Three of Ben Oglivie's favorite philosophers are Jean Jacques Rousseau, Henry David Thoreau and Bruce Lee. Their minds are not often linked to a common school of thought. But then, nothing is common about Ben Oglivie, not even the spelling of his last name. Oglivie is a Milwaukee Brewers outfielder who is accomplished not only in philosophy, but also in music, Jeet Kune Do, Ping-Pong and crossword puzzles. And if you ever need a seven-letter word for, say, 24 ACROSS, Lefthand-hitting American League home run champion, don't be so quick to jot down Jackson.
Last year Oglivie tied Reggie for the league home run title with 41. Not bad for a guy who has carried Plutarch around. Not bad for a guy who supposedly couldn't hit lefthanders. And not bad for a guy who weighs only 170 pounds. Only one player that light has ever hit that many homers: 170-pound Mel Ott, who had 42 for the New York Giants in 1929.
Oglivie generates his power with one of the most ferocious swings in baseball. "He's the only hitter who makes me uncomfortable when I'm holding a runner on first base," says Rod Carew, the California Angels' first baseman and, like his friend Oglivie, a Panamanian-New Yorker. Oglivie wields his 36-ounce bat with a controlled fury that seems to paraphrase, physically, Renè Descartes (the philosopher, not the new Mariners manager): "I swing, therefore I am."
Before he swings, Oglivie wags his bat overhead as a puppy might wag his tail. "Umpires tell me I hit myself in the head sometimes," says Oglivie. "They wonder how I could possibly hit with a hitch like that." But, as the Brewers' batting coach, Harvey Kuenn, points out, "Bad hitters have hitches. Good hitters have rhythm." Once he begins his swing, Oglivie tries to apply the advice of two of his other teachers. Said Bruce Lee, "Like a cobra, your stroke should be felt before it is seen." Said Thoreau, "In the long run men hit only what they aim at." Last year Oglivie hit .304 and drove in 118 runs.
June 7, 1981
Oglivie brought that swing with him from Panama when he was 17. Because his father had been an oiler who worked on the ships in the Canal, the Oglivies had enjoyed the privileges of living in the Canal Zone. Ben, one of seven brothers and sisters, got an opportunity to study the piano and music theory at a conservatory there. He also played a good deal of baseball and soccer. When his father died, though, the family was faced with the grim prospect of moving back into the poverty of Panama City or the uncertain prospect of relocating in New York City, where one of Ben's older sisters had settled. The Oglivies wound up in the South Bronx.
"I had to go from Panama, where the pace is slow, to the fastest place on earth," says Oglivie. Fortunately, his skills in soccer and baseball made the transition to Roosevelt High School somewhat smoother than it might have been. And Ben Oglivie set himself the task of educating Ben Oglivie. "I spoke English, but it was a flat kind of English," he says. "I thought the best way to learn the language was to read a lot of books. Big books, not funny books."
In the meantime, a bird dog named Al Harper, who's now a scout with the Montreal Expos, told Bots Nekola, the Red Sox scout who had signed Carl Yastrzemski, about this skinny first baseman for Roosevelt High. Nekola watched Oglivie play and also met the family. "The most wonderful family," says Nekola. "One sister was a nurse, another was a schoolteacher, and the brother became a shipfitter." Nekola persuaded Player Personnel Director Haywood Sullivan to make Oglivie the Sox' pick in the seventh round of the June 1968 free-agent amateur draft.
Oglivie, who had planned to study electrical engineering at Bronx Community College, soon found himself on the way to Jamestown, N.Y., where the Red Sox had a team in the Class A New York-Pennsylvania League. "When I first saw him," says Cecil Cooper, a first baseman on that same Jamestown club and now the first baseman on the Brewers, "I thought he was the new bat boy. He was that small. And his suitcase was that big."
Cooper and Oglivie alternated at first base that year, but the Red Sox soon converted Oglivie to the outfield. The two roomed together the next year in Greenville, S.C., where they played for the Class A Red Sox. "He never said 10 words," Cooper recalls. "He was Gentle Ben even then." As Rousseau wrote, "People who know little are usually great talkers, while men who know much say little."
