Thursday, October 2, 2014

Book Review: Baseball's Best Kept Secret, (1997) and Life Is a Hit; Don't Strike Out, (2014) by Al Oliver

Life Is a Hit; Don't Strike Out, by Al Oliver, 2014.

Baseball's Best Kept Secret, by Al Oliver and Andrew O'Toole, 1997.

A handsome head shot of Al with the Pirates. This photo makes it look like he records for Motown Records in the off-season.

Al Oliver enjoyed some of his best seasons with the Texas Rangers, hitting .319 for them over 4 seasons. And yes, his necklace says "Scoop." That's his nickname because he was so good at scooping up low throws to first base.

Al's 1983 Topps card, after winning the 1982 NL batting title with the Montreal Expos.
Al Oliver was one of baseball’s most dangerous hitters in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Oliver was a 7-time All-Star, a 3 time Silver Slugger award winner, and the 1982 National League batting champion. During Oliver’s career from 1968 to 1985, only Pete Rose and Rod Carew had more hits than he did. Oliver finished his career with 2,743 hits and a .303 lifetime batting average. So why was he dumped from the Hall of Fame ballot after failing to win 5% of the vote in his first year on the ballot? Good question. I think Al Oliver deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, and I think he’s one of the most underrated players in recent baseball history. 

Al Oliver just published an autobiography in September called Life Is a Hit; Don’t Strike Out: The Al Oliver Story. Oliver published an earlier autobiography in 1997 called Baseball’s Best Kept Secret: Al Oliver and His Time in Baseball, written with co-author Andrew O’Toole. Both books shed light on the man off of the baseball diamond. Baseball’s Best Kept Secret is the better book, as Oliver goes into much more detail about his playing career. If you’re reading Life Is a Hit without having read Baseball’s Best Kept Secret, you will be missing a lot of information. Unfortunately, just reading the books will be more work than it should be, as it is painfully obvious that neither book was professionally proof-read. Grammatical errors abound, and co-author Andrew O'Toole has an interesting interpretation of correct comma usage. That being said, if you can overlook the sloppy mistakes, the books offer a look at an interesting athlete. 

One thing that makes Baseball's Best Kept Secret interesting is that Oliver and O'Toole include other voices in the book-there are interviews with Oliver's teammates, sportswriters who covered the teams he played for, and excerpts from contemporary news articles about him. Not all of these other voices are complimentary to Oliver, and some of them quite pointedly criticize him. I applaud Al Oliver for including these other voices, and for not just creating an echo chamber of "Al Oliver should be a Hall of Famer." Oliver does the same thing in Life Is a Hit, sometimes enlisting some of the very same people quoted in Baseball’s Best Kept Secret. The problem is that most of the voices in Life Is a Hit do blur together, as they repeat the same thing: “Al Oliver should be a Hall of Famer.” Oh well, I can’t blame Oliver for wanting to be in the Hall.

Oliver grew up in Portsmouth, Ohio, where he played baseball and basketball against another future All-Star, Larry Hisle. Oliver dealt with tragedy early on, as his mother died of a heart attack when he was 13, and his father died on the same day that Oliver was called up to the major leagues. Oliver makes it clear in both books that his parents’ influence on him made him the man he was.

Signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates out of high school in 1964, Oliver quickly moved up the minor league ranks to earn a September call up in 1968. Oliver would never return to the minor leagues. A superbly gifted line drive hitter, Oliver could hit the ball hard to all fields. Oliver was a first baseman in high school and the minor leagues, but with the Pirates he alternated between first base and the outfield. In 1971, Oliver played a majority of his games in center field, where he was flanked by Hall of Famers Willie Stargell in left field and Roberto Clemente in right field. The outfield of Stargell, Oliver, and Clemente generated a lot of offense for the Pirates that year, as they beat the Orioles in the World Series. Late in the 1971 season, Oliver made history as he was part of the first all African-American and Latin starting lineup. Oliver blossomed as a hitter as the 1970’s went on, and beginning in 1972, he batted .300 or more in 11 of the last 14 years of his career. Traded to the Texas Rangers after the 1977 season, Oliver thrived in the hot Texas summers, batting .319 over 4 years with the Rangers. He had one of his finest seasons at the plate in 1980, getting over 200 hits for the first time in his career, and also hitting 19 home runs, which helped him finish the season with 117 RBI. During spring training in 1982, Oliver was traded to the Montreal Expos. He responded with his best season, as he led the NL in hits, doubles, RBI, batting average, and total bases. Oliver hit .331, the highest average of his career, and he finished in 3rd place in the MVP voting. During his last two years in baseball, 1984 and 1985, Oliver bounced from team to team, as he spent time with the Giants, Phillies, Dodgers, and Blue Jays. He was one of many veteran players who were not offered a contract for the 1986 season because of collusion among baseball’s owners. 

