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Lefty O'Doul

By Scott Ferkovich, February 1, 2015

Lefty O’Doul is an institution in San Francisco, the city of his birth and of his greatest success as a minor league manager. And he was one of the men most responsible for promoting professional baseball in Japan. But O’Doul’s legacy, at least regarding his place in the pantheon of the game’s greatest players, is often overlooked.

O’Doul’s detractors will point out his inadequacies. His career was too short, they will say. He played his home games in bandboxes that padded his left-handed-hitting statistics. His best years were in the late 1920s and early ’30s, when a jackrabbit baseball powered a league-wide high-octane offense of historic proportions. He was an atrocious fielder with a poor throwing arm. He was a carouser who didn’t take the game seriously enough.

Each of these arguments has an element of truth, to a greater or lesser extent. Certainly, O’Doul couldn’t argue the last point. “I was no angel,” he admitted.

Had he played today, he would have been an ideal designated hitter. Bob Stevens of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “He could run like a deer. Unfortunately, he threw like one, too.” 

In late August of 1933, during “Lefty O’Doul Day” at the Polo Grounds, O’Doul was presented with a gold statuette by members of the Lefty O’Doul Club of the Brooklyn Y.M.C.A.  The boys’ group, wearing uniforms provided and paid for by Lefty, was organized after O’Doul addressed several hundred youngsters at the “Y”. 

But say what you will about the holes in his game, O’Doul was one of the greatest natural hitters the sport has ever seen.

Would you be surprised if I told you that O’Doul is fourth all-time in career batting average, for players with at least 3,000 plate appearances? You can look it up: Ty Cobb, .366; Rogers Hornsby, .359; Shoeless Joe Jackson, .356; Lefty O’Doul, .349. Pretty good company.

Early in his career it looked like the story was never going to get written. O’Doul started out as a pitcher, for his hometown San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League (PCL). Following a 12-win campaign in 1918, the 21-year-old was drafted by the New York Yankees. He spent the 1919 and 1920 seasons in the Bronx, making only a handful of mound appearances. His primary role on the team was that of batting practice pitcher (as well as late-night cohort of fellow carouser Babe Ruth).

Back with San Francisco in 1921, O’Doul came into his own as a pitcher, winning 25 games with a 2.39 ERA. He also showed promise at the plate, hitting .338 in 136 at-bats.

Twenty-two-year-old Francis “Lefty” O’Doul made his major league debut in 1919 as a member of the New York Yankees.

It was back to the Bronx in 1922, but once again O’Doul spent most of his time sitting on the bench. Arm injuries prevented him from pitching, and on September 29 he learned that he had been traded to the Boston Red Sox (in fact, he was the “player-to-be-named-later” in a deal that had been consummated back on June 23). Yankees Manager Miller Huggins kept him around for the World Series, however, in order to pitch BP. O’Doul received a full share of the Yankees’ World Series booty, but his future as a professional baseball player seemed anything but assured.

O’Doul’s pitching career reached its nadir on July 7, 1923, at Dunn Field in Cleveland. Pitching for the Red Sox, he allowed 13 runs in an inning, a record that still stands. O’Doul flopped in Beantown and was returned to the PCL, this time to the Salt Lake City Bees. Forced to finally give up pitching due to his lingering arm pain, O’Doul became a full-time outfielder, hitting .392 in 1924. The next season was even better: In 198 games, he totaled 309 hits, with 63 doubles and 24 home runs, while batting .375. 

Lefty hits a homer for the San Francisco Seals in a game against Salt Lake in 1925.

Chicago Cubs owner William Wrigley Jr. had been particularly impressed by O’Doul after watching him hit in the minors and plunked down $30,000 for him following the 1925 season. Supposedly, O’Doul was the only player that the chewing gum magnate purchased entirely on his own, without any input from his scouts. But Cubs Manager Joe McCarthy was never a big fan of O’Doul (whether for his fielding deficiencies or for his carousing ways, or for both) and shipped him back to the bushes.

After winning the PCL’s Most Valuable Player Award in another tour of duty with the Seals in 1927, O’Doul was bought by John McGraw’s New York Giants. But like McCarthy before him, McGraw viewed O’Doul as a limited player who burned too much midnight oil. Still, O’Doul saw significant action for the first time at the Major League level in his lone year at the Polo Grounds, getting into 114 games and batting .319 in 1928.

After the season, he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies, who played in the claustrophobic confines of Baker Bowl, with its 60-foot right-field wall that seemed close enough to spit at. “Every time I came to bat,” he recalled, “I looked at that high fence and felt sure I could hit it.” And more often than not, he did. 

Playing for Philadelphia in 1929, Lefty O’Doul had 144 hits in 318 at-bats at Baker Bowl. 

O’Doul put on quite a batting show that long-ago summer of 1929. In 154 games, he banged 35 doubles and scored 152 times. He drove in 122. His 76 walks contributed to his National League-leading .465 on-base percentage. He is the only player in baseball history to have a season with over 30 home runs (32) and less than 20 strikeouts (19). He established a National League single-season record with 254 hits (a figure matched the following season by Bill Terry of the Giants). O’Doul’s .398 batting average topped the National League. It is also the highest of any National League outfielder in the twentieth century. One more hit that summer, and he would have finished at an even .400. (O’Doul batted .3981, which is the closest a player has ever come without reaching the magic mark, besting Harry Heilmann’s .3980 in 1927.) At Baker Bowl, O’Doul batted an incredible .453 (.344 on the road).

