Friday, July 22, 2011

Familiar Faces / Strange Places: Al Oliver / Phillies

The Phillies are wearing 1984 throwback uniforms tonight against the Padres. In recognition of this team (which finished a perfectly matched 81-81) -- I present to you one of it's little remembered players: Al "Scoop" Oliver.

On September 14th, 1968 Al Oliver received some of the best and worst news anyone can get... he was called up to the major leagues on the same day his father died.

In 1969, which would count as his official rookie season Oliver batted .285 for the Pirates with 17 home runs and drove in 70 runs. This was good enough to place him second behind the Dodgers' Ted Sizemore in the 1969 National League Rookie of the Year voting.

Oliver was one of great hitters of my generation. He played in the majors for 18 years and made seven all star teams. He is primarily remembered as a Pittsburgh Pirate. Early in his career was mentored by Hall of Famers Willie Stargell and the great Roberto Clemente.

As a key contributor of the famous "Pittsburgh Lumber Company" he helped the Pirates make the post season in five out of six years. He was the regular center-fielder for the 1971 World Champions. On September 1st, 1971 he was part of what is believed to be the first "all black" starting lineup in major league history.

Traded in December of 1977 in a very complex four team trade between the Pirates, Rangers, Mets, and Braves. Some of the players involved in this trade were Willie Montanez, Tom Grieve, Jon Milner, Jon Matlack and (2011 Hall of Fame inductee) Bert Blyleven. When all the dust was settled, Al was a member of the Texas Rangers. It was in Arlington he started the memorable tradition of wearing the uniform number "0" (which he continued for the rest of his career) and quickly became the best pure hitter in the history of the franchise. On August 17, 1980 with the Rangers playing in Tiger Stadium, he established an American League record with 21 total bases in a doubleheader (four home runs, a double and a triple). I find it ludicrous the Rangers have inducted Rusty Greer and John Wetteland (who also spent four seasons with the team) into the franchise "Hall of Fame" but have somehow forgotten about Al Oliver.

On March 31, 1982 (at the end of spring training) after he became the Rangers' all-time leading hitter (.319) and he had reached the club's top ten in virtually every offensive category he was traded to the suddenly dangerous Montreal Expos. Al Oliver marked his return to the National League by winning the '82 batting title. That season he also led the NL in hits (204), doubles (43), extra bases (67), and total bases (317), and tied with Dale Murphy for the RBI lead with 109. The next season (1983) he was elected, for the first time in his career, as starter for the NL All Star team.

Continuing his unexplained nomadic ways, he began the 1984 season in San Francisco as a Giant. However, In August, the now 37 year old Al Oliver was traded to the Phillies. At the time the Phillies were in 3rd place only 6 games behind the front running Cubs. The move was an interesting turn for a club that had shed the aging wheeze kids trio Pete Rose/Joe Morgan/Tony Perez before the season. Now it appeared they were looking to boost their roster with some veteran leadership hoping for a post-season birth. It never happened, the Phils limped to the finish line as they went 2-12 in their final 14 games and ended up 15.5 games behind the division winning Cubs. For his part, Oliver collected 29 hits in only 28 games in Philadelphia. He was traded to the Dodgers during the off season.

Starting the 1985 season in LA, in July Al Oliver was once again traded to a contending club, the Toronto Blue Jays. With the Jays played well and delivered two game-winning hits in the first four games of the 1985 American League Championship Series against the Royals. However, in the first ALCS with the new seven game format, Kansas City rallied to win the last three games and go to the World Series. Game Seven of this ALCS ended early for the hot Al Oliver when he was removed for right handed pinch hitter Cliff Johnson in the fifth inning. Johnson struck out ending a Blue Jays rally and Al Oliver's great career. No team offered him a contract for the 1986 season.

Al Oliver finished his big league career with an impressive 2,743 hits and a lifetime .303 batting average. During his Hall of Fame induction speech, former Expos teammate and friend Andre Dawson had this to say:
"Al, as a lifetime .300 hitter after 18 seasons, I feel is deserving of induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. There is no question in my mind had he not been forced out of the game by collusion, had he been given an all out honest attempt to achieve 3,000 hits, he would have done it. He was pushed out of the game when he was still a .300 hitter. I feel he deserves a place in baseball today."


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