By Frank Lewis
One of the phrases that comes to mind when you think of former Major League great and Portsmouth native is “work ethic.” Now, Oliver, Tony Perez, Lee Smith, Maury Wills and Dave Stewart will be honored by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in June as part of the induction into the Kansas City museum’s latest “Hall of Game” group of inductees. The category was created in 2014 and the criteria for inductions was having “
The category was created in 2014 and the criteria for inductions was having “competed with the same passion, determination, skill and flair exhibited by the heroes of the Negro Leagues,” according to the Kansas City Star.
Steward is to be awarded the Jackie Robinson Lifetime Achievement Award for “career excellence in the face of adversity.”
Oliver told the Daily Times he got wind of the possible honor about a month ago. I knew they wouldn’t have come out with it until the (April) 13th.
“I knew they wouldn’t have come out with it until (April) 13th,” Oliver said.
“They picked players who could have played the way the Negro League players played, who possessed the attitude, the desire, the talent that would have represented the Negro League players,” Oliver said. “That was some of the criteria.”
Oliver, an outfielder, first baseman and designated hitter, was a seven-time All-Star who led the National League in hitting and RBI in 1972. He was a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 1971 World Series championship team and the first Major League team with an all non-white starting lineup in a career that spanned 18 years. He also played for the Texas Rangers, the Montreal Expos, the San Francisco Giants, the Philadelphia Phillies, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Toronto Blue Jays during his time in the major leagues.
Oliver got to know several Negro League players over the years and said he cherishes the time he spent with them, specifically Buck O’Neil.
“During the 70s they used to have those old-timer games, and some of those guys could still play and move around,” Oliver said. “We were just sitting around and having a conversation with those guys. I really got to know Buck O’Neil well. He was really the great spokesman for the game of baseball. He was excellent, and it’s unfortunate that he fell one vote shy of going to the (Major League Baseball) Hall of Fame. Their games were always played before our games.”
Oliver said the great Satchel Paige was once asked how he would pitch him (Oliver) and he answered – “high and tight.”
Oliver related a story about going to Arlington, Texas, where had also played in the Major Leagues, to receive an award, and O’Neil was there. He was sitting on the bench in the dugout next to Alex Rodriguez, when O’Neil came up and said to Rodriguez, “Do you know who you are sitting next to?”
“He was letting Alex know he was not sitting next to some fly-by-night player,” Oliver said. “I’ll always remember that about him.”
Oliver has been compared to one of the greats from the Negro League — Buck Leonard, who was considered one of the best first basemen.
“That’s who they compared me to,” Oliver said. “I had a chance to meet him too. I have had a chance to read up on a lot of these former players, and the thing that I really liked about the Negro League players – not only were they very talented players, but they were not players who were angry and bitter for not getting the opportunity to play in the Major Leagues.”
Oliver said he is glad he got a chance to meet many players from the Negro Leagues.
“That’s why it’s an honor for me to be associated with those players who came before me. Many of them have passed on, maybe there are a couple left, but I’m just thankful that they elected me as one of the players,” Oliver said. “I really feel great about it.”
According to a story in the Kansas City Star, the 2017 Hall of Game induction ceremony is scheduled for 8 p.m. on June 10 at the Gem Theater. In addition to the induction ceremony, the Hall of Game honorees will also be recognized in the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center at the former Paseo YMCA, the birthplace of the Negro Leagues. Tickets are available by calling 816-221-1920 or at nlbm.com.
Reach Frank Lewis at 740-353-3101, ext. 1928, or on Twitter @franklewisPDT.