WEST ORANGE, NJ – On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays in the summer, 88-year-old West Orange resident Paul Oliver can be found doing one thing—playing softball.
Oliver, who will celebrate his 89th birthday in August, was introduced to baseball as a young boy in St. Louis, Mo., where he played in the streets with future baseball stars Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola. The boys found success in youth baseball leagues, and before long a scout had approached all three of them.
At 17 years old, Oliver was recruited to play for the St. Louis Cardinals. He spent 13 days with the team, but was then forbidden from going any further.
“We’re talking about coming out of a depression, and my father just could not understand that it would be a very good lifetime to be playing professional baseball. And he wouldn’t let me go,” said Oliver.
So while peers like Berra and Garagiola paved paths to the major leagues, Oliver attended high school and college. He was then drafted into the Navy out of college and served in World War II as an aerial photographer aboard an aircraft carrier. After his service in World War II, another bout of misfortune changed the course of Oliver’s life.
“With my anxiety to get back to school, I didn’t pay attention to the discharge papers, and they discharged me as a pharmacist, not a photographer. And here comes the Korean War, and I had to go into the Korean War because they said we need pharmacists,” said Oliver. “So I had lawyers, I had my pastor, I had everybody telling Washington, DC, ‘he’s not a pharmacist, he’s a photographer.’ But I still spent the time in service.”
Despite this detour, Oliver was able to go back to college after the Korean War. He married his high school sweetheart, and by 1951 the couple had two children. They now have four children, four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
However, Oliver once again found himself caught between aspirations and responsibilities.
“I wanted to be a teacher more than anything in the world. But in 1951, it was only $5,000 a year, and then I had two children and I couldn’t afford that,” he said.
To support his family, Oliver found a job through his brother, who worked installing escalators at a St. Louis Sears. Oliver became a buyer for Sears, a position he held for 42 years.
After being relocated to the New York area for a few years, Oliver then had the opportunity to work as the national retail sales manager for Sears in Chicago, but was met with a familiar obstacle: “My boss wouldn’t let me go.”
The phrase hearkened back to Oliver’s youth in St. Louis, when his father held him back from playing with the Cardinals. However, 60 years after being scouted for the Cardinals, Oliver stumbled upon a second chance with a bat and a ball.
While working, Oliver had continued to play baseball in local leagues. He also played in leagues down in Florida, where he and his wife vacationed during the winter months.
“One day a man comes up to me and says, ‘My name is Joe Smith, I’m here to scout you.’ I said, ‘What did you say?’ He said, ‘I’m here to scout you.’ I said ‘that was done over 60 years ago when scouts sent me to the St. Louis Cardinals!’” Oliver explained with a chuckle. “But anyway, three days later, I get a call from a man and he said we would like you to play on our national softball team from Baltimore, Maryland.”
Oliver played with the national team as a second baseman for 12 years. The team traveled all over the country to play in four national tournaments each year. Throughout his time, Oliver earned 17 championship rings and three watches.
In 2006, he was given yet another ring—this time for his induction into the National Hall of Fame in Texas.
Oliver reflected, “Yogi went on to play with the greats as a Yankee. Joe was a good major leaguer and a Hall of Fame baseball announcer, and I spent 13 days with the Cardinals in 1948. But I did make the Hall of Fame…just as a softball player!”
Oliver continues to love the game, but has also found something else to enjoy about his senior league.
“Yes I like to go there, but it’s the relationship that I have with the fellas that I play with. Afterwards we’ll get together and go somewhere, and you really get to know people and you really have a good time being with them. Their backgrounds are unbelievable—doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, dentists, every vocation you can dream of. And whoever you were, it has nothing to do with playing.”
Playing softball also helps Oliver stay alert and active.
“At any age level, do you want to sit and watch TV all day?” he said. “It keeps me from rusting.”