By the reckoning of the president of the Al Oliver Fan Club, his hero should be elected to the Hall of Fame in 1992. His credentials: 3,017 hits, a lifetime batting average of .310, a record 61-game hitting streak, two batting titles and the Most Valuable Player awards in 1980 and '85 for leading the Texas Rangers to world championships. Could such a performer be denied Cooperstown?
No way, says the president of the Al Oliver Fan Club, Al Oliver. "How many players in the last 75 years have finished second in both leagues in batting?" he asks. Frank Robinson and Oliver are the only ones. "How many active players with 10 or more years in the majors are lifetime .300 hitters and have an average of 70 or 80 RBIs a year?" Only Steve Garvey and Oliver. "In seven years, I'll have 3,000 hits. [Right now, he's 179 shy of 2,000.] One year in Pittsburgh I hit in 56 out of 60 games, and when I think back on it, I hit the ball hard the other four games. I think I can break DiMaggio's record."
One of Oliver's vanity license plates proclaims AL HITS, and indeed he does, as hard and consistently as anyone. He says he leads the majors every year in frozen ropes, an unofficial category. In his two seasons with the Rangers since coming over from Pittsburgh, the lefthanded-hitting Oliver has batted .324 and .323, figures that don't reflect what Oliver calls his "at 'em" balls, as in "I hit a lot of line drives right at 'em."
"A bad day for Al," says Texas Manager Pat Corrales, "is 1 for 4."
Trouble is, very few people in or out of baseball know how good Oliver really is. He is O (for Oliver) on your scorecard, No. 1 in the hearts of Ranger fans and about No. 12 among outfielders in the All-Star balloting. "He is unsung, underrated and overlooked," says journeyman Pitcher Dock Ellis, who has played with Oliver in Pittsburgh and Texas. "They used to confuse him with Bob Oliver and Pee Wee Oliver. I don't know why."
Oliver has noticed this lack of attention. "As candid as I am and as cordial as I am, it's almost impossible to believe that I'm still in this situation," he says. "Maybe I'll start paying writers."
Another of Oliver's friends, Reggie Jackson of the Yankees, says, "To me, Jim Rice and George Foster are the most devastating hitters in baseball. Then come Rod Carew and Al Oliver. Part of the reason Al doesn't get recognized is that he doesn't get the magic numbers like 100 RBIs, 200 hits or 25 homers. His salary is never published, and he never causes trouble. That's what you need for notoriety. Believe me, I ought to know."
Oliver may know that now, too. During spring training he raised a small fuss when the Rangers assigned him to right-field, his third outfield position in three years. "When I came here I was put in left and became the best leftfielder in the league," Oliver says. "Then last year they moved me to center, but when Mickey [Rivers] arrived from New York in July, they put me back in left. Now they tell me I'm their best available rightfielder. How am I going to make the Hall of Fame if they keep shifting me around? You build the team around the nucleus, not the nucleus around the team."
For now, Oliver's complaint is falling on deaf ears. "Al should take it as a compliment," says Corrales. "He knows in the back of his mind he's going to be a good rightfielder. Heck, nobody on this team has seen him play his best position, and that's first base. [In Pittsburgh, Oliver was such a whiz at first he was called Mr. Scoop.] I wish I had 25 Al Olivers on this ball club. No, take that back. Thirteen Al Olivers and 12 Buddy Bells. I'd need some righthanders."
Why Oliver is baseball's best-kept secret is a mystery. Not only does Oliver have talent, but he also owns an outrageously positive personality. He can talk about himself in the most glowing terms for hours on end, yet never seem boastful. He is simply as good as he thinks he is. "A lot of ballplayers think about doing things," he says, "but I say and do them."
