SABR

Bob Oldis

This article was written by Dan Even.

Bob “Bucky” Oldis wasn’t an All-Star, or even a journeyman major leaguer, but he had much more than just a “cup of coffee.” He was a true lover of the game who liked to have fun. Along the way, he played in 135 games, hit a major-league home run, got three hits in one game, and played in a World Series. If someone wanted to depict the consummate baseball man, Oldis would be a good candidate; in his lifetime, he played, managed, coached, and scouted, and was still going strong in his seventh decade of Organized Baseball.

“I just wanted to play,” Oldis told a biographer. “It sure beat working. It’s always been a fun game, and I’m a fun kind of a guy. I knew I would have to work hard to play, and play smart. But I was fortunate, lucky. I played for, or with, some of the best minds in baseball in the minors, and the majors. And I had a lot of fun.”

While Oldis was never a “can’t miss” prospect, he could thank his father, Edward, for turning him in the right direction. Oldis was born Robert Carl Oldis in Preston, Iowa, a small farming community in the foothills of the Mississippi River Valley, on January 5, 1928. His father was the town postmaster. The family moved to Iowa City when he was a young man, and his high school, Iowa City High, didn’t have a baseball program until his junior year. He didn’t play as a senior because he graduated at the semester break. His involvement in the game consisted of fast-pitch softball and American Legion Junior Baseball.

“I’d tag along with my brother Eddie, who had a hardball team, and I got to play,” Oldis recalled. “A year after high school, I played a lot of fast-pitch softball. Those were the golden years of fast-pitch, the Peoria Caterpillars and teams like that traveled around the Midwest playing the locals. We had some great fast-pitch teams here in Iowa; the Iowa City Cardinals were among the best. And Legion ball was big, really big.” It was in Legion play that he first caught, moving from third base. His opportunity came when the team’s all-star catcher moved on. “Dad told the Legion coach, ‘Hey, put Bob back there, he’ll stop the ball,’ but I had a hell of a time starting out,” Oldis remembered. “The day I was to catch my first game, I told him and his only reply was, ‘I’m not going to miss that show.’ I was on my way.” But there were no scouts watching, so Dad came up with another plan in January of 1949.

“Dad had played semipro ball, so he knew the game. He came to me one day and told me he was sending me to a baseball camp in Cocoa, Florida. “It was a five week-camp that cost $25 a week. It was run by Jack Rossiter, a scout, and had Cecil Travis, Andy Seminick, and Pete Appleton as instructors.”

After the third week Oldis was one of nine, out of about 200, who were offered professional contracts. He received no signing bonus. Oldis called home to break the news to the family, and his father told him to stay there for the final two weeks so he could report directly to his first pro club, the Emporia Blue Jackets, a Washington Senators affiliate in the Class D Virginia League.

Oldis started the season as backup to a heralded prospect named Orlando Echevarria. One hot July afternoon, Echevarria got sick, and the manager put Oldis, then a 21-year-old rookie, in. It was his career break.

“It was a doubleheader on a sweltering July day, and I batted eighth. I hit two home runs, and in the fourth inning Echevarria came and told the skipper that he felt better, but I caught all of both games. After that I caught a lot more games.”

Oldis batted .285, hit five home runs, and led the league’s catchers in fielding percentage; and Emporia made the playoffs. In 1950 Oldis returned as the everyday catcher. He hit .289 and earned a promotion to Charlotte of the Class B Tri-State League. Another good season at the plate (.285 and 69 RBIs) helped the Hornets win the regular-season pennant with a 100-40 record.

In 1952 there was another step up to the Senators’ top farm team, Chattanooga of the Southern Association. Instead, Oldis made the Senators’ varsity in 1952 but never got in a game, and was sent back to Chattanooga.

The demotion caused a problem because over the winter Oldis had married Rose Mary White, a University of Iowa student, and she was with him in spring training. The Senators flew her home to Iowa with a promise that she would be with Bob in Washington when the season started eight days later. But shortly into the season, Oldis was sent down, and was told he would be back in the majors in a couple of weeks.

