Postion(s) – Pitcher, Outfield
Years – 1919-1920, 1922-1923, 1928-1934
Teams – New York (A), Boston (A), New York (N), Philadelphia (N), Brooklyn
Bats – L
Throws – L
Why you should care: O’Doul won two batting titles (1929, 1932) and set a National League record for hits in a season with 254. He also played a key role in bringing organized baseball to Japan through diplomacy and instruction. As a manager for the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League from 1935-1951, he led the team to five championships. He also mentored a young shortstop named Joe DiMaggio and advised another young player who was on the rival San Diego franchise, Ted Williams, never to let anyone change his swing. The San Francisco Giants named a gate at AT&T Park after him when the stadium opened in 2000.
The fine print: If anyone could relate, fully, to Tony Bennett’s signature ballad, it was Francis Joseph “Lefty” O’Doul.
Although he was a baseball nomad in every sense of the word – traveling the world with his cleats in one hand and a ready pat on the back available with the other – his heart always belonged to San Francisco.
It was his birthplace and beloved hometown and lifelong connection there helped to tether him, to provide an emotional anchor if not a physical one. And he needed it, because his baseball life was a dizzying adventure, unique in its twists and turns.
He was a pitcher and a hitter, a mentor and an ambassador, and a restaurateur and local icon. Mostly, he was a baseball man who loved and respected the game and accepted the mercurial winds that pushed him and his peers from city to city. It’s just that the gusts that pushed O’Doul were gustier than most.
And that first big gale landed him in New York.
As a rookie pitcher, he’d shown enough potential to attract the attention of the Yankees and made his big league debut with them in 1919.
However, things didn’t go well in Gotham. The young left-hander rarely took the mound. In fact, in his first two seasons with the Yankees, he pitched a grand total of 8 2/3 innings and then was unceremoniously shipped to the minors – New York probably could have reissued his uniform to the next rookie in line without even having to launder it.
In 1922, the Yankees repurchased his contract, but the team had little more use for him. He pitched only 16 innings for them that season and then was traded in the offseason to the Red Sox.
In Boston, with a brand new opportunity awaiting, his performance disintegrated. He finished the year with a 5.43 ERA in 53 innings and allowed an even 100 baserunners. Later, it was discovered that he had seriously damaged his arm along the way. Whether or not the injury had caused his struggles or if it had merely been the coup de grace to miserable season, O’Doul’s short-lived big league career seemed to be over.
However, he was determined to stay in the game, even if it mean that he had to reinvent himself on the diamond. With his pitching arm in tatters, he returned to San Francisco, caught on with various teams in the Pacific Coast League (PCL) including the hometown Seals, and immersed himself in the nuances of hitting.
To his credit, that conversion – from pitcher to hitter – went seamlessly. O’Doul proved to be an extraordinary talent at the plate. To punctuate his transformation, he terrorized PCL pitching in 1927 with a .378 batting average and 33 home runs.
And the Majors came calling once again. In 1928, he returned to the big leagues, this time with John McGraw’s New York Giants. In his first full season back, O’Doul hit .319, a remarkable achievement considering his relative inexperience in his new discipline.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said for his glovework.
O’Doul’s defense in the outfield was ragged, at best. However, in fairness, it was enough to ask of him to re-emerge as a legitimate big league hitter capable of cresting the .300 mark. His pedestrian defense was the trade off for his unexpectedly splendid offense.
Still, the Giants – who played in the Polo Grounds with its great outfield expanse – decided they couldn’t afford such a trade off. So, they dealt O’Doul to the Philadelphia Phillies, who would reap the rewards of his true emergence as an elite hitter.
In 1929, Lefty O’Doul – the struggling pitcher who had taught himself how to hit just to be able to stay in the game – had a season for the ages. He won the National League batting title with a .398 average and set the league record, which he still shares, for hits in a season with 254. As icing, he added 32 home runs with 122 RBI’s and finished second in the National League MVP voting to legendary Rogers Hornsby – not bad for a player in just his second full season as a big league hitter.
Although his lagging defense remained an obstacle, his bat never failed him. In 1930, he followed up his near-MVP year with an impressive encore, batting .383 with 22 homers and 97 RBI’s. A trade to Brooklyn didn’t deter his considerable offensive roll. In 1932, he won his second batting crown with a .368 average.
