Why You Should Care – Player Profile – Lefty O’Doul

Lefty O’Doul

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.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/o/o%27doule01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/H_season.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Lefty_O%27Doul#Year-by-Year_Managerial_Record

Linn, Ed, “Hitter: The Life and Turmoils of Ted Williams,” Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1994.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/batting_avg_career.shtml

http://articles.sfgate.com/2002-06-24/bay-area/17547602_1_japanese-baseball-hall-baseball-stars-mayor-willie-brown/2

http://www.californiapioneers.org/sanfran_seals.html

Freedman, Lew, “The Day All the Stars Came Out: Major League Baseball’s First All-Star Game, 1933,” McFarland, 2010.

Photos:

http://ph.cdn.photos.upi.com/slideshow/full/c7c75a48e58a08d3ead7ed71b16e0a50/San-Francisco-Fog.jpg

http://prints.encore-editions.com/0/500/frank-lefty-o-doul-new-york-al-baseball.jpg

http://www.sparkletack.com/wp-content/img/podcast_img/61/young_lefty.jpg

http://90feetofperfection.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/1930-philadelphia-phillies-baseball-photo-lefty-odoul.jpg

http://www.mearsonlineauctions.com/LotImages/26/14beb6d0-6364-45b6-b6f8-7ead29336367_lg.jpeg

http://90feetofperfection.files.wordpress.com/2010/10/tedwilliamsasasdpadre2.jpg

http://webbie1.sfpl.org/multimedia/sfphotos/AAD-3205.jpg

http://www.inetours.com/images/Restaurants/O%27Doul%27s_Front.jpg

http://www.sparkletack.com/wp-content/img/podcast_img/61/odoul_restaurant4.jpg

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October Snapshots

Heroes are still lauded and goats horned. It just happens faster – much faster – during the World Series. Baseball time is accelerated to the point where a single play – and in some cases, a single instant within a single play – can define a player’s entire career.

Consider the fate of a trio of players whose baseball lives were changed forever by individual moments in the October spotlight, three snapshots capturing the very best and worst the game has to dish out to the men who play it.

Dateline – Boston, Massachusetts, October 21, 1975. The Boston Red Sox knew they were fighting against history. The team hadn’t won a World Series title since 1918 when a gifted young left handed pitcher named George Ruth threw a pair of gems, including a shutout in the Series opener, and led Boston to a championship crown. Two years later, Ruth discovered that his ability to hit a baseball dwarfed even his considerable skill in throwing it, and he would go on to revolutionize the game, ushering in the thunderous age of the home run. He’d even been given the peculiar nickname, Babe, along the way.

Unfortunately for the Red Sox, he staged that revolution wearing a New York Yankees uniform, because Boston owner Harry Frazee – who was perpetually dulling his manicure scratching for nickels – sold Ruth’s contract just as the burgeoning slugger was was finding his stroke. To make matters worse, Frazee didn’t reinvest the proceeds back into the team. Instead, he diverted the funds into his other entrepreneurial venue, musical theater. So, in essence, the greatest slugger in the history of the game was exchanged for a handful of show tunes.

The rest, as they say, was history. And it was that history the 1975 Red Sox were still fighting against fifty-five years later.

So, when Boston, who trailed the Cincinnati Reds three games to two in the World Series, was pushed into extra innings in Game Six, the cursed aura of Ruth’s history seemed to be winning again.

They needed something, anything, to save them from elimination and another frigid New England winter shivering in disappointment.

The Red Sox rising young catcher Carlton Fisk knew all about the harsh Northeastern off seasons. He grew up in Charlestown, New Hampshire – squarely in the shadow of Boston’s generational tussle with its baseball past. So, he knew exactly what it would mean to the franchise and its tortured fan base if he could deliver the promise of a Game Seven and one more chance to win a championship.

When he stepped up to the plate in the bottom of the of the 12th inning, all of that was waiting for him – his New England roots, the hope and dread of the nervous crowd, and the foreboding weight of the team’s past failures. As Cincinnati’s Pat Darcy delivered his second pitch, everything collided as Fisk swung the bat.

