Light-hitting Ray Oyler was a master with the glove for ’68 Tigers

Ray Oyler spent four seasons with the Detroit Tigers in the 1960s, culminating in a World Series title in 1968.

In 1968 the Detroit Tigers walked away with the American League pennant sporting a 103-59 record before capturing the World Championship thanks to a lineup that included Al Kaline, Norm Cash, Willie Horton, Jim Northrup, Mickey Stanley, Bill Freehan, and Dick McAuliffe and a pitching staff led by 31 game Cy Young and MVP ace Denny McLain and World Series MVP Mickey Lolich.

Besides leading the majors in home runs in 1968, the Tigers also boasted one of the best defensive teams.

An often overlooked player from that squad is Ray Oyler, a sure handed shortstop who simply should have left his bat in the dugout.

Playing in 111 games while later platooning with Dick Tracewski and Tom Matchick, Oyler managed only 29 hits (21 of them singles) for a career-low batting average of .135.

Oyler’s bat was a guaranteed out, but so was his glove. His .977 fielding percentage was 15 points higher than the league average for shortstops. Tiger pitching coach Johnny Sain was once quoted as saying that “Oyler is one of the best fielders I have ever seen.”

Unfortunately Tiger fans too often took his fielding prowess for granted as they were busy booing the shortstop when he headed to the batter’s box at Tiger Stadium.

Oyler, who had been beaned more than once in his career, was one of the first players to wear a helmet with an ear flap. I remember sitting in box seats near the Tiger dugout when he was hit in the helmet and taken out of the game. It’s no wonder he was always pulling his head and flinging away. Facing the likes of “Sudden” Sam McDowell in the late 1960’s could do that to you.

Although he was a natural right handed hitter, I can remember seeing him bat left handed out of desperation.

And you thought Brandon Inge and Ryan Raburn had bad seasons?

The anemic hitting Oyler had a lifetime batting average of .175 in his six year major league career.

Due to Oyler’s lack of hitting, Tiger manager Mayo Smith made one of the greatest moves in managerial history when he took a gamble and placed centerfielder Mickey Stanley at shortstop for the World Series. The change also enabled Jim Northrup to move to center field from right field where he had played most of the season which in turn allowed Tiger legend Al Kaline to play right field in the World Series.

Although Stanley would only hit .214 in the Series, he played adequately at short while Kaline batted .379 and Northrup slugged his Series-winning triple in Game Seven. Oyler would appear in all four World Series victories and in his only plate appearance he made a successful sacrifice.

Stanley now admits that he hurt his arm playing short and that he did not enjoy the World Series. He also told writer George Cantor for his book The Tigers of ’68: Baseball’s Last Real Champions how much he admired Oyler:

“He never carried a grudge about my replacing him during the series. He was simply a great guy. To get in the Series and then to have some guy moved entirely out of position to take your place. He’d take me out there during workouts and tried to give me a crash course in shortstop. He was such a great competitor. He played hurt, he played hungover. He never complained. We all loved that guy.”

Just five days after winning the ’68 Series Oyler was left unprotected for the American League expansion draft and was the third player chosen by the Seattle Pilots. After one season in Seattle he finished his major league career in 1970 with the California Angels before playing two more years in the Pacific Coast League.

After leaving baseball Oyler remained in the Seattle area where he managed a bowling alley, and worked for Boeing and Safeway Stores. In 1981 at age 42 he died after suffering a heart attack.

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About Bill Dow

Bill Dow has written numerous articles on Detroit sports history as a regular freelance contributor to the Detroit Free Press sports page, and some of his work has been published in Baseball Digest magazine. He also wrote the Afterword to the latest editions of George Plimpton’s book Paper Lion.