Card Corner: 1971 Topps: King Ollieby Bruce Markusen
April 08, 2011
When we were growing up watching baseball on television sets that looked like small cabinets, we knew about two Olivers. (Well, actually three, if you include that strange “Oliver” character that inexplicably appeared on the final season of “The Brady Bunch.”) There was the Oliver we knew very well, Al Oliver, a stone-solid hitter with those great Pirates offensive machines of the 1970s. A fully vested member of the Pittsburgh Lumber Company, Oliver usually hit around .300, banged out 35 doubles a season, and generally launched line drives from foul line to foul line.
Bob Oliver originally came up with the same organization as Al Oliver, who was no relation; he signed with the Pirates as an amateur free agent in 1963. Bob played four seasons in the Bucs’ system, receiving a brief call-up in 1965, but generally found himself blocked at first base by Donn Clendenon and in the outfield corners by a couple of fellows named Stargell and Clemente. The Pirates had him dabble in playing third base, but even there the Bucs had a more advanced power hitter in Bob Bailey. Realizing that Oliver was facing obstacles everywhere, the Pirates did the sensible thing after the 1967 season, trading him to the Twins for some pitching help in the form of veteran reliever Ron Kline.
The Twins posed nearly as many roadblocks as the Pirates. They had Harmon Killebrew, Cesar Tovar and a young Graig Nettles available to play the infield corners, and Bob Allison and Tony Oliva in the outfield. So it was no surprise that Oliver never played a game in Minnesota pinstripes. At the end of the 1968 season, the Twins left Oliver unprotected in the expansion draft. The Royals, looking for a young power hitter, made Oliver their 10th pick of the draft.
Oliver struggled to find a niche with the Royals. He had a couple of highlight moments, including a 6-for-6 day against the Angels in early May. He also hit the first grand slam in the history of the Royals‘ franchise, victimizing Jim Bouton, the author/pitcher of the Seattle Pilots. But those moments masked a season of tumult. Oliver played five different positions, putting in time in at first, third, and throughout the outfield, including center field, where he had no business playing. More importantly, Oliver found old Municipal Stadium in Kansas City to be a dustbowl for a right-handed power like himself. He had to deal with the dimensions of a death trap: 369 feet down the left field line and 408 to left-center field.
In spite of his poor debut with the Royals, manager Bob Lemon made Oliver his Opening Day third baseman in 1970. Although Oliver would soon move across the infield to first base, he responded to Lemon’s confidence by putting up the best season of his career. The consummate free swinger, Oliver reached base only 30 per cent of the time and struck out 126 times, but he accumulated career highs in home runs (27) and RBIs (99) and slugged a respectable .451. Feeling that Oliver was just tipping his potential, some scouts predicted future stardom for the 27-year-old big bopper.
That brings us to Oliver’s 1971 Topps card. It’s a solid action shot, showing Oliver near the end of his swing, with his weight still shifted onto his back leg. The photo is also a bit quirky, because you cannot see the bat, which is complete obscured by his upper body. With or without a bat, Oliver just looks like a slugger. But by the time that Topps issued this card in mid-summer of ‘71, his peak performance of 1970 seemed like a forgotten memory. He opened the new season at first base, but eventually lost the job to the left-handed hitting Gail Hopkins. Oliver’s swing became long, his strikeouts more frequent, and he began to repeat the pattern of position-switching that had affected him in 1969.
After the season, the Royals acquired John Mayberry, a young left-handed hitter with enormous power, from the Astros. The pickup of Big John signaled that Oliver’s days in Kansas City were dwindling. Sure enough, after a punchless start to the 1972 season, the Royals dealt Oliver to the California Angels for pitching help, specifically right-handed reliever Tom Murphy.
In the short-term, the deal turned into a steal for the Angels. Oliver settled into a role as California’s everyday first baseman, by far his best position on the field, and took a liking to Anaheim Stadium. Over the balance of the season, Oliver belted 19 home runs, hit a respectable .269, and played first base with a sure-handed smoothness.
