Al Oliver is a baseball legend and a dedicated Kiwanian. His life of community service is influenced by his faith and his devotion to the youth of Ohio.
Story and photos by Dustin Alton Strupp
At 73, Pittsburgh Pirates baseball legend Al Oliver Jr. can still recall the only whooping his father, Albert Oliver Sr., ever gave him.
“I was just a young man, and I decided to steal some marbles from a grocery store,” he remembers. “As I left with them, my conscience was working, and I decided to go back to return them. Still, I knew my father was going to whoop me when I got home.”
He was right. But it also left an impact other than the one on his backside.
“Since that day,” Oliver says, “the only thing I ever stole was a base.”
Life, loss and discipline
Born in 1946, the oldest of three siblings in Portsmouth, Ohio, Oliver quickly had a penchant for hand-eye coordination.
“I used to throw a ball and bounce it back to me off the stairs when I was young,” Oliver says. “My mother was always amazed by my quick hands.”
Oliver lost his mother at age 11, adding a burden of responsibility to the boy: He had to help his father, a church deacon, look after his siblings and the household.
“I grew up in a very spiritual home,” he says. “Every Sunday, my sister, my brother and I would go to church all day. My dad taught me a lot, and I did everything he told me to do. More than anything he taught me to be positive and confident.
“He said, ‘There are two rules that I’m going to ask of you: Get your rest and stay out of the streets.’ He didn’t want me associating with bad people that might lead me to trouble.”
Dennis Tubbs, a family friend who first met Oliver in the 1950s, remembers a normal young man who looked after his family.
“We didn’t go with the crowd,” Tubbs says. “We were both always working in our off time, and I remember Al couldn’t go play baseball on Sundays — because in his family, Sundays were sacred.”
Oliver Sr. proved to be an important influence in many ways — including his emphasis on putting in the work rather than coasting on talent.
“He always told me, you have the talent, but do not take that talent for granted,” Oliver says. “It all comes down to discipline.”
That discipline paid off. The young man who missed out on baseball Sundays would go on to be a multisport athlete and an all-state basketball star for Portsmouth High School. He was even offered a basketball scholarship by Kent State University.
But destiny had other plans. Before college, Oliver went to baseball tryouts for the Philadelphia Phillies and then the Pittsburgh Pirates. With his father’s blessing, he signed with the Pirates on a Triple-A contract at 17 years old.
Ralph Cole, a former high school rival who has remained a friend through the years, says Oliver was obviously special.
“I had the misfortune of playing against him,” Cole adds. “I had a friend, Larry Christenson, that played for the Phillies, and he’d always say, ‘Al, he’d get up there and hit that thing to left center, and you’d hear the fence rattle.’”
It’s all a little ironic since Oliver had never really thought about playing baseball professionally.
“Basketball was my game coming out of high school,” he says. “But I could always hit.”
Oliver spent his first years playing for the Columbus Jets in Columbus, Ohio. It was in his final season of Triple-A that his father became ill.
“It was in the playoffs, and I was thinking about losing my dad, having lost my mom at such an early age,” he says.
He soon got the phone call that his father, who had left such an impact on his life, was gone.
“I came home, and I handled all of the funeral arrangements,” he recalls. “After the funeral, I got in my car and drove alone to Pittsburgh, and I became a major leaguer.”
Land of legends
In the early 1900s, Portsmouth was an up-and-coming midsize city home to booming steel, manufacturing and shipping industries. But by the 1950s, foreign competition and the evolution of industrialization had sent the area into decline. Once known for its production of steel, bricks and shoes, southern Ohio would come to be better known for its production of baseball players who hailed from the rolling hills along the Ohio River.
Today, a river floodwall showcases portraits by artist Robert Dafford of Don Gullett, a Cincinnati Reds pitcher, Pat Borders of the Toronto Blue Jays, Josh Newman of the Colorado Rockies and Branch Rickey, the executive who broke the “color barrier” by signing Jackie Robinson.