He had been in a groove, all right. “The ball looked like a balloon to me that summer.”

But the ball looked like a balloon to most batters in 1929, a year that saw the National League bat a collective .294. The hit parade continued unabated the following season. O’Doul checked in at .383. The Phillies, losers of 102 games, batted .315, while their pitchers sported an ERA of 6.71. The entire NL batted .303.

On September 24, 1931, New York Mayor Jimmy Walker presented medals to the “Field Event Winners” following a benefit game between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Robins at the Polo Grounds. Babe Ruth hit the longest fungo drive (421 feet 8 inches), Ben Chapman made the longest throw (392 feet 10 inches), Ethan Allen was the quickest in circling the bases (13.8 seconds), and Lefty O'Doul won the sprint to first base (3.3 seconds).

It was O’Doul’s final year in the City of Brotherly Love. Traded to Brooklyn, he hit .340 in two and a half seasons at Ebbets Field, including another batting title in 1932. By June of 1933, he was traded back to the Giants (now managed by Bill Terry), who went on to the World Series that year. In Game 2, O’Doul drove in two runs with a single. It was his only career World Series at-bat. The Giants won the championship in five games. 

The 1933 New York Giants defeated the Washington Senators to claim the World Championship, their first since 1922.

After one more summer with the Giants, in which he batted .316 in limited duty, O’Doul began the next phase of his baseball career. He landed the job as manager of the San Francisco Seals. He even inserted himself as pinch-hitter on occasion.

He stayed at the helm for the next 17 years.

The Seals won multiple pennants during O’Doul’s tenure. He is credited with mentoring Joe DiMaggio when the future Yankee Clipper was still a fresh-faced teenager. “I was just smart enough to leave him alone,” he observed.

After skippering the San Diego Padres, Oakland Oaks, Vancouver Mounties, and Seattle Rainiers, O’Doul finally retired following the 1957 season, at age 60. He ended his legendary managing career in the PCL with more than 2,000 wins (ninth on the all-time list among minor league skippers). His last pinch-hitting appearance came with Vancouver in 1956, when the 59-year-old legged out a triple.

O’Doul later became a part-time hitting coach with the San Francisco Giants and was a cherished sounding board for hitters like Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, and Ted Williams.

His sartorial preferences earned him the nickname “The Man in the Green Suit.” With his engaging, fun-loving personality, O’Doul was one of the game’s greatest ambassadors, particularly in Japan. Beginning in 1931, he took numerous excursions to the Land of the Rising Sun. Touring with fellow Major Leaguers such as Frankie Frisch, Lou Gehrig, Lefty Grove, Charlie Gehringer, Lefty Gomez, Connie Mack, Al Simmons, and Babe Ruth, O’Doul played in exhibitions before huge crowds and instructed the enthusiastic Japanese on the finer points of the game. He helped to form the Japanese professional baseball league and is credited with coming up with the nickname for the Yomiuri (Tokyo) Giants.

Baseball’s goodwill ambassador in 1945.

After World War II, O’Doul renewed his efforts to improve Japanese-American relations through baseball. In 1949, he brought his San Francisco Seals for a series of exhibition games against American service teams and Japanese clubs. None other than General Douglas MacArthur praised O’Doul for helping to lift the morale of the war-ravaged nation. “All the diplomats together would not have been able to do that,” he said. “This is the greatest piece of diplomacy ever.”

In 1958, O’Doul branched out into the restaurant business, opening Lefty O’Doul’s Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge on Geary Street in San Francisco. To this day, the joint is a landmark watering hole among both tourists and locals.

O’Doul died in 1969. Part of the inscription on his tombstone reads: “He was here at a good time and had a good time while he was here.”

He was elected to the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame in 1981 and the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 2002. And Cooperstown? O’Doul’s chances for induction are slim to nonexistent. For the record, he has the highest career batting average of any player not in the Hall. While he may not have a bronze plaque in upstate New York, O’Doul does have something equally enduring: The Lefty O’Doul Bridge, adjacent to the San Francisco Giants’ beautiful waterfront park, was named in honor of San Francisco’s favorite son of the diamond.

Featured in Lawrence Ritter’s classic The Glory of Their Times, O’Doul made it clear that his favorite aspect of the game was socking that old pill: “When I was playing ball in the Big Leagues my bats would be jumping up and down in the trunk. Couldn’t wait to get to the ball park and grab that bat. Big crowd, sock a triple, nothing like it! Maybe I was a ham. What’s the use of doing something when nobody’s looking? But a packed ball park, crowd roaring, the guy throws a great breaking ball, you hit it on the nose and drive it over the outfielder’s head. What a thrill!”

Home-town heroes Joe Cronin and Lefty O’Doul are surrounded by admirers upon their arrival in San Francisco following the 1933 World Series.

 

 

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