Oliver also began to lay down roots in Southern California. He took a wintertime job as a truant officer for the Santa Ana police department. He enjoyed the work, though he grew alarmed at the level of drug use by younger teenagers. Around the ballpark, Oliver became popular with members of the media, who enjoyed his pleasant nature and dubbed him “King Ollie.”
During the spring of 1973, Oliver felt comfortable enough to speak out about the Angels’ difficulties in drawing fans and competing against the nearby Dodgers. He felt the answer had something to do with race. “What the Angels need is a black superstar,” Oliver told Dick Miller of The Sporting News during spring training. “We need a black superstar to compete with the Dodgers… We have that guy now. Frank Robinson (who was acquired from the Dodgers during the winter). We need him to pull in fans from LA and Santa Ana.” Leon Wagner and Alex Johnson had fallen short of Angel superstardom in the recent past, and while Robinson was a Hall of Fame caliber player, he was clearly past his prime and only three years away from his eventual retirement.
Though a productive player, Oliver could not full the superstar role either. In the meantime, his weight became a concern. He had reported to spring training weighing 234 pounds, clearly too much for his six-foot, three-inch frame. As the season moved from spring to summer, he dropped nearly 30 pounds, trimming down to a more manageable 208. Oliver continued to hit with power, as he had done in 1972, but lost his first base job to Mike Epstein and resumed being a jack-of-all trades handyman. The following season, Oliver lost his power, unable to reach double figures in home runs. With the Angels well out of contention in the AL West, Oliver became expendable. They sold him on waivers to the Orioles, who were in the midst of making another successful run at the American League East. But Oliver joined the O’s after the Sept. 1 deadline, making him ineligible for the postseason. He would never participate in the playoffs or World Series.
King Ollie wasn’t done traveling. As part of their never-ending search for right-handed power in the mid-1970s, the Yankees purchased Oliver from the Orioles in December of 1974. Oliver figured to back up Chris Chambliss at first and Graig Nettles at third, while getting the majority of his playing time as a DH.
During spring training in 1975, Oliver batted .328 with three home runs. Bill Virdon rewarded him by giving him almost no playing time during the regular season: 18 games and 38 at-bats. To make matters worse, the manager did not explain the lack of at-bats or any kind of meaningful role to Oliver. Oliver didn't complain publicly, but he failed to last a full season at Shea Stadium, where the Yankees were playing their games during the renovation of Yankee Stadium. In June, Oliver received his unconditional release, as the Yankees made room for Lou Piniella’s return from the disabled list.
Still only 32, Oliver seemed young enough to find work elsewhere. He waited by the phone, but no one called and had to sit out the rest of the season. In January of 1976, he finally signed a minor league deal with the White Sox, with an invite to spring training, but he didn‘t make the team. In April, the Sox sold him to the Phillies. Oliver spent time with the Triple-A affiliates of the Phils, Pirates and White Sox, but never received a callback to the major leagues. He spent two final seasons playing in the Mexican League before quietly retiring in 1979 at the age of 36.
No longer connected to Organized Ball, Oliver now runs his own baseball academy, with an emphasis on helping young athletes with diabetes. His legacy carries on in a more personal form: 36 years after he played his final major league game, his son Darren continues to pitch out of the bullpen with the Rangers. Bob played 11 seasons in the big leagues, but Darren is now in his 19th season, and has been one of the game’s more effective left-handed relievers for the better part of two decades.
Other than being major league players, the Olivers share some other achievements in common. They both played for the Angels, and were both teammates of Nolan Ryan, Bob in the early '70s (with the Angels) and Darren during his rookie season of 1993 (with the Rangers).
Darren was born in 1970, the same year in which Bob put up his career-best numbers. I guess you could say that 1970 turned out fairly well for King Ollie.
References and Resources
The Sporting News
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.