RIP to Bob Oliver, a slugging corner infielder/outfielder who played for five teams in the 1960s and ’70s. His son, Darren Oliver, also had a 20-year career as a pitcher and works in the Texas Rangers front office. Bob Oliver died on April 19 in Rio Linda, Calif. He was 77 years old. Oliver played for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1965), Kansas City Royals (1969-72), California Angels (1972-74), Baltimore Orioles (1974) and New York Yankees (1975).
Bob Oliver was born in Shreveport, La., on February 8, 1943. According to his SABR biography, his father moved the family to California, eventually settling down outside of Sacramento. His father died when Oliver was 12, so he had to work hard to help provide for the family. Oliver attended Highlands High School and earned all-city honors in baseball and basketball. He then attended American River Junior College and continued to play well at both sports. The Pirates signed him in late 1962. Before he entered into professional ball, he played in a Sacramento Winter Baseball League. For most of the short season, he flirted with a .500 batting average.
Because he signed in 1962, Oliver was able to play a full season for the Gastonia Pirates of the Western Carolinas League in ’63. The 20-year-old slashed .281/.320/.413 and clubbed 13 home runs while driving in 84 runs, both of which were team highs. His productive hitting continued for Kinston in 1964 and Asheville in ’65.
While playing for the Asheville Tourists in 1965, Oliver hit .296 in the first half of the season, with a league-leading 51 RBIs and 12 homers. The coaches all agreed he should be on the All-Star Team — they just didn’t know where. Oliver received 11 All-Star votes, with five as an outfielder and six as an infielder. He made the team as an extra infielder. Oliver more than justified his selection in a game at Columbus right before the All-Star break. He smashed a long fly ball that cleared the left field fence by six feet and bounced off the scoreboard into the playing field. The umpire ruled it in play, however, and Oliver made just a double out of it. The next time up, he hit a drive over the scoreboard, which was 60 feet high and 360 feet from home plate. “Man, I wasn’t going to give anyone a chance to call that one a double,” he joked afterwards. He was only the second player in history to accomplish that feat, and the Columbus fans gave him a standing ovation.
Oliver was further rewarded for a good season with a promotion to the major leagues in September of 1965. It was an uneventful call-up; he appeared in 3 games, two as a defensive replacement and one as a pinch-runner. He went hitless in 2 at-bats and scored once. Those would be the only National League appearances Oliver would make in his career. When he resurfaced in the major leagues again, it was in the American League for a team that didn’t exist in 1965.
Oliver spent two more years in the Pirates system and didn’t see any more major-league action. He was traded to Minnesota in December of 1967 for pitcher Ron Kline. The Twins assigned him to the AAA Denver Bears, and he batted .297 with 31 doubles and 20 home runs. He also demonstrated that he could play either corner infield or outfield position. That versatility, though, became somewhat of a drawback.
“Oliver plays a lot of positions to a degree,” said his Denver manager, Billy Martin. “But he needs to master at least one of them. He really had a lot of ability. He runs well, he’s strong, he has a strong arm and adequate power. But honestly, he isn’t real sharp at any one position.”
Oliver was originally signed as a first baseman, but he was told early on in his Pirates career that he should be playing elsewhere, due to his speed. “Then I began moving all over and, believe me, one thing I’m not is a second baseman,” he quipped.
Oliver was tested at every position except for catcher and shortstop. He even pitched once. He acknowledged to The Sacramento Bee that moving around the field every game took a mental toll. It made him feel like his managers filled out every other spot in the lineup and gave him whatever was left.
“If they would leave me alone and let me play first base all the time, I think that would be it,” he said.
Oliver was picked by the new Kansas City Royals in the expansion draft of 1968. His new manager, Joe Gordon, also happened to live in Sacramento and had watched Oliver develop as a player. He believed the young hitter could add some valuable right-handed power to the new Royals’ lineup.
Oliver was part of the Royals’ Opening Day lineup, on April 8, 1969, as the right fielder. He picked up his first major-league hit off the Twins’ starter Tom Hall. He then went hitless in his next five starts. By the time he got his second hit, in Minnesota on April 29, his batting average had fallen to .038. Things picked up considerably after that early slump. He hit his first major-league home run on April 29 and recorded a hit in every start until he put his name in the Royals’ history book on May 4, against the California Angels. He hit a 2-run homer, a double and four singles to end the day 6-for-6. Obviously, he was the first Royal to accomplish such a feat, and he raised his batting average to .304.
“I just told myself to relax, that’s all,” he said. Incidentally, he didn’t know that he had recorded 6 hits until after the game was over. A sharp grounder to Angels third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez was initially ruled an error when he made a poor throw to first. It was changed to a hit later.
