By the reckoning of the president of the Al Oliver Fan Club, his hero should be elected to the Hall of Fame in 1992. His credentials: 3,017 hits, a lifetime batting average of .310, a record 61-game hitting streak, two batting titles and the Most Valuable Player awards in 1980 and '85 for leading the Texas Rangers to world championships. Could such a performer be denied Cooperstown?
No way, says the president of the Al Oliver Fan Club, Al Oliver. "How many players in the last 75 years have finished second in both leagues in batting?" he asks. Frank Robinson and Oliver are the only ones. "How many active players with 10 or more years in the majors are lifetime .300 hitters and have an average of 70 or 80 RBIs a year?" Only Steve Garvey and Oliver. "In seven years, I'll have 3,000 hits. [Right now, he's 179 shy of 2,000.] One year in Pittsburgh I hit in 56 out of 60 games, and when I think back on it, I hit the ball hard the other four games. I think I can break DiMaggio's record."
One of Oliver's vanity license plates proclaims AL HITS, and indeed he does, as hard and consistently as anyone. He says he leads the majors every year in frozen ropes, an unofficial category. In his two seasons with the Rangers since coming over from Pittsburgh, the lefthanded-hitting Oliver has batted .324 and .323, figures that don't reflect what Oliver calls his "at 'em" balls, as in "I hit a lot of line drives right at 'em."
"A bad day for Al," says Texas Manager Pat Corrales, "is 1 for 4."
Trouble is, very few people in or out of baseball know how good Oliver really is. He is O (for Oliver) on your scorecard, No. 1 in the hearts of Ranger fans and about No. 12 among outfielders in the All-Star balloting. "He is unsung, underrated and overlooked," says journeyman Pitcher Dock Ellis, who has played with Oliver in Pittsburgh and Texas. "They used to confuse him with Bob Oliver and Pee Wee Oliver. I don't know why."
Oliver has noticed this lack of attention. "As candid as I am and as cordial as I am, it's almost impossible to believe that I'm still in this situation," he says. "Maybe I'll start paying writers."
Another of Oliver's friends, Reggie Jackson of the Yankees, says, "To me, Jim Rice and George Foster are the most devastating hitters in baseball. Then come Rod Carew and Al Oliver. Part of the reason Al doesn't get recognized is that he doesn't get the magic numbers like 100 RBIs, 200 hits or 25 homers. His salary is never published, and he never causes trouble. That's what you need for notoriety. Believe me, I ought to know."
Oliver may know that now, too. During spring training he raised a small fuss when the Rangers assigned him to right-field, his third outfield position in three years. "When I came here I was put in left and became the best leftfielder in the league," Oliver says. "Then last year they moved me to center, but when Mickey [Rivers] arrived from New York in July, they put me back in left. Now they tell me I'm their best available rightfielder. How am I going to make the Hall of Fame if they keep shifting me around? You build the team around the nucleus, not the nucleus around the team."
For now, Oliver's complaint is falling on deaf ears. "Al should take it as a compliment," says Corrales. "He knows in the back of his mind he's going to be a good rightfielder. Heck, nobody on this team has seen him play his best position, and that's first base. [In Pittsburgh, Oliver was such a whiz at first he was called Mr. Scoop.] I wish I had 25 Al Olivers on this ball club. No, take that back. Thirteen Al Olivers and 12 Buddy Bells. I'd need some righthanders."
Why Oliver is baseball's best-kept secret is a mystery. Not only does Oliver have talent, but he also owns an outrageously positive personality. He can talk about himself in the most glowing terms for hours on end, yet never seem boastful. He is simply as good as he thinks he is. "A lot of ballplayers think about doing things," he says, "but I say and do them."