When that did not happen, Oldis told his manager at Chattanooga, Cal Ermer, that he was “PO’ed and was going home.” Fifty years later he admitted it was a ploy to get the $800 he felt he had lost by being sent down, and having to pay rent in two cities, while his wife remained in Washington.

“I wanted it out with Joe Engel, the owner of the Chattanooga club, and Mr. Griffith (Cal, the Senators’ owner),” he said. “Both catchers on the club were hurt. I said we’d win the pennant if I stayed. And we went on a seven-game winning streak.”

The Lookouts won the Southern Association pennant in the eight-team league, by five games. Oldis was the number one catcher, hit .277, and was one of the top defensive receivers in a league loaded with future major leaguers. Ermer and Oldis built a strong rapport. Oldis was picked for the midseason all-star game but skipped it to drive his wife from Washington to Chattanooga. And he got his $800.

Oldis labeled himself as “kind of clown in those days,” and a bit hotheaded. Once, he was called into the league president’s office for trying to pound a ball into the ground with his bat after fouling off a pitch; on July 27, 1952, he was ejected and fined after being thrown out in a close play at the plate, after which a melee ensued. He believed he was ejected 19 times that season, at a cost of $25 per violation.

“I told Charley Hurth, the league president, that the umpiring was ridiculous, and he should come out that night and see for himself. He did, but the only thing that happened was he told me the next time I got chased it would cost me fifty dollars!”

Oldis made his major-league playing debut on April 28, 1953, as a late-inning substitute catcher after the Senators pinch-hit for Mickey Grasso. His first start came in the second game of a doubleheader on May 10 against the Philadelphia Athletics, in which he went 1-for-4 with a single, and caught all nine innings in a 6-2 complete-game victory by Chuck Stobbs. On June 25 Oldis was 3-for-3 facing Harry “The Cat” Brecheen, in a 3-1 loss to the St. Louis Browns. After playing in seven games, he was shuffled back to Chattanooga again. So he wound up 4-for-16 in his rookie season, with three RBIs. The Lookouts had a good season, but didn’t win the pennant. Oldis was in a mix of four catchers there, and played in only 28 games hitting .266.

Out of spring training in 1954, Oldis went north with the Senators as the number three catcher behind Ed Fitz Gerald and Joe Tipton. He played in 11 games, eight behind the plate, two at third base, and one as a pinch-hitter. He hit .333 in 24 at-bats.

In 1955 Oldis again made the Senators varsity as the backup to Fitz Gerald and Bruce Edwards. After seeing action in four of the first five games, he was sent down. Recalled in May, he started a pair of games in late May and early June, but after the club obtained Clint Courtney, Oldis was farmed out to Chattanooga and Charlotte. He was 0-for-6 for the season, and even though he went back to the Washington minor-league system, his days as a Washington Senator were over.

After a season in which he hit .286 with Chattanooga, Oldis’s contract was sold to the New York Yankees in the fall of 1956. Three seasons at the Triple-A level, with Denver, Richmond, and Denver again, set the stage for his return to the majors, and his most rewarding years. The minor-league years helped Oldis gain the baseball acumen for his long nonplaying career that followed.

“Going to the Yankees system was a great break for me; (the organization) was loaded with talent, great baseball brains. I got to play for the Major (Ralph Houk), Eddie Lopat, and Stan Hack. I was on a team that won the Little World Series (1957), and above all, I learned a lot about the game,” he said.

After two seasons of hitting .294 in each of his two stops at Denver, and .268 at Richmond, the Pirates spent $25,000 to select Oldis in the Rule 5 draft in November 1959. It was fortuitous for Oldis that Bucs manager Danny Murtaugh liked to carry three, sometimes four, catchers

“Going into spring training, the Pirates had Smoky Burgess, Hal Smith, Danny Kravitz, and me,” he remembered. “I figured Burgess and Smith would do most of the catching, but I had a chance to be in the mix.” Kravitz caught in only one game, and on June 1 was traded to the Kansas City Athletics. The number three slot became Oldis’s alone.

