Ben Oglivie was the first, but not the last, hitter in Milwaukee Brewers history to hit three home runs in a game. As of Opening Day 2015, Brewers had hit three home runs in a game 19 times. But Oglivie is the only one to accomplish it three times.1 Milwaukee acquired Oglivie from Detroit before the 1978 season for starter Jim Slaton and reliever Rich Folkers. General manager Harry Dalton, who had just been hired by the Brewers, traded Slaton, who was expected to test the free-agent market, while he still had good trade value. Two of the Brewers’ 1977 incumbent outfielders, Von Joshua and Jim Wohlford, lacked the pop that Oglivie could supply.
In 1978 Oglivie hit .303 with 18 homers. He developed into a three-time All-Star (1980, 1982, 1983) and was a centerpiece of the revamped Brew Crew offense. In 1980 Ben was the American League’s home-run leader with 41. From 1978 to 1987 the outfielder cracked 176 home runs as a Brewer, seventh on the club’s all-time list.
For the second year in a row, the Brewers were off to a great start in 1979. More than halfway through the season, they were 47-37. But in the strong American League East, they were7½ games out of first and struggling to keep pace with the first-place Baltimore Orioles.
The 40-40 Tigers were12½ games out of first but they were improving. The foundation of the great ’84 team was being built. Lou Whitaker and his keystone mate, Alan Trammell, had emerged as a dynamic young middle-infield combination. Moreover, Detroit had just hired Sparky Anderson as manager on June 14.
Anderson’s new team won the first three games of the five-game series, which featured doubleheaders on Friday and Sunday. Future ace Jack Morris pitched 8⅓ innings to lead the Tigers to a 7-4 victory over the Brewers in the Friday-night opener. On Saturday afternoon, Steve Kemp went 3-for-3 with three RBIs and smacked an insurance home run in the seventh to lead the Tigers to a 6-3 win.
For the Sunday-afternoon doubleheader Brewers manager George Bamberger called upon two left-handers, Mike Caldwell and Bill Travers, to put an end to the Tigers’ dominance. On the mound for Detroit in the first game was Jack Billingham, who was a teammate of Caldwell’s on the 1977 Cincinnati Reds. The Tigers hurler had a record of 7-5 with a 3.51 ERA. Caldwell was 9-5 with a 3.22 ERA.
The game was a typical “Brew Crew” slugfest, a five-home-run outburst in front of a crowd of 39,141 at County Stadium.2 Nevertheless, both pitchers got off to a strong start. There was no score after one inning. Billingham’s sinker mystified the Brewers’ right-handed hitters, Paul Molitor, Don Money, and Gorman Thomas, all of whom grounded out. But there was already an early indicator that the Tigers pitcher would have trouble against the Brewers’ lefties: He allowed a two-out walk to Cecil Cooper, but escaped when Thomas forced Cooper at second.
Oglivie sent an early message to the Tigers in the second that the Brewers had no intention of losing their fourth straight. Batting fifth behind cleanup hitter Thomas, the slender left-handed-hitting outfielder from Panama led off the frame with a solo homer.
Down 1-0, the Tigers threatened in the top of the third. Aurelio Rodriguez reached safely on a bunt. Ron LeFlore singled Rodriguez to third and then stole second. With one out, Whitaker had a golden opportunity to give Detroit the lead but his screaming liner was caught by third baseman Don Money, who stepped on third for an inning-ending unassisted double play.
The Brewers scored again in bottom of the third to take a 2-0 lead. With men on first and second after an intentional walk to Cooper, Thomas singled off the glove of third baseman Rodriguez to drive in Molitor, who had doubled to left.
In the fourth, Jerry Morales, batting cleanup, launched a solo homer to put the visitors on the board. But the Brewers threatened to extend the lead in the bottom of the fourth. Oglivie led off with a walk but was snuffed out when Sixto Lezcano hit into a 6-4-3 double play. After a walk to Robin Yount and a single by Charlie Moore, Anderson, who was known as “Captain Hook” for his lack of patience with starting pitchers, pulled Billingham. Tigers reliever John Hiller induced Jim Gantner to ground out for the final out of the inning.
Consecutive doubles by Detroit’s Rusty Staub and Rodriguez to open the fifth tied the game, 2-2. But unlike Anderson, Bamberger stuck with his starting pitcher. His confidence in Caldwell paid off. The veteran southpaw struck out LeFlore and Whitaker with a runner on third to snuff out the Tigers’ rally and keep the game even.
In the bottom of the sixth, Oglivie touched up Hiller for his second homer of the afternoon to make it 3-2. The Brewers threatened to add to the lead with two out. Moore walked and ended up on third after Gantner doubled, but Molitor grounded out to Rodriguez, leaving two men stranded.
In the bottom of the seventh with one out, Oglivie slammed his third homer. The two-run blast, his second off Hiller, gave Brewers a decisive 5-2 lead and drew the first of four standing ovations from the County Stadium faithful. “It was probably the best day I ever had,” Ogilvie said, noting that the game had special significance because of who the opponent was. “When you get traded, it’s only natural that you want to beat your old club, especially when your club has lost three in a row.”
Caldwell struggled but completed the game. Detroit scored a run in the eighth after light-hitting shortstop Mark Wagner led off with a double and scored on LeFlore’s single. Lance Parrish led off the ninth with a homer but Caldwell quickly quieted the Tigers as Milwaukee held on for a slim 5-4 victory. The Brewers, behind Travers’ complete-game four-hitter, won the second game of the doubleheader as well, 3-1.
On June 20, 1982, at Detroit, Oglivie slammed three to lead the Brewers to a 7-5 win. And less than a year later, he turned belted three against the Boston Red Sox in Milwaukee’s 8-7 victory at County Stadium on May 14, 1983.
This article appears in “From the Braves to the Brewers: Great Games and Exciting History at Milwaukee’s County Stadium” (SABR, 2016), edited by Gregory H. Wolf. To read more stories from this book at the SABR Games Project, click here.
There are three main sources of material for this story. The background material is based on a review of articles written about the Milwaukee Brewers, the Detroit Tigers, and the Boston Red Sox in The Sporting News. The author reviewed stories that mentioned Ben Oglivie from the beginning of his major-league career with the Red Sox through his retirement. The sources for statistics are baseball-reference.com and retrosheet.org; both offer a comprehensive database of individual and team statistics. Other resources consulted are online archives of the Boston Globe and the Milwaukee Journal, where there is a firsthand account of Oglivie’s three-home-run outburst.
2 Tom Flaherty, “Heroics Swept By Oglivie,” Milwaukee Journal, July 9, 1979: 7-8.