The paths of Cooper and Oglivie diverged after Greenville, but both of them arrived in Boston at the tail end of the 1971 season. And both fell victim to the labeling practices of baseball. Rousseau wrote, "Our wisdom consists of servile prejudices." Thoreau picked up on the same theme in Walden when he wrote, "Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that is which determines, or rather, indicates his fate." And Bruce Lee—who said he wasn't in the same league with Rousseau and Thoreau?—could have been talking about baseball executives when he said, "The classical man is just a bundle of routine, ideas and tradition. When he acts, he is translating every living moment in terms of the old."
After two seasons, the Red Sox decided that Oglivie couldn't field, that his speed was wasted and that he was at best a platoon player. In 1973 they traded him to Detroit for Infielder Dick McAuliffe, who was nearly through. "It hurt to lose Ben," says Nekola. "And we lost him badly."
"When I first came up, I was just happy to be there," says Oglivie. "I figured I'd just wait my turn. My turn never came. I'd play two good games, and then I was back on the bench again. I couldn't comprehend that." Rather than pop off, Oglivie tried to be patient and compliant. "I've seen too many guys talk themselves out of baseball," he says.
Ironically, Oglivie was trapped in one of baseball's subtle prejudices. Latin American ballplayers are expected to be hot-tempered; if they're not, it must mean they don't care. "People think Rod Carew is lazy," says Oglivie. "I look at him and see a great intensity."
Going to Detroit should have been Oglivie's salvation, but just as Rousseau had Diderot, Oglivie had Ralph Houk, then the Tigers' manager. "My weakness was not fielding," says Oglivie. "My weakness was not playing. And personally, I think the author of the platoon system was a guy who couldn't hit lefthanders. But after a while you begin to believe these guys who are supposed to be the authorities. For a time I really believed I couldn't field and I couldn't hit lefties."
Meanwhile, the Red Sox were labeling Cooper a bad fielder and shipping him off to Milwaukee for George Scott and Bernie Carbo. Cooper has won the American League's Gold Glove for first basemen the last two years.
After Oglivie hit 21 homers for the Tigers in 1977, in only 450 at bats, the club traded him to the Brewers for pitchers Rich Folkers and Jim Slaton. Folkers never pitched another inning in the majors, and Slaton returned to the Brewers a year later as a free agent. Thus, Oglivie inspired two of the worst trades of the '70s. The second trade was the first major deal Harry Dalton made as the Milwaukee general manager. "I thought I made a good trade," Dalton says now, "but believe me, I didn't think I was getting the future American League home run champion."
All sorts of good things befell Oglivie when he was sent to the Brewers. He met Frank Howard, then a coach. "Day in and day out he'd hit fly balls to me in the outfield," says Oglivie. "It was great just knowing someone was willing to come out and help me. The man worked, and his work generated an enthusiasm in me." Through Cooper, Oglivie met Attorney Tony Pennacchia, who helped straighten out some of Oglivie's tangled personal affairs. (His first marriage ended in divorce.) Oglivie then put himself on a Nautilus program to boost his strength. And last, but not least, Oglivie met Tammy Hunsinger in Mesa, Ariz., an hour from the Brewers' spring-training complex in Sun City. The Oglivies plan to make Tempe their year-round home. Says Pennacchia, "His marriage to Tammy turned his career around. I think Ben was finally able to find peace with himself."
In his first year in Milwaukee, 1978, Oglivie led the club in batting (.303) and slugging percentage (.497) while hitting 18 homers and driving in 72 runs. But he was still thought of as an incomplete player. The big break for Oglivie was a bad break for Larry Hisle. When Hisle went on the disabled list in early 1979 with a torn rotator cuff, Oglivie was given the leftfield job to have and to hold. "It was a consolation to me that Ben got his chance," says Hisle, himself a late bloomer. "I think, eventually, though, even if I hadn't gotten hurt, he would've played. I'm just honored to have him as a teammate."
