Born just after the end of WWII, Albert “Scoop” Oliver, Jr. grew up during the 1950s in a Rivertown on the banks of the mighty Ohio. His great grandfather was a slave in Union Springs, Alabama and so his surname is from a slave owner. His ancestors were brought to the US on slave ships of which there is some record. His grandfather, Issac, moved to Portsmouth, Ohio from the south bringing his wife, Caroline, and son Albert Sr., looking for a better way of life and work. The grandfather would find work at a railroad Co. called Southern Ohio Railroad which would grow to be the biggest railroad yard East of the Mississippi River under Norfolk and Western Railway.
His father would grow into a sturdy man of athletic talent which would portend for his son becoming a professional athlete. Albert Sr. would play basketball with the Harlem Globetrotters and was an alternate to the great Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Albert Sr. would die at age 54 from breathing brick dust where he worked in a brickyard in Portsmouth. Silicosis would take his life and he died the day young Al was called up to the Pirates in 1968. He got to see his son play in one professional game in Gastonia, NC when Al was in the minor leagues with the Pirates.
Al was the oldest of 3 children born to Albert Senior and Sallie Jane Chambers, who was from Ripley, Ohio. The young Ms. Chambers was born into a black family moving north during or after the Civil War and settled into the Rivertown of Ripley, which was connected to the Underground Railroad and freedom for slaves escaping north with the help of John Rankin. Al was the oldest, Paula the middle child, and Jim the youngest. All are gone now, with Paula passing in March of 2019, and Al’s mother dying from diabetes when he was 11 years old in the mid-1950s. His mother always told young Al he was going to be a ballplayer. She was right.
Portsmouth was an industrial town of steel mills, brickyards, shoe factories, and a society where blacks were segregated in school and housing.
In the 1950-60s Portsmouth, Ohio was a segregated town for swimming pools, neighborhoods and schools. Dreamland was the swimming pool for whites, while it took the drowning of a young black man in the Scioto River for the town to construct a small pool near the Railway station for blacks to swim in.
Al attended Washington elementary a few blocks just south of the later to be built black swimming pool known as the McKinley pool. He eventually went on to Grant Elementary and then Portsmouth High School, playing almost strictly basketball and baseball. He competed with and against future college and pros like Larry Hisle, who was one year younger than himself and went on to play MLB with the Phillies and Minnesota Twins and Milwaukee Brewers. Al played on some strong PHS teams under George Heller in basketball and Harry Weinbrecht in baseball. He had a great HS career and American Legion participation under Bill Newman, who was a baseball coach and manager for the Legion team in the early 1960s and beyond in Portsmouth. AL would sign with scout Sid Thrift and the Pirates as a free agent in the mid-60s. He was ready to take a scholarship for basketball to Kent State University to play guard but choose to sign with the Pirates instead.
While in the minors Al did encounter separate restrooms for blacks and fountains to drink from, and the players were separated to stay in hotels based on race. But that all would change when Al “Scoop” Oliver was called up to play for the Pirates in 1968. Al was 22 and had been playing in Columbus and was the first baseman. He got the nickname “Scoop” in Gastonia, NC playing in the minors there at first base due to his ability to scoop ground balls from the dirt. He would be moved to CF by the Pirates due to having Bob Robertson, a first baseman with power, and needing outfielders. Winter ball in Puerto Rico under the management/guidance of Roberto Clemente would get him ready for playing in the OF for the Pirates who were loaded in talent in the IF, and which necessitated the change to OF for Al. Willie Stargell would help show him the right grip on a ball thrown back into the infield to avoid the ball tailing and make Al a good defender. That was 1968-69.
By 1969 Al was on his way in MLB finishing second in the league for rookie of the year. Ted Sizemore won it that year with the Dodgers. By 1971 he would play on a World Championship club in Pittsburgh with Roberto Clemente and the Pirates beating the Baltimore Orioles. The Pirates made the playoffs in 70-71-72, and in 1978 traded Scoop to the Rangers for pitcher Bert Blyleven, who would go on and be inducted to the HOF in Cooperstown.
Al would play 18 seasons for the Pirates, Rangers, Expos, Giants, Phillies, and Dodgers and Blue Jays. He would win 3 Silver Sluggers, play all OF the positions and first base, win the batting title in 1982 with Expos hitting 331, with 204 hits, 43 doubles, and 109 RBIs, 22 HRs, finishing 3rd place in the MVP voting that year. With the Rangers, he played in all games at 163 in 1980.
Al’s career would produce some eye-popping numbers which some in the HOF do not share: OBP % of 344, SLG 451, OPS% of 795. He has a career average of 303, 2743 hits, WAR of 43.7, 219 Hrs, 1189 Runs, and 1326 RBIs. He is the only player with 2500 hits, 200 HRs, and a lifetime BA of over 300 NOT in the HOF, which is a museum for honoring selected players and preserving artifacts of players who have left indelible marks on the Nation’s Pastime located in Cooperstown, New York. It is controlled by the association of baseball writers and not controlled by MLB in determining enshrinement into the HOF. This link will allow you to compare his stats and looks at his career:
Other items to note: Al hit the last HR in Forbes Field off Milt Pappas and drove in the first run in Three Rivers Stadium. His son would play Division I football with Texa A&M and score the first touchdown recorded in the Big 12 league as a receiver. Al was an accomplished racquetball player playing in national tournaments in Las Vegas in the 1970s winning first place and second taking home $250,000 dollars in winnings. He batted over 300 11 times and in 9 consecutive seasons. He is Texas all-time batting average leader at 319. He played in 7 all-star games.
His best teammate was Roberto Clemente and the best player he witnessed. He played for legendary managers such as Bobby Cox and Danny Murtaugh, and said the most influential person in his life was his father who gave him discipline and raised him after the untimely death of his mother when he was only 11. Jim Fanning was his best manager to play for with Montreal. His toughest opponent was Steve Carlton, and his greatest game was in Detroit in a doubleheader in 1980 where he tied an American League record for total bases in a doubleheader. Best Park he played in was Wrigley and he enjoyed Riverfront. His favorite team growing up was Cincinnati.
After Retirement Al would go on to work with truant youth to get them back into school with Portsmouth City Schools and become chairman of Scioto County Children’s Services. He served in the church as a Deacon at the Beulah Baptist Church in Portsmouth and also gave the invocation at the ceremonies at the Baseball HOF in 2001. He has served his community above and beyond and been a solid citizen.
Albert Oliver Jr was inducted into the Negro League Baseball Museum’s Hall of Game in 2017. He also was on a Pirate team which fielded the first All Black Lineup in MLB history.
My wish is to help show the human side of this great man and athlete and assist in any way to see him get his rightful acclaim into the HOF for his long and productive pro baseball career.
In a March, 2017 an article written by Graham Womack, of Sporting News,
Oliver responded to a question about his being Ordained as a Baptist Deacon.
“It would give me the platform I need to bring forth the positive messages to people who I know (need) to hear that there is hope (in) being a positive person, building high self-esteem, feeling good about yourself, more unity among all people,”
Oliver said. “These are the things that I like to talk about. It would give me the platform to do what I really believe that God has set out for me to do.”
We are a grassroots team of local journalists on a mission to give our community up-to-the-second news and events for Southern Ohio, Northern Kentucky, and Western West Virginia. We believe progress inspires change and we believe our reporting has become the front-lines of Portsmouth, Ohio's comeback.