Life of IC baseball legend Bob Oldis told in new biography – Iowa City Press Citizen
When Steve Bratkovich of St. Paul, Minn., learned that World Series champion baseball player Bob Oldis lived in Iowa City, he knew he had to meet him.
Bratkovich was growing up in western Pennsylvania when Oldis played for the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates, the team that would topple the New York Yankees in dramatic fashion in the World Series that year. Decades later, in October 2013, Bratkovich sent a letter to Oldis and asked if they could meet.
Oldis said yes, and a book was born.
After 18 months of interviewing Oldis and family members, and another 18 months writing and editing, “Bob Oldis: A Baseball Life” was published. It was released Tuesday.
The ballplayer and the baseball fan will read from the book at Prairie Lights on Friday night.
Sitting in his longtime Iowa City home Wednesday morning, with his gold and diamond encrusted 1960 World Series ring on his finger, Oldis, 87, reflected on his career in baseball and the biography that helped him look back on a life filled with peaks and valleys.
“It brings back great memories, I’ll tell you that,” Oldis, who was a catcher, said.
Oldis was born in 1928 in Preston, a town of about 600, and his family moved to Iowa City when he was about 4 years old. “Now it’s a university town. It didn’t seem like a university town back then,” he said.
In 1953, Oldis was signed by the Washington Senators Major League Baseball team and played minor league ball in Emporia, Va., appearing in only 24 major league games with the Senators from 1953 to 1955, according to Baseball Reference, and was soon traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1960.
The trade ended up being a good career move for Oldis. With future Baseball Hall of Fame players such as legendary Puerto Rican outfielder Roberto Clemente and Pittsburgh’s iconic second-baseman Bill Mazeroski on the team, the Pirates went on to win the World Series.
“By the time it was July 4th, I knew that team knew how to play winning baseball,” Oldis said. “Today, players get paid to hit home runs and put up fancy stats. Back then, we got paid for winning, and they knew how to do it.”
When the Pirates made it to the World Series in October 1960, they faced the Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra-led New York Yankees, a team that won nine World Series championships from 1949 to 1962. Oldis played in two games during the series, both in New York, and the Pirates won both games, he said.
With the series tied 3-3 in the final game, Oldis was warming up a pitcher in the bottom of the ninth inning as the Pirates’ Mazeroski came to the plate with the game tied. What happened next would go down in baseball lore as one of the greatest moments in the MLB’s 112 year history: Mazeroski’s walk-off home-run to beat the Yankees and win the World Series.
Bratkovich was a 9-year-old boy at the time Mazeroski hit the World Series home run. His teacher brought in a radio to the classroom that day so he and the other students could listen to the game on the radio. “It’s one of those moment’s I’ll never forget,” Bratkovich said.
“By the time Maz was rounding the bases and at second base, I was running to home plate to meet him,” Oldis said. Dozens of fans and all the players ran on to the field to swarm Mazeroski as he came to home plate.
“It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy,” Oldis said. “Anytime the 1960 team reunites in Pittsburgh to be honored, we tell him, ‘Maz, you caused all of this.'”
The most recent anniversary celebration of the 1960 Pirates was this past August in Pittsburgh, when Oldis was reunited with nine former teammates. Bratkovich was in attendance that day. “As soon I saw their numbers, I could remember each of their names. It’s ingrained in me,” Bratkovich said.
Soon after 1960, Oldis’ career as a catcher was over. â”But then, you can’t hit the curveball, and you get traded. Then you can’t hit the fastball, and that’s it for your playing career,” Oldis said.
Oldis ended was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1962, retired in 1964 and started coaching. He was the first base coach for the Montreal Expos, but that took him away from home in Iowa City too often.
In 1960, he and his first wife, Rosemary, bought a lot on which to build their home with his check from winning the World Series. The $8,400 check was more than his total $7,500 salary for the season. Rosemary raised two sons with muscular dystrophy â Bobby Jr. and Jay â in the home, along with their daughter, Susan, while Oldis was in Montreal.
“She was a great woman. She loved baseball, but we knew she had to have more help from me at home,” Oldis said.
So he asked the Expos if he could scout for them throughout the Midwest, and they said yes. In 1970, he began a career as a scout that continues today as he works part-time for the Miami Marlins.
The next few decades of Oldis’ life were marred by loss.
In 1972, his former teammate Clemente died in a plane crash as he escorted more than 4,000 pounds of aid to victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua. “You just couldn’t believe the news. He died helping out, though, which just reminds you what kind of man he was,” Oldis said.
Then, a few years later in 1980, Bobby Jr. died of muscular dystrophy. “If he didn’t have muscular dystrophy, he would have been in baseball somehow,” Oldis said. A baseball field at City Park, only a few minutes’ drive from Oldis’ house, is named after Bobby Jr. for his many years of coaching little league teams from his wheelchair.
Only two years later, in 1982, Jay’s life was claimed by muscular dystrophy as well. Then, in the 1990s, Oldis’ wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. “It’s a terrible disease. It’s no picnic for the one who has it or those who love that person,” Oldis said. Rosemary died in 2008.
“What I took from his story was just the sense to never give up, or to make lemons out of lemonade,” Bratkovich said. “They’re kind of cliches, but Bob lives by them.”
Oldis remarried in 2012 to Mary Pat, continued scouting for the Marlins, kept in touch with the his former Pirates teammates and watched Susan’s daughters graduate from college in recent years.
In 2013, when Oldis received that letter from Bratkovich, he had no idea a book would come from their conversation.
“I just thought he was a fan. A lot of people will call me up, just want to talk or get an autograph,” Oldis said. “I thought we were just going to shoot the breeze.”
The two men talked in for more than two hours during their first meeting in Coralville. After Bratkovich drove home to Minnesota, he called Oldis a few days later and told him he’d like to write a book.
“Lots of people write books about famous baseball players,” Bratkovich said. “His story was so full of hardship, but he just kept going. It had to be told.”
Bratkovich recently sent Oldis a copy of the book, and Oldis read it. “It’s a great book. Steve did a heck of a job writing it, and it isn’t too long,” Oldis said.
Clocking in at 112 pages, Bratkovich said it takes about two-and-a-half hours to read. Being sold for $14.99, the proceeds are being donated to the Muscular Dystrophy Association or the Bobby Oldis Jr. Baseball Field in Iowa City Park.
Oldis is still eager to talk baseball and show off the 1960 World Series ring he regularly wears to anyone who is interested.
“I’ve had a rather good life, if I say so myself. The fact that more people want to know about it, talk to me about it, is such a thrill to me,” he said.
Reach Zach Berg at 319-887-5412, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @ZacharyBerg.
Reading of “Bob Oldis: A Life in Baseball”
What: Iowa City baseball legend Bob Oldis and Steve Bratkovich, the author of the new biography, “Bob Oldis: A Life in Baseball,” will read from the book and answer questions.
Where: Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City.
When: 7 p.m. Friday.
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