Murtaugh employed a platoon system at catcher that worked great: left-handed hitting Smoky Burgess, 33 years old, did the bulk of the work. He started 86 games and 29-year-old Hal Smith started 66. Oldis, 32 years old, started three games. Burgess hit .294, with 39 RBIs; Smith, .295 with 44 RBIs; and Oldis, .200 (4-for-20) with one RBI. “My job was to just show up, pitch some batting practice. … I was the number three catcher, so any time we got a lead late and Smoky (Burgess) or Hal (Smith) got on base, Joe Christopher would come in to run for them and I would take over as a defensive replacement.”

As a key role-player, Oldis appeared in 22 games, all behind the plate. He handled 44 chances without an error. Nothing spectacular, but he contributed.

“That was a talented and deep club. They didn’t need my meager talents to win that year. They had Maz (Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski), Vern Law, Roy Face, Harvey Haddix, Clem Labine, Stuart (Dick), Groat (Dick), and, of course, that great outfield of Clemente (Roberto), Virdon (Bill), and Skinner (Bob). And we had a lot of role (players) that made great contributions,” he recalled. “We won a lot of come-from behind games, a lot of one-run games.” Oldis remembered the 1960 team as a spirited club that got along well and “was a great comeback team.” – 26-22 in one-run games, and a remarkable 15 victories in their last at-bat – and 12 of those came with two outs.

The club finished 95-59, seven games ahead of the Milwaukee Braves for their first pennant since 1927– ending a 33-year drought. They had a winning record in every month, at home (52-25), and on the road (43-34).

The Pirates’ prize for winning the pennant was a meeting with a 97-57 New York Yankees team that had captured their tenth pennant in 12 seasons, and were heavily favored to win the World Series.

This was the pinnacle of Oldis’ major-league career. “Nothing else was close. I got into two games – both in Yankee Stadium and (we) won both of them. We made a fabulous comeback and won it all thanks to Maz,” he recalled. “It was a Series no one who played in it, watched it, or listened to it can forget. Surely the city hasn’t forgot.”

In one of the zaniest of fall classics, the Yankees outscored the Bucs 55-27, but came up one run short when they needed it most, in the seventh game, and lost, 10-9. The Pirates won their first world championship since 1925. One statistic stands out in bold and shouts of an opportunistic team; the Pirates left only one runner on base in the seventh game.

Oldis saw action in Games Four and Five as a ninth-inning defensive replacement. Both times it was three up and three down for the Yankees. He never even came to bat. But he was a world champion nonetheless, and the winner’s share of the Series changed things for him in a big way back in Iowa City.

“Our share was about $8,400 a man. After taxes, I was left $6,400 – enough to buy the lot for (our) house and start building. We raised our family here, (and) never lived anywhere else.”

“The 1960 Series team is still a big thing in Pittsburgh. In the last two years, I’ve been back for five reunion events. You can’t believe how they love that team.” One of those events was a theater showing of a film shot from the screen of his television (a kinescope) that part-owner Bing Crosby had made of the seventh game.

Oldis returned to the Pirates in 1961 and he was 0-for-5 in four games. He spent most of the year with the Columbus Jets of the International League, the Pirates’ top Triple-A club. They won the regular-season championship by four games. Oldis hit .224 with two home runs and 21 RBIs. Soon his days as a Pirate were over. On October 13 the club sold his contract to the Phillies, managed by Gene Mauch, who Oldis believes was “the brightest mind” he ever came in contact with. “We had played against each other in the minors. And one day Mauch said he hoped someday I could play for him. So going to Philly was another great opportunity for me. I picked up a lot about the game from Mauch.

“One day sitting next to him in the dugout in St. Louis, we were discussing the Cardinals’ batting order. (Stan) Musial was due up in the seventh and Mauch cautioned it would be wise to make sure no one got on, saying, ‘We don’t want him up in (the) ninth in a crucial situation.’ He was thinking three innings ahead. That’s the kind of manager he was.”