The collusion scandal started because baseball’s owners were annoyed at the high salaries free agency had brought. They retaliated by illegally colluding with each other to not offer contracts to free agents and to coordinate their offers to free agents in an attempt to keep salaries down. Two of the most famous cases of collusion were against Tim Raines and Andre Dawson, both of the Montreal Expos. After the 1986 season, Dawson and Raines were not offered contracts by any teams, despite the fact that they were two of the best players in baseball. Raines had just won a batting title, and yet he received no offers until the Expos finally re-signed him on May 1st, a month into the 1987 season. When no one offered Dawson a contract, he and his agent wrote a blank check to the Chicago Cubs and told them Dawson would play for them for any amount they would offer. Dawson ended up being the NL MVP in 1987 for the Cubs. 

Throughout his career, Al Oliver was regarded by the press as an overly confident braggart. Al's response to that was his great quote: "There's no such thing as bragging. You're either lying or telling the truth." Oliver always felt he was telling the truth about his abilities on the baseball diamond, even when that truth was predicting every day that he would get 4 or 5 hits. In his two books, Oliver shows us where that self-confidence and relentlessly positive attitude came from. Al Oliver was an African-American man who was raised by his parents to be very proud to be an African-American. When Oliver came to the major leagues in 1968, this was a rarity in the pro sports world. Oliver was not a militant, but as far as major league baseball was concerned, he might as well have been leading protest marches in the outfield. Oliver and other outspoken African-American baseball players of the 1970’s like Dick Allen, Reggie Jackson, and Oliver's teammate Dock Ellis would feel the brunt of white baseball writers' casual racism. 

One of the key passages in Baseball’s Best Kept Secret is a conversation that Oliver had early in his career with Roberto Clemente about the press. Oliver quotes Clemente saying to him, “They did it to me at the start of my career; the writers will give you a personality that they perceive.” (p.72) Baseball writers had decided early on in Clemente’s career that he was a hypochondriac who didn’t always give 100%. That label would dog Clemente his entire career. Likewise, Oliver was portrayed as arrogant, when he thought he was simply expressing confidence in his abilities. In both books, Oliver comes off as an affable, likeable man who was a quiet leader on his teams through his positive attitude and his generosity towards his fellow players.

Oliver was one of baseball’s steadiest hitters during his career, and he put up some really great numbers. Baseball’s Best Kept Secret lists where Oliver ranks in several categories during his career from 1968-1985. But since Oliver only played in 4 games in 1968 and collected just 1 hit, it’s a little more fair to Oliver to look at his stats from 1969-1985. 

Most Hits 1969-1985:
Pete Rose-3,095
Rod Carew-2,777
Al Oliver-2,742

Most Doubles 1969-1985:
Pete Rose-553
Al Oliver-529

Most RBIs 1969-1985:
Reggie Jackson-1,521
Tony Perez-1,342
Al Oliver-1,326
Johnny Bench-1,288

That’s very impressive company to keep. And while some might disregard those stats as just being cherry-picked to highlight Oliver’s career, the fact that the time span of those stats is 17 seasons makes the point that over 17 seasons Al Oliver was one of the best hitters in baseball. 

The Veterans' Committee for the Hall of Fame has put Oliver on their ballot in the past, and he deserves to be considered for election to the Hall of Fame. Oliver had a very similar career to another one of my favorite overlooked players, Vada Pinson. I’ve written about Pinson before, and I was excited to read in Baseball’s Best Kept Secret that Pinson was one of Oliver’s favorite players when he was growing up. For whatever reason, neither Oliver nor Pinson drew much support from the sportswriters who vote for the Hall of Fame. Oliver dropped off the ballot in his first year, and Pinson’s vote total never exceeded 16%, far short of the 75% of the vote needed for induction. Oliver and Pinson had similar skills; they were both hitters who slashed line drives all over the field and didn’t walk or strike out much. Because they didn’t walk much, their Hall of Fame candidacies have never gained much traction with the sabermetric writers. On the flip side, Pinson and Oliver have not had a lot of support from old school baseball writers either. There aren’t many people making the case for them, which is hurting future consideration of their candidacies. As the cases of Bert Blyleven and Jack Morris have shown, having a debate about a player’s stats is a vital part of getting into the Hall of Fame. While Blyleven is now in the Hall, and Morris fell just short, both players gained tons of votes because writers debated about them for years, even though their numbers hadn’t changed. But because no sabermetric writers are pushing for Pinson and Oliver based on recently developed stats like WAR and VORP, and no old school scribes are banging out stories about what great clutch hitters they were, they remain two of the best players not in the Hall of Fame.

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