wanted me to give him a scouting report on Baltimore’s pitching because I had faced them. Me being left-handed and him being left-handed, he wanted to know more about the left-handers like Flanagan and McGregor. I told him how they tried to pitch me, it may not be the same way they try to pitch him but at least it would give him an idea. I was in the Bahamas when they were playing the World Series. Evidently the scouting report helped him because he was the MVP and he took them to the World Championship. I always kidded with him after that, I’m still waiting on that check in the mail. There are a lot of things I remember about Will and Roberto but those are the main things.
Q: Baseball Nation - In 73 at bats against one of the greatest pitchers ever in Bob Gibson, you hit .342, knocked 4 dingers, and only struck out 3 times. Is there something that you knew about him that hardly anyone else could figure out?
A: Al Oliver - No. The one plus is that I was left handed. I never was bothered by any right-handed pitcher, rather I was successful or not successful. I think with Gibby it was a combination of a little luck and some talent. The one thing I always liked about him was that I think we were both from the same mould. We were both highly competitive. He always came with his best and I came to the plate with my best. I knew I had to be at my best in order to be successful against him. Also, he was a fast worker. I always liked fast workers like Fergie Jenkins and Gibby. They got the ball and they threw the ball. There was no standing around, walking around the mound. I was one that didn’t step out of the batter’s box, I was ready to go. There was no reason to step out of the batter’s box because I already knew I could hit, so what am I stepping out for? With Gibson, there was no reason for him to walk around the mound because he knew what he had. I think we were both of the same mindset.
I think that might have something to do with it. Some of the hits I did get off of him, a couple of them were jam shots. I was strong enough to fist the ball out over the shortstop’s head. It was one of those things. In my opinion you saw 2 great competitors going at each other. You figure if you do well against Bob Gibson, you should do well against everybody else.
Q: Baseball Nation - Do you have any regrets regarding your departure from the game, and would you have done anything differently given another opportunity?
A: Al Oliver - Well it was baseball that put me out of the game. It wasn’t me. I had a lot of gas left in the tank. If you saw my last time that I started a game, I had a game winning hit in the playoffs with Toronto. I had 2 game winning hits in that playoff and the second hit that I got put us up 3 games to 1 over Kansas City.
I was taken out of the very last game I played in, I was taken out and Cliff Johnson hit for me. I knew then, I had a feeling that was it. The last 2 years, if you notice, I was thrown around from team to team which I didn’t quite get that. I was still an everyday player prior to that, still hitting .300, still being productive as an everyday player. From a DH standpoint, I wish I had the opportunity of say a Paul Molitor, a fine ball player, a super player who had opportunity to move to the DH spot and help teams win.
Hitting was something I never stopped doing. The only thing that happened to me was my playing time stopped. That was baseball’s decision and something I had to deal with. I know as I travel, I get a lot of “Why didn’t you stay around for 3,000 hits.” They don’t realize it wasn’t me, it was baseball’s choice to send me home.
Q: Baseball Nation - Looking back over your career, what was your most memorable moment in the big leagues?
A: Al Oliver - Well, the big hit I got in the 1971 playoffs against the San Francisco Giants. Clemente was on 2nd, they walked Stargell to get to me and I hit a 3 run homer which solidified our victory over San Francisco that put us in the 1971 World Series. That was the biggest hit of my career because it eventually led to us winning the World Championship.
My second best moment would have been in 1982, the All-Star game and I was playing for the Expos in Montreal. The introduction I received and the response from the fans was tremendous. It is something I will never forget, it lasted so long, if the PA announcer had not stepped in, they still might have been roaring. I will never forget Dusty Baker saying, “Scoop that is a lifetime ovation.” When he said that, it kind of hit me, I believe if they had gone 30 more seconds I would have broke. I was never a celebrated player, though I produced for my time and what Dusty was basically saying was that that was what this ovation was all about, all those years in the past and what I had done. It was very emotional for me.
Q: Baseball Nation - You have over 2700 base hits, a lifetime BA of .304 and a batting title to your credit. Those are excellent numbers. Why do you think you haven't been elected to the HoF yet?
A: Al Oliver - The numbers are there. This is one question I get all the time. First I thank the people for thinking I am deserving of strong consideration, if not being inducted. The stats, if you look up through 85, the period in which I played, it’s almost a no-brainer. I believe it goes beyond that. One of the writers said they (the writers) were responsible for giving Scoop a certain image, which goes back to the confidence thing, wanting to play everyday. Some people take that the wrong way, as being selfish. If that was so, that would mean Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken were selfish players, which they were not, they were great players whop were fortunate and blessed to be able to play that long. I think that image started and carried on throughout my career. I always had the mindset of wanting to play everyday and when I did play everyday the stats speak for themselves. I really believe somebody, somewhere started that and hung on to it and is still hanging on to it. The sad thing about it is they are off base and not even close to knowing Al Oliver. The worst thing anyone can do is pre-judge another human being. That is what happened years ago and it carries on. I think some people see they were wrong but won’t admit that. The one thing I do know, I believe I was a good player but a lot better human being. There is no comparison in the 2.
As far as the Hall, I have given up on it I had several opportunities where I could have gone in. A lot of my fans and friends say when I go in they will be there. I talk about confidence but this is one area I don’t have a lot of confidence, because I don’t have anything to do with it., if I had something to do with it, a bat in my hand, I would have confidence. I have no confidence in how they vote, how they choose. I feel I will never go.
From 1981 to the rest of my career, I played with a bone spur in my throwing arm. I went to Texas in 1981 and couldn’t throw, they found I had a bone spur. I went to the top orthopedic surgeon at the time, where teams sent all their players. He said it was bad shoulder and if I was 25 instead of 35 he would consider surgery. He gave me exercises to do and so when I was traded from Texas during the spring of 82, half way through the season on a scale of 1-10, I got back to an 8 which was surprising. I would still on occasion airmail a ball but there were times where it would lock up on me. I was called Scoop for my defense and scooping ability but it was kind of a struggle for me to do the things I used to be able to do. I still had quickness but had trouble with the throwing part. I knew if you touched the ball, you had to throw. I went through a period there, I believe if you went to the voters and they bring up defense, I would say 90% had no idea what was going on with my arm. I asked a trainer if he thought the writers and people knew about my shoulder and he said no. The reason why…I was not going to complain and I think that kept me out. If they had known how bad it was, it might have given them a better perspective of me as a person. A fan said to me 2 weeks ago, “When did wanting to play become a bad thing?” I said “I often wonder that myself.”
Q: Baseball Nation - Can you share a little bit about the Al Oliver Foundation?
A: Al Oliver - Basically it is a foundation of high self-esteem building, positive thinking. It pretty much fits me. You can check out my website but that pretty much sums up what the foundation is. The bottom line is I try to focus on people having a positive attitude toward life, obstacles may come your way, in most of our lives they will come our way. We will have trials and tribulations. Having faith in God, He has a way of bringing us all through. Sometimes you have to weather the storm but I firmly believe if you hold on, eventually you will see the sunshine! That is what I try to bring out when I speak to people. If you are positive about yourself, feel good about yourself, then you are in a situation where you can really relate to and love one another. If you don’t feel good about yourself, usually this is where you hear people talking about others, knocking others. We are in no position to judge. God will have the final say.
Thank you again sir.