While Clay Dalrymple started at catcher against right-handers, Oldis and 10-year vet Sammy White split the other half of the platoon. Oldis started 23 games and played in a then career-high 38 games with a .263 batting average. He hit his only major-league home run, and had 10 RBIs in 80 at-bats. The Phillies started fast but faded, and finished seventh.

In 1962 Maury Wills stole a modern record 104 bases, and was caught stealing only 13 times during the season. He was caught stealing twice in only one game; on June 4 in Philadelphia, by the all-Iowa battery of Jack Hamilton, born in Burlington, and Oldis, born in Preston. Oldis threw Wills out trying to steal second base in the second inning for the final out of the inning, and third base in the seventh inning. Wills had stolen second base in the first inning off starting pitcher Art Mahaffey. Hamilton had replaced Mahaffey with two outs in the second inning.

On July 20 Oldis came into the game as a pinch-hitter for Dalrymple and was 2-for-2 with two singles off left-hander Jack Curtis in a 7-5 loss to the Milwaukee Braves. Oldis had three hits, all of them singles, and two RBIs against the New York Mets in an 11-9 victory at the Polo Grounds on August 1, 1962. The Phillies starter was Jack Hamilton, though he lasted only 1⅓ innings. Two of the hits were off lefty Alvin Jackson, and the third off righty Bob G. Miller. Oldis collected a career single-season high 21 hits. On August 9, 1962, he had two hits in an 8-3 loss to the Dodgers, a single, and a home run hit off rookie Pete Richert to lead off the sixth inning that had given the Phillies a brief 2-0 lead.

Oldis returned to the Phillies in 1963 and both his and the club’s fortunes improved. The team shared first place temporarily for a couple of days in early April, but eventually finished fourth, 12 games behind the pennant-winning Dodgers. Oldis saw action in 47 games. He was the senior partner in the right-handed part of the platoon to Earl Averill, but Mauch was gaining confidence in Dalrymple as an everyday player. Oldis hit .224, with eight RBIs.

In 1964 the Phillies acquired veteran power-hitting catcher Gus Triandos along with Jim Bunning from the Detroit Tigers. Triandos batted right-handed, making Oldis and Averill superfluous. The Phillies hired Oldis as a coach, while Averill caught in the Boston Red Sox system. In those days most teams carried three coaches – two base coaches and a pitching coach. “You were on your own when it came to hitting in those days.” Mauch added Oldis as a fourth coach, for the bullpen. It was quite a baptism, and quite a year. Fans could taste a third pennant, and a chance for a first-ever World Series championship.

Oldis kept his catching skills sharp by playing in Phillies’ exhibition games. When rosters expanded in September, he was released as a coach and signed as a player but did not see action in a major-league game. The final two weeks were wild. St. Louis went on a 9-2 final run, coupled with the Phillies’ epic collapse. On September 20 the Phillies were 90-60 after a 3-2 victory in Los Angeles. With 12 games left – the next seven at home – they held a 6½-game lead, but they lost 10 straight games.

The bleeding didn’t stop until game number 161, with a 4-3 victory in Cincinnati. Down 1½ with just game left, the best the Phillies could salvage would be a playoff. Behind Jim Bunning, they beat the Reds 10-0, tying Cincinnati. But the Cardinals, behind Bob Gibson’s relief work, rallied to beat the Mets 11-5. The Reds and Phillies finished tied for second, a game back. The Cardinals won the World Series four games to three, over the Yankees.

Many saw the collapse as a disaster, and blamed Mauch for starting Bunning and Chris Short with only two days’ rest. Oldis’s assessment was a bit different: “In a way that was an over-achieving team. Aside from (Dick) Allen, (Johnny) Callison, Bunning, and Short – who were great players who had great seasons – the club didn’t have a lot of stars. There were a lot of good players but not like some of the other clubs in the league that season. We just couldn’t get that key game or two in the final 12.”

Oldis spent two more years on Mauch’s staff at Philadelphia, then coached with the Minnesota Twins in 1968, and scouted for the Phillies a year. He rejoined Mauch as a coach in Montreal in 1969. In the 1970s Oldis moved to scouting full-time with Montreal, but in 1971 he managed Watertown (South Dakota) in the Class A Northern League. The Expos hired their closest scout, Oldis, after the manager they signed quit upon first seeing the field.1 His club was 30-40-1 in the league’s final season.