In his final big league season, 1934, he appropriately reached .300 one last time, batting .316 for the team with which he started his redemptive journey, the Giants. It was a fitting curtain call for one of the game’s great comebacks.
In just seven seasons, O’Doul evolved from a sore-armed pitcher hoping to hang on as the ultimate long shot into one of the game’s most dangerous hitters. Perhaps, there is no greater evidence of his brilliant legacy than his rank among the best who ever played. His .349 lifetime batting average remains the fourth highest in Major League history.
And if O’Doul’s baseball story had ended there, it would have been wonderfully compelling. However, he was a restless soul, and his passion for the game simply wouldn’t allow for any separation. So, he just kept adding chapters.
After his big league playing days were over, he went home to San Francisco and was named manager of his old team, the Seals. From 1935 to 1951, he led the ballclub to five Coast League championships and counted among his disciples a young shortstop from the city’s Italian North Beach neighborhood named Joe DiMaggio. The gifted young player had marvelous natural ability but was as raw as an uncooked porterhouse.
Though O’Doul later deflected any credit for DiMaggio’s ascent in the game, the fact remains that DiMaggio’s development under his direction went well enough to bring the best team in the Majors, the New York Yankees, out West with mouths agape and a check book equally wide open.
In an interesting twist, O’Doul also had an influence on DiMaggio’s great rival, Ted Williams. While the gangly outfielder was playing for the PCL’s San Diego franchise, O’Doul approached him one day before a game and advised the young hitter to never let anyone change his swing.
Later, as DiMaggio and Williams reached Major League greatness and became the key symbols of the game’s most bitter rivalry – between the Yankees and Red Sox – their roots in the sport could be traced directly back to O’Doul.
Perhaps, his most fantastic baseball travels took him all the way to Asia. Beginning in 1934, O’Doul organized exhibition tours of Japan by Major League stars, including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. However, it was O’Doul who personally cultivated the connection between the two countries by taking the time to teach and encourage Japanese players, fostering a growing interest in the sport.
Years later, he took some of his PCL teams with him and even organized trips for Japanese teams to visit and play games in America. All the while, O’Doul stayed connected to the baseball movement in Japan as it continued to develop.
Of course, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor had a devastating effect on that connection. However, even that catastrophic divide was eventually bridged after Douglas MacArthur personally asked O’Doul to act as a diplomatic envoy to Japan after the war, naturally using baseball as the cooperative vehicle.
For his efforts, he was the first American Major Leaguer to be inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. He is also credited with inspiring the name of Japan’s flagship franchise – the Giants – after his last big league team.
No matter where the game took him, though, he was never completely apart from his beloved San Francisco. As the road beckoned less and his favorite city tightened its hold, O’Doul became one of the area’s most recognized and cherished celebrities. In fact, he was such a presence around town that he simply became known as “The Man in the Green Suit” after his penchant for wearing emerald-hued clothing.
When he passed away in 1969, thousands of fellow San Franciscans attended his funeral, mourning the loss of one of the city’s favorite sons. However, his legacy in town remains.
The San Francisco Giants moved into a new ballpark in the China Basin area in 2000 and fittingly not only named a gate after O’Doul but also the bridge spanning Mission Channel leading up to the stadium.
Not far away, the restaurant he opened in 1958 – which bears his name – is located on Geary between Powell and Mason, just blocks away from the bustle of Union Square.
It still attracts sports fans from all over the city looking for an unpretentious place to watch a game and enjoy a beverage. Inside, the walls are covered with photos of O’Doul’s fascinating trek through a myriad of baseball frontiers.
Through it all, the photos portray a charming consistency – a mischievous glint, a ready smile, and a barely detectable look of longing, which from just the right angle looks a little like homesickness.
So, maybe, it’s appropriate for an establishment which carries his name and houses a scrapbook of his remarkable baseball adventure to be located in the very heart of his hometown.
Linn, Ed, “Hitter: The Life and Turmoils of Ted Williams,” Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1994.
Freedman, Lew, “The Day All the Stars Came Out: Major League Baseball’s First All-Star Game, 1933,” McFarland, 2010.