The Royals have announced that former Royals first baseman/outfielder Bob Oliver died recently at the age of 77. Oliver spent four seasons with the Royals, and was part of their inaugural club in 1969, in the starting lineup for the first game in franchise history.
We are saddened to hear of the passing of Bob Oliver, an original Royal in 1969, who recorded the franchise’s first 6-hit game during that first season. Prayers to his family, including son, Darren, who pitched for 20 years in the Majors.#AlwaysRoyal pic.twitter.com/2mQJhbtSSG— Kansas City Royals (@Royals) April 21, 2020
Oliver was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, moving out west to Sacramento, California for high school, where he excelled as a three-sport athlete. He stayed in town to play baseball and basketball for American River Junior College and was signed from there by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Oliver earned a cup of coffee with the Pirates in 1965, getting into three games. But they sent him back to the minors for the next two seasons, where he faced racial discrimination throughout the South, The Pirates dealt him the Twins in 1968, and he spent a full season playing in Denver, for their top minor league affiliate. That winter, the Royals made him the 19th pick in the expansion draft.
Olive beat out Steve Whitaker and Ed Kirkpatrick for the starting right field job, and was in the lineup, hitting sixth when the Royals played their first ever game at Municipal Stadium on April 8, 1969. He would be a versatile player, playing all over the outfield, as well as first and third. He provided what little power those Royals had, finishing second on the team with 13 home runs and smacking the first grand slam in club history. That summer, he also became the first Royals hitter to ever collect six hits in a game, something only two other Royals have ever done in history (Kevin Seitzer and Joe Randa).
The Royals tried to fit Oliver in the starting lineup at third base in 1970, but he struggled to make the adjustment, telling a reporter in May:
“When we played Oakland, my family was there to see me play. They asked me how I liked playing third base and I told them I didn’t dig it. My mom, who’s a baseball nut, told me to forget it and go out there and do my thing. She has very positive ideas. She’s a great woman.”
By June, Oliver would be the starting first baseman, enjoying a career season. He smacked 27 home runs, a club record that would stand until John Mayberry hit 34 in 1975, and ninth-most in the league that year. He finished just one RBI short of the century mark, finishing eighth in the American League in that category. Overall he hit .260/.309/.451 with 83 runs scored, and received a few votes for AL MVP.
Oliver regressed in 1971, losing his power for most of the season, and losing his starting job at first base to Gail Hopkins. He spent some time back in the outfield, but was relegated to a bench role much of the second half.
In 1972, Oliver got off to a slow start and in May he was dealt to the Angels for pitcher Tom Murphy, a move he found difficult, saying;
“It’s tough to leave a club that you’ve been with this long. It’s been a long association, and I’ve made some good friends. … I’m not really surprised because they’ve been trying to trade me for me for two years.”
He would rebound with the Angels, hitting 20 home runs overall that year, and 18 the following season. He spent his offseasons traveling to Germany to run baseball camps on U.S. Army bases, and even worked a school resource officer with the police department one off-season.
in 1974, Oliver played under Bobby Winkles, who coincidentally, also passed away this week. The team floundered, firing Winkles mid-season (with future Royals skipper Whitey Herzog taking over on an interim basis before Dick Williams was hired to manage the remainder of the season). Oliver struggled as well, having put on some weight. In August, the Orioles acquired him for a pennant push as a bench bat, but at the end of the season they sold him to the Yankees. New York released him in May, and he spent the next three season in Triple-A before finally calling it quits.
Oliver managed a bit in an independent league and ran a baseball academy. His son, Darren, who was born in Kansas City, enjoyed a 20-year career as a left-handed pitcher with nine different teams, primarily the Rangers.
Bob Oliver was the first power hitter in Royals history, and perhaps the first real star fans could get excited about. His versatility was a plus, but perhaps also a minus as teams never seemed to know exactly how to use him. He faced a lot of racism in his life, but had a heart big enough to continue giving back to the community.