In an effort to try to produce entertaining and informative content, a number of publications recently have been running stories about the best players in a particular sport or franchise, or even the writer’s favorite player. As a bona fide senior citizen, I’ve had the chance to follow baseball – and the Pirates – for well over half a century, and I’ve had my share of favorites over that time. But as they say, you never forget your first.
My first favorite Pirate was a long, lanky first baseman named Donn Clendenon. Don’t ask me why he was my guy; the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Clendenon played first base, and I was a scrappy, pint-sized second baseman for the Lions club in the Robinson Township Little League. Clendenon took big swings and occasionally connected, but struck out a lot. I pretty much bunted every time up, and could not hit a ball beyond the 180-foot marker of the RTLL’s pristine main field until I had aged out of Little League.
Clendenon first came up to the Pirates in 1961, appearing in nine games and collecting 11 hits in 35 at-bats. The next year, he appeared in 80 games, batting .302 with an .853 OPS in 251 plate appearances. At age 26, he appeared to have a future at first base.
The Morehouse College graduate then began a string of six straight seasons in which he appeared in at least 130 games for the Pirates, hitting .299 in one of those years and .301 in another with a high-water OPS of .878 in 1966. That was the year I turned 11 and the second straight year the club finished in third place behind the pennant-winning Dodgers and runner-up Giants. The Bucs won 90 and 92 games back-to-back and wouldn’t win 90 again until 1971, when they won the second of three straight NL East titles during a run of five division crowns in six years.
Clendenon slumped badly in 1967; his batting average dropped from .299 in 1966 to .249, and his OPS tumbled by more than 200 points. He went from 28 home runs and 98 RBIs in ’66 to 13 and 56 in 1967. He picked it up only a little in 1968, as his OPS went up to .708, but he also reached his career high in strikeouts with 163.
That was his last season in a Pirates uniform, as the club left him unprotected in the expansion draft, and the first-year Montreal Expos selected Clendenon. He played 38 games in Montreal in 1969 and then was dealt to the Miracle Mets, who were on their way to an unfathomable World Series championship. Clendenon batted just .252 for New York in 202 at-bats but slugged 12 home runs and drove in 37 to do his part in the Mets’ mind-blowing run to glory.
Clendenon’s real value surfaced in the postseason, however. Going against the vaunted Baltimore Orioles pitching staff, who boasted a pair of 20-game winners plus Jim Palmer, who won 16 of 20 decisions with a 2.34 ERA, Clendenon had five hits in 14 World Series at-bats, with three of those hits leaving the yard, and drove in four runs. One of those homers helped the Mets rally from a 3-0 deficit in what proved to be the series-deciding Game 5 and pull to within a run in the sixth inning. That was the famous Cleon Jones shoe polish hit-by-pitch, and it set the stage for the Mets winning it all later in the game. Clendenon was rewarded by being named the Series MVP.
That proved to be the high point of Clendenon’s career. He had a solid year statistically in 1970, batting .288 with an .863 OPS, slugging 22 homers – the most since his 28 in 1966 – and driving in 97. But he slumped in 1971 and after being released, he caught on with St. Louis for one final season, during which he batted just .191.
I don’t know what there was about Clendenon that made me gravitate toward him. But baseball is funny that way. Some guys just make an impression on you, and for whatever reason, they become “your” guy. Interestingly enough, Clendenon’s departure opened the door for my NEXT favorite player – in fact, my all-time favorite Pirate: Al Oliver.
I was in my mid-teens when Oliver arrived from the minors, toting a bat that produced nothing but line drives. He was nothing like Clendenon, aside from the fact that both played first base. Oliver had a compact left-handed swing that seemed to make contact just about every time. His first season, in 1969, was an indication of what was to come, as he finished with a .285 average with 17 homers and 70 RBIs. He struck out just 38 times and finished with a respectable .778 OPS in his age 22 season. Oliver, who grew up in southern Ohio, seemed to play with a chip on his shoulder, but it worked for him as he went on to put together a career that some would argue is worthy of enshrinement in Cooperstown. The numbers present a strong argument, as he collected 2,743 hits in an 18-year span, hitting 219 home runs and driving in 1,326. His career batting average was .303 and his OPS was .795. But he had seven seasons with an OPS of more than .800, including the 1982 season, when – as a 35-year-old – he slugged 22 home runs, drove in 109 and batted .331 with a .906 OPS for Montreal.
All told, Oliver played for seven teams, but his longest stretch by far came with the Pirates, as he spent parts of 10 seasons wearing the black and gold. His career batting average as a Pirate was .296 and his OPS was .789. In the field, he was no Gold Glove winner, but he certainly was versatile; a gifted first baseman tagged with the nickname “Scoop,” Oliver also played all three outfield positions and was not a liability there during his days in Pittsburgh.
But the one trait that endeared Oliver to me – and I’m sure countless other Pirates fans – was his ability to rake. Oliver seemed to hit more balls hard – fair and foul, safe and out – than any other Pirate. He looked supremely confident at the plate – and why not? With a stroke like that, I’d be supremely confident as well. Although he never got top billing on the Pirates’ marquee – he shared the stage with future Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and Bill Mazeroski – he was no run-of-the-mill supporting actor. He was a big-time player.
Oliver’s run in Pittsburgh ended about the same time mine did; Oliver went to Texas and I moved to the West Coast. Our paths actually crossed in San Francisco in 1984, as Oliver spent a portion of that season with the Giants. He did not embarrass himself, batting .298 in 339 at-bats. But by that time, at age 37, he was not the line-drive machine he was during his youthful days in Pittsburgh.
Oliver had a bit of a speech impediment during his early days as a Pirate, but he went on to become a motivational speaker and a licensed minister, according to an article written by Rory Costello for the Society for American Baseball Research. Oliver may never join Clemente, Stargell and Mazeroski in Cooperstown, but for a boy growing up here in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Oliver was one of Pittsburgh’s brightest stars – and my all-time favorite Bucco.