It’s hard to believe that the Detroit Tigers had such a talent as Ben Oglivie on their roster in the mid-1970s yet they never let him play enough to show what he could do. A close look at the evidence shows that the Tigers misunderstood their young outfielder and that racial prejudices also played at least a minor role in his diminished role in Detroit.
When he was 17 years old, Benjie Oglivie moved from Panama to New York City with his mother and four younger brothers and sisters. His father, who had worked a difficult and dangerous job as a ship oiler, had passed away. Young Benjie was a stringbean – he was over six-feet tall but weighed only 145 pounds. He looked more like a long distance runner than a baseball player, but he played ball for a high school in The Bronx named for the man who doggedly pushed the idea of a canal through Oglivie’s native country – Theodore Roosevelt. Oglivie was a gifted athlete who could run, throw, hit, and hit for power. Also very intelligent, Oglivie worked hard to learn English, reading as many books as he could. He was especially fond of literature, a topic he loved to discuss with his teachers.
After he graduated, Oglivie planned to pursue and engineering degree at a college in New York. But even though his high school career had been brief, Oglive had caught the eye of an astute scout for the Boston Red Sox. He inked a deal and was in the major leagues four years later with Boston. The Sox were overflowing with hard-hitting outfielders so they dealt Oglivie to Detroit after the ’73 season straight-up for veteran Dick McAuliffe. The Tigers were an ageing club looking to get younger, and GM Jim Campbell thought Oglivie might be a good replacement for either Willie Horton or Jim Northrup in the outfield. But almost immediately, the Tigers pigeon-holed Oglivie, stereotyping the left-handed hitter into a role he would never be able to shed.
Oglivie’s quiet intelligence stood out on a Tiger club that featured many colorful good old boys. Though he had learned to speak English very well and was capable of very intelligent discussions on a range of topics (a few of Ben’s favorite topics were the origin of language and Zen Buddhism), Oglivie was shy. He rarely if ever went out with his teammates. He wasn’t loud on the diamond either. And when a Tiger manager Ralph Houk made up his mind that Oglivie was a platoon player at best, Oglivie didn’t gripe, although he disagreed with that assessment.
From 1974 to 1977, the tall lean Panamanian (whom Tiger coach Joe Schultz insensitively dubbed “Banana Man” because Ben liked to eat the fruit) was used sparingly and almost exclusively against right-handed pitchers. In the four seasons he averaged about 80 plate appearances against southpaws. Oglivie’s power at the plate was increasing as he matured: he hit 4, 9, 15, and 21 homers in his four years as a Tiger. But he never got a starting job. Even for a thoughtful man like Oglivie, the decision was puzzling. In the 1977 off-season Detroit sent Oglivie to the Brewers in a trade that netted them starting pitcher Jim Slaton.
Milwaukee manager George Bamberger made Benjie his starting left fielder, a move that pleased the Panamanian. “In Detroit, my weakness was not fielding. My weakness was not playing. And, personally, I think the author of the platoon system was a guy who couldn’t hit lefthanders. But after a while you begin to believe these guys who are supposed to be the authorities. For a time I really believed that I couldn’t field and I couldn’t hit lefties.”
But Oglivie could hit lefties when he played regularly. In 1979 he hit .341 with six homers off left-handed pitching. That season he clubbed 29 homers, and in 1980 he was an All-Star as he led the league with 41 homers. With incredibly quick hands and a swing that generated great power, Oglivie would hit 176 homers in nine seasons with the Brewers.
The Tigers had never given him a chance, a sad decision that saw them lose out on one of the better sluggers and great people in baseball.