Al Oliver: From Major League Baseball player to Baptist minister

He played with some of the greatest Hall of Famers ever — and was pretty darned good himself. Al reminds me of how much I miss baseball
By Steve Paikin - Published on Jun 05, 2020
Al Oliver (centre) won the World Series with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1971. (Gene J. Puskar/AP/CP)

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I miss baseball.

Oh my goodness, do I miss baseball.

There are 162 games in a regular baseball season. Normally, I’d watch about 150, mostly in the evenings while prepping for the next day’s edition of The Agenda.

So far this year, I’ve watched maybe 10. And they were all played decades ago. Baseball is trying to fill the yawning chasm of fan interest by showing old games. (The good thing about getting to my age is that I’ve forgotten how a lot of those games ended, so it’s a bit like watching them for the first time all over again.)

Last month, the National Baseball Hall of Fame did its part to fill the void by doing a Q&A over Zoom with a fine former player named Al Oliver. 

Oliver’s name may ring a bell for Canadian baseball fans because he’s one of only 56 major leaguers to have played for both of Canada’s teams: the now defunct Montreal Expos and the Toronto Blue Jays. And he was probably the best of those 56.

Oliver didn’t make the Hall of Fame, but he was a darned good player over 18 years, playing more than 2,400 games and notching more than 2,700 hits. His nickname was “Scoop” because he could scoop the ball out of the dirt on those low throws when playing first base. And in a sport where the best players fail to get a hit seven times out of every 10 at-bats, Oliver had a lifetime .303 batting average. His best season came with the Expos in 1982, when he registered 204 hits on the way to a .331 batting average, adding 22 home runs and 109 runs batted in. (If you don’t know baseball: those are really good numbers.)

Oliver first made a name for himself as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ World Series championship team in 1971. He played with Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente (right field), Willie Stargell (left field and first base), and Bill Mazeroski (the second baseman, who, in 1960, became the first major leaguer to end a World Series with a home run in the bottom of the ninth; you all know who the second one was, right? The Blue Jays’ Joe Carter, in 1993).

Oliver likes to joke that those three all made the Hall of Fame because, at various points, he played defence beside them, which forced them to get to balls he couldn’t get to.

“I made those guys earn their Hall of Fame induction,” he laughs. 

That Pirates team was also among the most diverse at that point in baseball history.

“The Black players, the white players, and the Latin players all came together for a common cause that year,” Oliver remembers. “We all wanted to bring a World Series back to Pittsburgh.”

They did do that, but the Bucs also made headlines for other reasons. Oliver was a bit of an anomaly on his team, inasmuch as he never drank or smoked. But his teammate and great friend Dock Ellis pitched a no-hitter in 1970 while under the influence of LSD. Steroids weren’t an issue for baseball in those days — but cocaine soon would be.

Oliver also told the Zoom audience about his saddest day in baseball. On New Year’s Eve in 1972, his teammate Clemente was on a flight to deliver aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua when his plane went down, killing him at age 38. Opening Day in 1973, without Clemente, “was so hard,” Oliver says. “I don’t know how we got through it. It was just so, so sad.” 

In Montreal, Oliver once again played with three Hall of Famers: catcher Gary Carter and outfielders Andre Dawson and Tim Raines. “Gary came to the ballpark smiling every day,” he says. “People thought he was a media hog, but he just enjoyed the game.”

Oliver’s second year in Montreal wasn’t quite as good. He had bone spurs in his shoulder but still managed to play all but five games and hit .300. 

“I loved Montreal,” he says, “and they never booed me once.”

Oliver finished his career in Toronto in 1985, playing a third of a season for the Jays and hitting .251. He was 39 years old when he hung up his cleats, and he had the distinction of being one of just 14 players ever to have worn number 0 on his back.

How’s Al Oliver doing these days? “Well, I can’t run from first to third like I used to,” he smiles. But he’s now 73 and has devoted his life to helping others, mostly through an anti-drugs organization called Suicide Is Not Painless. He’s got plenty of opinions about why too many young people are failing to succeed these days (“Young people are looking for discipline,” he says, “and parents aren’t providing it”).  Two years ago, he became a Baptist minister, and he uses his position to give motivational speeches.

I can’t wait till baseball comes back, even if there won’t be any fans in the stands. Yes, it’ll all be very strange. But it was great to listen to Al Oliver wander down memory lane — and remind me of everything I love about this game.

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