Oh, and a young man by the name of Al Oliver, immortalized in his lefty batting stance.
Like those other hometown heroes, Oliver left his mark on the game. In his career, he exceeded 2,700 hits and over 1,000 RBIs. He was a seven-time All-Star, winning the National League batting and RBI championships in 1982 with the Montreal Expos, three Silver Slugger Awards, five National League Eastern Division Titles and a 1971 World Series with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“He should be in the Hall of Fame,” Cole says. “He’s known across the country. He was one hell of a ballplayer, and he’s just as good an individual.”
Through it all, Oliver remained an ordinary guy.
“That’s what I liked about him,” says childhood friend Tubbs. “He drove this green ’68 Buick Riviera with a beige top. I was 17, and I was the only one he’d let drive that car. They were all mad when they’d see me drive it up.”
Even now, Oliver views his fame in the same humble way.
“I was just glad to be in the major leagues,” he says. “I was very fortunate to have a long and great career. I could have played longer. In the 1970s, I played with some great players, sharing the outfield with Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell.”
“Life’s a hit — don’t strike out,” became Oliver’s personal saying. It’s inspired by his career, of course, but it also reflects his perspective on life off the field.
“I always tell kids, ‘In life, you have to take a swing,’” Oliver says. “You can’t get on base if you don’t swing.”
Early in his major-league career, Oliver took an interest in the communities where he played.
“Everywhere I played — Pittsburgh, Texas, Montreal — I was always involved,” he says. “When I came back to Portsmouth after retiring, Leo Blackburn asked me to go around with him to speak to kids. Then one day he asked me if I’d speak to the Kiwanis club.”
Oliver became a member of the Portsmouth Kiwanis Club in December 1990.
“They had a lot of looseness in that club, and I said, ‘You know what, I like this Kiwanis,’” Oliver says. “One thing I really loved was that for Kiwanis, the children were priority one.”
The club meets once a week and raises funds for organizations, scholarships and local projects to benefit kids. For Oliver, the club also has a personal connection: It donated to the Little Leagues where he played as a child.
His fellow members were aware of him too. In fact, the club’s vice president, Jay Hash, had an Al Oliver baseball card in his youth.
“Before I ever met him, I knew who he was,” Hash says. “I collected baseball cards. I would put the good players on the top. I’d put them in the plastic sleeves to protect them. Al was always in that group at the top of the deck.”
Proud of Portsmouth
Speaking and working with the youth in Portsmouth has been one of Oliver’s greatest joys since returning home.
“I’ve always wanted to see kids succeed,” he says. “They don’t have to be athletes — they can be doctors, lawyers, social workers. Whatever they decide to be. Make something out of yourself so you don’t end up standing on a corner saying, ‘I should have done that.’”
Oliver could have done anything after his baseball career, Hash says, but what he actually did says a lot about him.
“He chose to come home. He came and got to work, held important jobs and was involved in his church. I had the honor of seeing him get ordained as a minister. He’s seen as a spiritual leader — he leads us in prayer and song, and he’s been doing it for 30 years now in Kiwanis.”
For friends and leaders like Ralph Cole, Oliver’s presence is a huge community asset.
“I’ve had him speak at a few of our labor union conferences,” Cole says, “and every time it’s been like, this guy is off the charts.”
That’s something that has never changed, says Dennis Tubbs. “He loved his community, his family and he never forgot about the people.”
Oliver hopes he can use his platform to influence youth far and wide, but he’s proud of the work he’s doing in Portsmouth.
“Most people don’t know where Portsmouth is,” he says. “People from here, they go out of town and someone asks where they’re from and they say, ‘Columbus.’ They’re ashamed to say Portsmouth. But I’m proud to be from Portsmouth.”
That pride, he adds, is common among people who have gone on from the town to do well.
“The reason why we made it, we made a decision to dedicate ourselves,” he says. “We were going to do the positive things we need to do.”
This story originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Kiwanis magazine.