There was never anyone else like Ben Oglivie to play for the Detroit Tigers.
But before the conservative Tigers really understood who he was and what made him tick, they shipped him away in a clunker of a trade that haunted them for years.
Signed by the Red Sox
Benjamin Ambrosio Oglivie was born in Colòn, Panama, in 1949, a post-war baby in a country experiencing a construction boom. Little “Benji” was always very thin with long legs, but also very fast. He played baseball in his native country and continued to do so when his father moved him to New York in high school.
As a teen in The Bronx in the turbulent late 1960s, Ben attended Theodore Roosevelt High School, and he tore into efforts to learn English. He later he said that he “thought the best way to learn the language [English] was to read a lot of books. Big books, not funny books.” That’s where Oglivie started to cultivate a sophisticated taste in literature and thought. He was just as comfortable reading Homer as he was hitting a homer.
Oglivie probably would have become and engineer or a college professor had he not been hounded by a scout for the Boston Red Sox, the same man who earlier had inked Carl Yastrzemski to a contract. Enticed by a signing bonus, the 130-pound Oglivie signed with Boston in 1968 after being selected in the 11th round of the MLB Draft. The decision changed his life.
When Ben arrived at his first professional team he was so tiny that a teammate thought he was the batboy. But even those he was slim with narrow shoulders and knobby knees, Oglivie moved through the Red Sox farm system and made his big league debut in 1971.
But Oglivie never got much of a chance in Boston, with so many excellent outfielders coming through their system, and in part because well…Ben didn’t look that promising. He ran funny, he was said to be so thin that if he stood sideways the manager wouldn’t know he was there.
Benji Oglivie: The Odd Duck
While his teammates were playing cards or bending their elbows at a hotel bar, Ben Oglivie could be found reading philosophy.
Oglivie was a Zen Buddhist who studied martial arts, Plato, and Confucius. He was a curious man who would rather meditate or study than chase women. He was a fanatic about his diet, and even late in his career was still able to wear size 30 uniform pants like in his rookie season.
During his career, on road trips his roommates would scratch their heads at the wheat germ, papaya juice, and kale that Oglivie would bring with him to cook in his hotel room. One time he ate so many bananas in one sitting, Detroit coach Joe Schultz dubbed Oglivie “Banana Man.”
The Tigers stole Oglivie from the Red Sox, where the tall Panamanian was lost in an outfield shuffle. Detroit sent veteran second baseman Dick McAuliffe to Boston for Oglivie shortly after the 1973 season. McAuliffe was done as a player, but unfortunately the Tigers misread Ben while he was in Motown.
In four seasons with Detroit however, Oglivie only played enough to hit 49 home runs. The signs were there: a .492 slugging percentage and a 131 OPS+ in his third year with the Tigers; and 21 homers in 1977. But there never seemed to be anyone of importance in Benji’s corner.
Traded to Brewers in a Clunker Deal
The Tigers were convinced the young left-handed Oglivie couldn’t hit southpaws, and they platooned him accordingly. They placed Oglivie in the fourth spot on their outfield depth chart, behind creaky veterans. Finally, the Tigers were forced to play Oglivie, and the beanpole slugged 21 home runs in 1977 after Detroit traded Willie Horton.
But general manager Jim Campbell wanted pitching and in the offseason the Tigers traded Oglivie to the Brewers for Jim Slaton.
Big mistake, turns out.
Two years later, Oglivie led the league with 41 home runs. Two years after that, after a strike year, Oglivie hit 34 home runs and drove in 102 runs when Milwaukee won the pennant.
“I couldn’t get going [in Detroit],” Oglivie said. “I would never play more than two or three games in a row.”
With division rival Milwaukee, Oglivie had lots of chances to haunt his former team. Every year Detroit fans would be reminded what might have been when they watched Ben hit home runs with his long, quick stroke. He swatted 176 homers after Detroit gave up on him, and averaged 27 per season the first five years with the Brewers.
The Brewers were puzzled by Oglivie’s strange eating and reading habits too. But they didn’t care as long as he hit four-baggers and drove in runs. In 1980 he drove in 118, and two years later he plated 102.
Oglivie remained with Milwaukee the rest of his career, a fan favorite, even if he was a bit aloof and strange to the Wisconsin fans. He kept on reading classic literature, kept on doing yoga, and never took a sip of alcohol or chased women like other ballplayers.
Pretty good for the guy the Tigers called “Banana Man.”