Oglivie responded to full-time duty with a .282 average, 29 homers and 81 RBIs in 514 at bats. Even more significant, he batted .337 against the lefthanders he wasn't supposed to be able to hit. Last year, at the advanced age of 31, he came into his own. He was second in the league in total bases to Cooper. He had 12 game-winning RBIs, and in clutch-hitting situations from the seventh inning on (how's that for a statistic?), he batted .345. He also hit one of the longest home runs of the year, on April 20 off Ron Guidry. For all his power, Oglivie struck out just 71 times. Jackson, on the other hand, whiffed 122 times in his quest of another homer.
Oglivie wasn't such a bad fielder after all. He used to be known as Spiderman for the rather unorthodox way he patrolled the outfield, but while the nickname was once meant derisively, it's now a term of endearment. Although Oglivie still lets an occasional line drive play him, former Brewers Manager George Bamberger maintains that there is no leftfielder in baseball better at reducing a sure double in the corner to a single. Last year Oglivie was second in the league in assists, with 18. He can also steal a base: He had 34 in his first three years with the Brewers. "For a guy who couldn't field, couldn't run bases and couldn't hit lefties, he's doing pretty well," says Manager Buck Rodgers. The one thing Oglivie cannot do is slide, but then he may be taking Thoreau's words to heart: "The swiftest traveler is he that goes afoot."
This season Oglivie has been struggling at the plate, batting only .215 at the end of last week, but he has five homers and his 30 RBIs lead the team. Nevertheless, his teammates aren't worried. They know Oglivie will find the answer somewhere, in his swimming, or his Jeet Kune Do, or his backgammon. "There aren't enough hours in the day for Ben Oglivie," says Hisle. Cooper, who's been watching him for years, says, "He's always into something. Karate, poetry, crosswords. The other day I saw him go through The New York Times crossword puzzle in about two minutes."
Oglivie has tried to continue his education throughout his baseball career. While with the Red Sox he took courses at Northeastern. With the Tigers, he enrolled in the Wayne State philosophy department. "Philosophy taught me that we have to prove ourselves and justify our existence every day," says Oglivie. "That's especially true in baseball. You can go 5 for 5 and still have to justify yourself tomorrow."
Oglivie doesn't always read books; he often talks them. "I'll take a book and read it aloud into a tape recorder," he says. "I still have a little trouble reading English, and I find I retain things better. Sometimes it'll take me a year to read a book, because I want to be sure I understand everything." When Oglivie played his tapes for the Tigers, Mark Fidrych, the very model of sanity, thought he was weird. Actually, Oglivie is a little weird. Last year in Baltimore, he left the water running in the bathtub of his hotel room while he went to the ball park. When informed that the ceiling below his bathroom had collapsed, Oglivie said, "Did I do that?"
He no longer plays the piano, but he fiddles around with a flute. "Very classical, very passive," he says. "It calms me." His interest in the martial arts, particularly in the Jeet Kune Do of Bruce Lee, is more mental than physical, although he exercises with nunchaku sticks. "I'm not interested in black belts," he says. "The only purpose of a belt is to hold your pants up. Once you've attained the mastery of the art, you learn to be humble instead of overconfident. Besides, when I get into a fight, I'd rather talk my way out of it." Oh, yes. Oglivie can also twirl a baton with the skill of a Miss Teenage Louisiana.
"He's the most intelligent athlete I've ever known," says Pennacchia. Oglivie's wife, Tammy, says, "They say that people only use about 6% of their brain power. Well, Benji uses at least 7%." Ben's new family—Tammy, 15-month-old daughter Trianna and 7-week-old Benji Jr.—takes up a good deal of his time now, but that's all to his delight. "They are my life now," he says.
Still, Oglivie feels that some years are owed to him. "Right now I'm 32," he says. "There are players who are 32 getting released, and here I am, just starting. I want to take the five or six years I didn't play and add them onto the end of my career. I think I can.
"One of the best quotes I know comes from Augustine. He said, 'The body manifests what the mind harbors.' "
Was that, by any chance, Augustine as in Saint Augustine?
"Actually," says the philosopher-home run king, "it was Jerry Augustine, our relief pitcher."