In the first half of last season — when Jason Bay, Xavier Nady and Nate McLouth were all still around — the Pirates had the most prolific outfield in the majors. The club boasted a strong trio in the early ’90s, when Bobby Bonilla, Andy Van Slyke and Barry Bonds patrolled the turf at Three Rivers Stadium. In 1927, the Pirates’ outfield consisted of three future Hall of Famers: Kiki Cuyler, Lloyd Waner and Paul Waner.
The finest Pirates outfield I’ve ever seen (remember, I was born in 1965) was the 1971 group of Willie Stargell (.295, 48 HR, 125 RBI) in left, Al Oliver (.282, 14 HR, 64 RBI) in center and Roberto Clemente (.341, 13 HR, 86 RBI) in right.
Clemente and Stargell, of course, already are in the Hall of Fame. Monday, they could be joined by Oliver, who is under consideration by the Veterans Committee. The voting results will be announced on the first day of Major League Baseball’s annual winter meetings.
“If it would happen, it would complete that outfield,” Oliver told me by phone from his home in Portsmouth, Ohio.
Oliver debuted with the Pirates in 1968, when Clemente and Stargell were already established stars. Oliver, a natural first baseman who was shifted to center field, relied heavily on them during his first couple of years in the majors.
“They made my transition very easy,” Oliver said. “The one thing I knew I could do was run down some balls. The key for an outfielder to do that is to be in position. Whenever I needed to step to the left or step to the right, they always were looking out for me.”
In 1970, Oliver was unhappy about being a bench player behind Matty Alou. Clemente pulled Oliver aside and told him to stay focused for when the team needed him. “He told me that once I got the chance to play every day, I’d be one of the best players in the game. I’ll always remember that,” Oliver said. Oliver admits he was hyper as a young player, always wanting to play every day and buzzing around the clubhouse. One day during spring training, Stargell decided to “relax” Oliver.
“That rascal, along with Doc Ellis, mixed up some ice cubes with gin and orange juice,” Oliver said. “I’m a non-drinker. All of the sudden, I started getting this queasy feeling. That was Wilbur’s way of trying to get me to relax … and it worked.”
Oliver didn’t realize until a few weeks ago that he is on the Veterans Committee ballot. And he does not believe his chances of getting into the Hall are very good (for more on that, read Monday’s Trib). Yet, the more he thinks about it, the more Oliver believes his induction would a fitting way to reunite with his outfield mates.
“It was an honor to play with those guys,” Oliver said. “If that phone call (from the Hall) does come, those will be two guys who I will thank most for the impact they had on my career.”