Three of Ben Oglivie's favorite philosophers are Jean Jacques Rousseau, Henry David Thoreau and Bruce Lee. Their minds are not often linked to a common school of thought. But then, nothing is common about Ben Oglivie, not even the spelling of his last name. Oglivie is a Milwaukee Brewers outfielder who is accomplished not only in philosophy, but also in music, Jeet Kune Do, Ping-Pong and crossword puzzles. And if you ever need a seven-letter word for, say, 24 ACROSS, Lefthand-hitting American League home run champion, don't be so quick to jot down Jackson.
Last year Oglivie tied Reggie for the league home run title with 41. Not bad for a guy who has carried Plutarch around. Not bad for a guy who supposedly couldn't hit lefthanders. And not bad for a guy who weighs only 170 pounds. Only one player that light has ever hit that many homers: 170-pound Mel Ott, who had 42 for the New York Giants in 1929.
Oglivie generates his power with one of the most ferocious swings in baseball. "He's the only hitter who makes me uncomfortable when I'm holding a runner on first base," says Rod Carew, the California Angels' first baseman and, like his friend Oglivie, a Panamanian-New Yorker. Oglivie wields his 36-ounce bat with a controlled fury that seems to paraphrase, physically, René Descartes (the philosopher, not the new Mariners manager): "I swing, therefore I am."
Before he swings, Oglivie wags his bat overhead as a puppy might wag his tail. "Umpires tell me I hit myself in the head sometimes," says Oglivie. "They wonder how I could possibly hit with a hitch like that." But, as the Brewers' batting coach, Harvey Kuenn, points out, "Bad hitters have hitches. Good hitters have rhythm." Once he begins his swing, Oglivie tries to apply the advice of two of his other teachers. Said Bruce Lee, "Like a cobra, your stroke should be felt before it is seen." Said Thoreau, "In the long run men hit only what they aim at." Last year Oglivie hit .304 and drove in 118 runs.
Oglivie brought that swing with him from Panama when he was 17. Because his father had been an oiler who worked on the ships in the Canal, the Oglivies had enjoyed the privileges of living in the Canal Zone. Ben, one of seven brothers and sisters, got an opportunity to study the piano and music theory at a conservatory there. He also played a good deal of baseball and soccer. When his father died, though, the family was faced with the grim prospect of moving back into the poverty of Panama City or the uncertain prospect of relocating in New York City, where one of Ben's older sisters had settled. The Oglivies wound up in the South Bronx.
"I had to go from Panama, where the pace is slow, to the fastest place on earth," says Oglivie. Fortunately, his skills in soccer and baseball made the transition to Roosevelt High School somewhat smoother than it might have been. And Ben Oglivie set himself the task of educating Ben Oglivie. "I spoke English, but it was a flat kind of English," he says. "I thought the best way to learn the language was to read a lot of books. Big books, not funny books."
In the meantime, a bird dog named Al Harper, who's now a scout with the Montreal Expos, told Bots Nekola, the Red Sox scout who had signed Carl Yastrzemski, about this skinny first baseman for Roosevelt High. Nekola watched Oglivie play and also met the family. "The most wonderful family," says Nekola. "One sister was a nurse, another was a schoolteacher, and the brother became a shipfitter." Nekola persuaded Player Personnel Director Haywood Sullivan to make Oglivie the Sox' pick in the seventh round of the June 1968 free-agent amateur draft.
Oglivie, who had planned to study electrical engineering at Bronx Community College, soon found himself on the way to Jamestown, N.Y., where the Red Sox had a team in the Class A New York-Pennsylvania League. "When I first saw him," says Cecil Cooper, a first baseman on that same Jamestown club and now the first baseman on the Brewers, "I thought he was the new bat boy. He was that small. And his suitcase was that big."
Cooper and Oglivie alternated at first base that year, but the Red Sox soon converted Oglivie to the outfield. The two roomed together the next year in Greenville, S.C., where they played for the Class A Red Sox. "He never said 10 words," Cooper recalls. "He was Gentle Ben even then." As Rousseau wrote, "People who know little are usually great talkers, while men who know much say little."
The paths of Cooper and Oglivie diverged after Greenville, but both of them arrived in Boston at the tail end of the 1971 season. And both fell victim to the labeling practices of baseball. Rousseau wrote, "Our wisdom consists of servile prejudices." Thoreau picked up on the same theme in Walden when he wrote, "Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that is which determines, or rather, indicates his fate." And Bruce Lee—who said he wasn't in the same league with Rousseau and Thoreau?—could have been talking about baseball executives when he said, "The classical man is just a bundle of routine, ideas and tradition. When he acts, he is translating every living moment in terms of the old."