Oliver played every outfield position and both corner infield spots in 1969. He hit .254 in 118 games, with 13 homers and 43 RBIs. It was a good rookie season, but his sophomore season was even better. In 160 games, Oliver slashed .260/.309/.451 with 27 home runs and 99 RBIs. He picked up a few down-ballot votes for the AL MVP, finishing in 27th place. He spent most of the season at first base, and he praised his managers, Charlie Metro and Bob Lemon (Gordon was long gone), for just letting him play ball and try to make solid contact.
“A player can’t hit one way for five or six years and then come to the majors and change in five or six months,” he said, referring to Gordon’s over-coaching habits.
Oliver would have other good seasons, but his 1971 campaign wasn’t one of them. His power dropped off, leaving him with 8 home runs and 52 RBIs. His batting average dipped to .244, Lemon began using him only against left-handed pitchers, and he began shuttling between right field and first base more frequently. Oliver later attributed the poor season to a bad business deal that affected his play.
Despite the drop in production and the increase in heckling from Royals fans, Oliver tried to keep a positive outlook. “I know things will start going my way. I come to the ball park and look at the line-up card. If I’m not playing, I’m not going to get mad and pout like a 5-year-old boy.”
Through the first 16 games of 1972, Oliver looked like he was returning to form. He was hitting .270, even though he’d hit just 1 home run. The Royals nevertheless traded him to the California Angels on May 5 for pitcher Tom Murphy. Oliver was penciled into the starting lineup, most often at first base, by Angels manager Del Rice. Oliver delivered for his new team, with a .269 batting average and 19 long balls. His combined 76 RBIs were good for 8th in the AL. He earned the nickname “King Ollie” from the Angels faithful.
Oliver’s 1973 season got off to a rough start, thanks to a two-week jaunt to Germany in January to run a baseball clinic at armed forces bases with Oakland’s Sal Bando. He ended up reporting to camp with the Angels 20 pounds overweight, which he chalked up to German beer and food. It didn’t get him off to a good start with new manager Bobby Winkles, who hinted that Jim Spencer would win the starting first base job.
Oliver got back into shape and won more than a few games for the Angels with some clutch hits. In the first game that Frank Robinson played in Baltimore since the Orioles traded him away, it was Oliver who drove in the only run of the game with a double — scoring Robinson, who doubled ahead of him. He hit 7 home runs in the month of April with 26 RBIs, capping off the month with a 3-run homer to beat the Red Sox 7-6 on May 30. On the year, he drove in 89 runs and hit .265 with 18 home runs.
Oliver was the subject of trade rumors in the ’73 offseason — a deal that would have sent him and Rudy May to the Cubs for Ron Santo died when Santo vetoed the trade. Oliver did trade his Angels uniform, though, for a police uniform. He took an off-season job with the Santa Ana Police Department, with an emphasis as a school resource officer.
“I wanted to see what I could do in the community, instead of just coming out here to an assembly and saying, ‘All you guys, now you behave now,'” he explained.
After two solid years offensively, Oliver slumped again in 1974. With his average in the .240s, he was benched in favor of younger players at all the positions he could play. He was traded to the Baltimore Orioles in September as the O’s tried to clinch a division title. He had 3 hits in 20 at-bats for the O’s, with 4 RBIs. Baltimore advanced to the postseason but lost the ALCS to the A’s.
Oliver got his final major-league playing time in 1975 with the New York Yankees, who had bought his contract from the Orioles. He struggled with 5 hits in 38 at-bats, clashed with manager Bill Virdon and was released in mid-July. He spent time in the minor league systems of the Phillies, Pirates and White Sox before finishing his playing career in 1979 after a couple of seasons in Mexico.
In 8 years in the major leagues, Oliver slashed .256/.295/.400, with 745 hits that included 102 doubles, 19 triples and 94 home runs. He knocked in 419 runs and generated 4.3 Wins Above Replacement in his career. Defensively, he played 423 games at first base, 165 in right field, 152 at third base, 48 in center field and 15 in left field. As he tried to tell pretty much every manager he ever had, first base was his best position. Despite being labeled as a “jack of all trades, master of none” in the field, he was an above-average first baseman defensively.
Oliver, who lived with his wife and children in Anaheim during his playing days, settled in Rio Linda after he retired. He worked for McKesson Drugs, a pharmacy, until retiring in 1989 and helped coach high school and American Legion baseball teams in the Sacramento area. He managed the Sacramento Steelheads of the Western Baseball League in 1999 and owned and operated the Bob Oliver Baseball Academy in Sacramento.
Of course, he also worked with his son Darren, who went from Rio Linda High School to the Texas Rangers and a long career in the majors.
“He was a pitcher from day one,” Bob Oliver said of his son. “He used to always hang around at the ballpark with players from my day — the Reggie Jacksons, the Mickey Riverses, the Rod Carews.”
When asked about his career highlights, Oliver mentioned the 6-for-6 game. But he had another accomplishment that was personal. “For three years in a row, I had a grand slam on the Fourth of July. The Fourth of July was my Dad’s birthday,” he said.
For more information: Kansas City Star