Stephen Fuller, a scout for the Chicago Cubs, recalled playing for Oldis the manager: “He was a good baseball man, fun to be around, taught us a lot, but didn’t take it too seriously. We had a lot of fun with him, played a lot of pranks, and it was the first time a lot of us kids experienced some of the shenanigans that could come from a big leaguer’s mind. Maybe he spent too much time sitting in the bullpen or on the bench – too much time to think to pull some of that stuff.”2

Bob wanted to spend more time at home with a family that had expanded to include three sons and a daughter. Scouting players in the Midwest was ideal, and it was a career he was good at. His colleagues voted him the “major-league scout of the year” in 2002. He got a ring – “the size of a small apartment” – that he jokingly said he didn’t usually wear but kept to help him “recall the year.”

To supplement his meager baseball income, Oldis worked in the offseason at various jobs. His favorite “nonbaseball job” was as a referee with longtime friend Don “Bones” Farnsworth. They worked hundreds of prep football and basketball games together for more than 40 years. Oldis remained a bench official at the Iowa Boys’ Basketball Tournament until 2010. He also worked 25 years at the Girls’ Tournament, mostly in the days when it was a six-girl, half-court game. Oldis worked 14 years for the Iowa State Highway Commission, Not a desk job, but outside in the harsh Iowa winters putting up snow fences, running a snowplow, and repairing potholes.

In the fall of 2010 Oldis worked his final game as a member of the “chain gang” at University of Iowa football games. Over 55 years, “I had a job, not really, call it a free seat that everyone would love to have.” Oldis was on the sidelines during years that the Hawkeyes won five Big Ten titles, and went to 24 bowl games.

He had but one regret: “I only wish my dad could have lived to see me play in the majors.” Edward Oldis dad died of cancer at the age of 59 when Oldis was a minor leaguer.

Over his career Oldis collected two World Series rings, one from the Pirates and the other from the Florida Marlins in 2003. He believed he was responsible for “19 or 20 guys” making the major leagues, including Shane Rawley, Bill Gullickson, Jeff Huson, Casey Candaele, David Herndon, and Brad Hand.

Seldom did a night go by that Oldis wasn’t at his younger brother Phil‘s house next door, watching the Marlins. He scouted Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, and the Dakotas for high-school and college talent. After the June draft, he evaluated Class A players in the 16-team Midwest League during home games of Cedar Rapids and Quad Cities.

Not a bad way for a true lover of the game to spend his retirement.

Last revised: August 27, 2014

 

This biography is included in the book "The Year of the Blue Snow: The 1964 Philadelphia Phillies" (SABR, 2013), edited by Mel Marmer and Bill Nowlin. For more information or to purchase the book in e-book or paperback form, click here. It is also included in "Sweet '60: The 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates" (SABR, 2013), edited by Clifton Blue Parker and Bill Nowlin. For more information or to purchase the book in e-book or paperback form, click here.

 

Sources

Baseball media guides: Minnesota Twins, Montreal Expos, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Philadelphia Phillies, various years.

Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolf, eds. The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball (Durham, North Carolina: Baseball America, 2003).

Sporting News Official Baseball Guides, 1950 through 1965.

Jim Ecker. “Back on the Chain Gang,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, September 9, 2008.

Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 2007.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 19, 2010, November 13, 2010.

www.baseballbytheletters.com, Bob Oldis: “8 Decades in Pro Baseball,” April 23, 2010.

BaseballAlmanac.com

Baseball-Reference.com

Personal interviews with Bob Oldis, May-June, 2011.

Additional information on the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 1960 season, and Oldis’s best games as a player, was added by Mel Marmer.

 

Notes

1 Andy Hamilton. “For the Love of the Game,” Iowa City Press-Citizen (http.seniorliving.press-citizen media.com/december2007).

2 Ibid.

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