Sunday, November 19, 2017

Former Dodger and Cub Nate Oliver: For the Love of the Game

It doesn't take long talking to Nate Oliver to realize that he loves the game of baseball; and also, that he loves sharing it with others. Oliver, 77, currently works full time at an Oakland rec center and also three or four days a week stops by a local high school to help those kids improve their baseball games. It's interesting that his brother, James Oliver, Jr., is a retired middle school teacher who does the same thing now with kids in their native St. Petersburg.

"We got that from our father," Oliver says. "He was a special person. He played in the Negro Leagues for the Indianapolis Clowns. He passed his love of the game on to us. Each year he would come home in the winter and share with us everything he did. He taught us about the game and he was a mentor for kids in St. Petersburg on the baseball field. There were three of us kids who went on to play in the major leagues: myself, Ed Charles and George Smith [second baseman for the Red Sox]. That was unusual for three kids from the same small area to go on to the majors and we were all mentored by my father."

James Oliver, Sr. was a slick-fielding shortstop with a shotgun arm. "He took pride in doing all the little things right," says Oliver. "Bunt, steal, move the runner, throw to the right base, and he taught us to do all that." The baseball field in their former neighborhood in St. Petersburg is now known as James Oliver Field.

As a kid, Nate spent a lot of hours watching future Hall of Famers play during spring training as both the Cardinals and Yankees made St. Petersburg their spring quarters. When he was small, he had no way of knowing that he would ever be allowed to play on the same field as the white men he watched. When the big change happened, the elder Oliver made sure his kids understood the significance of Jackie Robinson. "I was only seven when he broke in with the Dodgers, but my father explained to us how big of a deal this was. He talked to us a lot about it." Because of Jackie Robinson, Nate and his brother would have an opportunity that eluded their father. "Jackie Robinson was my idol. He's the reason I signed with the Dodgers. There were several teams after me [Nate had a great series in Wichita, Kansas in the 1959 National Baseball Congress tourney and attracted interest from more than half of the then-sixteen major league teams] but for me there was no question--I was going to sign with the Dodgers because that was Jackie Robinson's team. I got to meet him when I was a kid. Back then they would come through the south after the season barnstorming. There was no TV so this was the chance to see them. And they would draw huge crowds, black and white. For me seeing him back then, he was larger than life. After I joined the Dodgers, Jackie was done playing but he still came around. At spring training he would come in and talk to us. He hated to see young black players sitting together and eating in our own little groups. He'd say, 'I didn't work so hard to integrate the game so you guys can voluntarily segregate it now. Get your asses over there and sit with those guys. Get to know them. Learn about them.' He was real big about the races mixing together on a team."

Nate Oliver was a career utility infielder in the major leagues. Playing with the Dodgers from 1963 to 1967 gave him the opportunity to be a part of three pennant winners and two world championship teams. He was traded to the Giants for 1968, spent a brief period with the Yankees at the beginning of the 1969 season, then finished his career with the Cubs in 1969. He was the kind of guy who was always willing to do whatever the team needed: good defense at second, short or third, pinch-running, pinch-hitting, bunting, even singing the National Anthem. Oliver, who had a good voice, sang the National Anthem at Dodger Stadium four or five times and once, in a rare appearance by a visiting player, sang it at Crosley Field in 1964.

Oliver speaks of the professionalism of the Dodger teams of the sixties: "You had so many leaders on that team--Roseboro, Wills, Gilliam. Those guys all could have been great managers. They were not only good players, but they were baseball scholars. They studied and knew the game so well. When we were in the field, it was like having two or three extra managers. A lot of times they saved Alston trips to the mound. Those guys knew the when, why and how--they would walk to the mound if something needed to be done. Essentially it gave Alston three trips to the mound in an inning instead of two."

The 1969 Cubs were a historic team. "That year was so fun. Everybody went crazy. We did an album. It was just tremendous for four or five months. That entire clubhouse was different. They were all just great guys. I came in after the season had started, but I was welcomed with open arms. I'll never forget the day I walked into the Cubs' clubhouse, we were playing in Montreal, and Don Kessinger met me at the door and said, 'Nate, we are so glad to have you here.' That meant so much because sometimes going from one club to another is hard; you don't know any of the guys, you don't know how you'll fit in."

"All year long we had fun. The guys would just feed off each other. Whatever came up each day--practical jokes, anything--we would just go with it and all the guys joined in. Everybody laughed and had a good time together."

If you talk to Nate Oliver and don't come away with a handful of great baseball stories, it's your own fault. He's got stories on everyone from the '60s.

Willie Mays: "He had the quickest reflexes of anyone I ever saw in baseball. You could not hit him with a pitch. Guys threw at him all the time because he was so great and you didn't have a chance of getting him out if you couldn't back him up, but you couldn't hit him because of those reflexes. I saw him dodge a pitch from Don Drysdale that was an inch behind his head. Me and everyone else in the stadium still have no idea how he got out of the way of that one. It was a scary pitch. Then he got up and blasted the next pitch out of the park. And he wasn't done. He made two great catches in the outfield. The next time he came up, and this was in Los Angeles, everyone gave him a standing ovation."

Leo Durocher in 1969: "Leo was Leo [chuckles]. You knew what you were going to get. I knew him because he had been a coach in Los Angeles. He was flamboyant, outspoken. But he was a genius when it came to Xs and Os. He was always two steps ahead of everyone else. Leo was a tremendous influence. He molded that team, helped them understand what winning was all about."

Bob Gibson: "Man he was tough. And scary. My rookie year I came up to the plate and I used to like to dig a little hole to put my back foot in. They later told me Gibson hated for guys to dig in on him. He took that as an insult. He would flatten guys when they did that. Well, I guess maybe he took some pity on me because I was just a rookie and didn't know any better, because he didn't try to kill me. But when he saw me doing that he walked in front of the mound and stood there watching with his arms crossed. Then when I finished he gave me that look of his and said, 'Now fill it in.' There was no arguing or negotiating with him. You can bet I filled that in awfully quick. I would have used a shovel if one had been handy."

Ernie Banks: "You felt like you knew Ernie even when you were on other teams because he was always talking to you in the field. You'd get a hit and go down to first and he would always ask about the wife and kids, really act like he was interested in you. Sometimes, it was time to run to second and you felt bad because he was still talking--the conversation wasn't over. But it was inspiring to be around him, you just wished that you could have that kind of enthusiasm every day. And he could still hit [in 1969]. He was just a great hitter. You don't hit 500 home runs without some real talent."

Sandy Koufax: "Oh man, he was so good, it wasn't even fair. Those years if he had his curveball on any given day, you might as well not even walk up to the plate. Don't even leave the dugout because you have no chance. You wandered how he ever lost a game in those years. Gibson and Marichal were good, but no one else was even close to Sandy."

It speaks to the respect Oliver still has for Koufax that when asked to name the top moment in his major league career, he picks the Koufax perfect game; a game in which Oliver didn't even play in, but he was just so impressed to be a part of as a teammate. "You knew we were watching something historic. And the last inning, he just blew those guys away."

After his playing days were finished, Nate Oliver spent years in professional baseball as a minor league manager, roving instructor, bunting instructor and coach. And now he spends his days working with youngsters--still spreading the love for the game.