Bump Wills, the Rangers' second baseman and Oliver's constant companion, says, "People who don't know Al get turned off with all that talk, but there's not a player on this club who dislikes him. He's like Ali. He doesn't come off as being egotistical because you know he can back his words up. Once, when he was going 0 for 23 or something, I tried to catch him off guard and make him say something negative. I said, 'Hey, what's happening?' He turned to me and said, 'Not me, that's for sure—but I will be.' "
In an exhibition game against the Yankees last spring, Oliver did the inconceivable—he struck out. "When I got back to the dugout," he says, "it was real quiet and I could feel the players looking at me as if they had just seen something strange. I said, 'I hope you all saw that, because you won't be seeing it very much this season.' " Indeed, Oliver struck out only 34 times last year, or just once every 14 times at bat.
Oliver grew up in Portsmouth, Ohio. His mother died when he was 11, leaving the raising of two boys and a girl to Al Oliver Sr., a bricklayer. "The day I was called up to the majors in 1969 was the day my father died," Al Jr. says.
Oliver passed up a basketball scholarship at Kent State to sign with Pittsburgh for $5,000 in 1964. Shortly after that, he discovered the Phillies would have given him $25,000 to sign. From that time on, Oliver always felt he was being shortchanged by the Pirate management, and he was grateful when Pittsburgh traded him to the Rangers in December of 1977. Oliver, a lefthanded catcher in high school, moved through the Pirates' farm system as a first baseman but played rightfield in his first major league game. "Larry Shepard, who was the manager, wanted to rest Roberto Clemente in the second game of a doubleheader against Cincinnati," Oliver recalls. "I should have known then what was in store for me. I was destined to play a position I didn't like."
For the next few years the Pirates platooned Oliver with Bob Robertson at first base and Gene Clines in centerfield. "I had never heard of the word platoon before," Oliver says. "I didn't even know I couldn't hit lefthanded pitching until they told me." When the Pirates finally started to play Oliver full time, he was put in centerfield so Willie Stargell could play first.
In 1973 Oliver had his most productive power year, hitting 20 home runs and driving in 99 runs while batting .292. In 1974 he had 198 hits and finished second, at .321, in the National League batting race to Ralph Garr (.353). Throughout his career Oliver has suffered freak injuries at inopportune times. In 1976 he was leading the National League at the All-Star break with a .360 average, but he got an inner-ear infection and dropped to .323 by season's end. In 1978, his first year with the Rangers, Oliver was benched for a month in the middle of the season by a pulled muscle under his rib cage; the injury cost him a 200-hit, 100-RBI season. Last year he sprained his wrist diving for a Bucky Dent line drive and missed three weeks of play.
Despite his objections to playing right-field, Oliver is happy to be a Ranger. In his very first game at Texas' Arlington Stadium in 1978, he was greeted by a WELCOME HOME, AL banner. He received a standing ovation during infield practice, and, well, it's been a mutual love affair ever since. "The fans are great in Texas," Oliver says. "The standing Os are almost unbelievable. They make me humble, and I'm not a humble guy."
In his first year in the American League, Oliver's .324 was second to Carew's .333. Still, he got no recognition. "I was on an airplane after the season, and this stewardess notices my World Series and All-Star rings," Oliver says. "She asked me who I was, and when I told her, I could see she didn't know. She asked me who I played for, and when I said, 'Texas,' she thought I meant the team in the Dome. Then I asked her if she'd ever heard of Rod Carew, and she said yes. I asked her if she'd heard of Jim Rice, and she said yes. So I said, 'Well, I'm the guy who finished between them in the batting race.' "
Complicating Oliver's identity crisis is the fact that he plays on a team that doesn't win enough to warrant national attention. When he was with the Pirates, they won, but he was always overshadowed—first by Clemente, then by Stargell and Dave Parker. This season Texas has a good chance to catch the public's fancy by winning the relatively weak American League West, but Oliver is still a little worried. "It's funny, but it seems that when I'm hitting, the team doesn't go so good," he says. "For once I'd like to see the club go just like me, hand in hand.
"The other night, as we were driving back from the game, my daughter Felisa, who's seven, says, 'Daddy, how come they don't clap for you when you come to bat, like they do for Reggie?' I told her it was one of two things: either the people in the stands don't read the newspapers, or my name doesn't get into the newspapers for them to read. But, you know, when I hear that silence as I come to bat, I like to think of it as respect for a master at work."