He hit a soaring drive directly down the left field line and began to frantically wave his arms, trying to will the ball to stay fair. When it did, Fisk danced around the bases, the Boston crowd stormed the field, and Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” played triumphantly in the background.

It was one of the great moments in Red Sox history and a snapshot of Carlton Fisk that has served as the lasting image of his brilliant career.

Interestingly, Fisk’s dramatic performance ended up overshadowing the fact that Boston lost Game Seven and the Series to Cincinnati the next evening. That the eventual outcome of the championship wound up a mere footnote to one extraordinary instant for the losing side speaks to the magnitude of the moment.

As further proof, it even transcended the sport. One of the best scenes in the Academy Award-winning film “Good Will Hunting” featured the Fisk homer as its central theme.

How was anyone supposed to know that Pudge was going to hit a home run?

Sometimes, those snapshots aren’t quite as flattering, though.

Dateline – Flushing, New York, October 25, 1986. Bill Buckner played in the big leagues for twenty-two seasons, won a batting title, and finished his accomplished career with 2,715 hits. However, no one remembers any of that. Instead, all people seem to recall is one instant of human failure, forcing Buckner to learn the game’s hardest lesson – a big enough mistake at the wrong time can undo decades of heroics.

Playing first base for the Boston Red Sox in 1986, Buckner found himself in the World Series, only a single out away from the championship, when the wrong moment came bouncing ominously his way.

Boston’s opponent, the New York Mets, were trailing 5-3 with two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning of Game Six when they put on a furious rally. Parlaying three straight base hits and a wild pitch into the two runs they needed to tie the score, they put the potential winning run at second with outfielder Mookie Wilson coming up to bat.

Wilson hit a slow roller up the first base line, the kind of ball Buckner had successfully fielded hundreds of times before. However, when he ambled over to get it this time – in a moment that would haunt him for years – the ball inexplicably trickled under his glove. The winning run came all the way around from second to give the Mets a stunning victory.

The snapshot of Buckner leaving the field after Game Six with the unforgettable look of shock and embarrassment became the poster for the ultimate cautionary tale in the sport. You better make the play or it will unmake you.

And the degree to which that one mistake unmade him was stunning. After the Sox dropped Game Seven two nights later, the focus on the lost championship all but won a game earlier was directed squarely towards the Red Sox first baseman. The media was merciless in rehashing the moment, over and over. And they never let him forget it.

Because of the repetitive drumbeat of watching the replays and reading articles retelling the story, it became more and more difficult for people to separate the player from the play. Eventually, there simply wasn’t any separation – Buckner became the error and, by extension, a euphemism for sports misery. For years, anytime any player made a mistake in a crucial game Buckner’s name would inevitably be brought up by the press.

And hero-making and scapegoating is an ongoing process.

For better or worse, October baseball has an eternal eye open, especially during the World Series. Perhaps, it’s the intensity of the stage – entire seasons often hang on a crucial play or two. And the relentless lens of the postseason never stops focusing on the moment, ready to lionize or condemn in an instant. So, every championship brings fresh potential for snapshots, and in 2011, one picture clearly stood out more than the rest.

Dateline – St. Louis, Missouri, October 27, 2011. David Freese had told anyone who would listen that he was just happy to be there. And there was good reason for that. After spending nearly four seasons in the minor leagues and having a series of injuries limit his playing time in the Majors once he arrived, he finally had a starting position – for his hometeam team.

Growing up in Wildwood, Missouri, Freese idolized Ozzie Smith and the rest of the St. Louis Cardinals. In fact, during a brief stint as a pitcher in his youth, he donned the number “45” as a tribute to longtime Cardinal pitching ace Bob Gibson.

So, winning a starting job at the Major League level was thrilling enough. Manning third base for the team he’d dreamed of playing for must have been surreal, in a good way.

And just when the elasticity of believability and good fortune was stretched to its limits, the World Series pulled it even further.

The Cardinals had clawed their way into the postseason by overcoming a 10 ½ game deficit over the last month of the regular season. In the playoffs, they had beaten the heavily favored Philadelphia Phillies and slugging Milwaukee Brewers. In the World Series, they fell behind the Texas Rangers three games to two and were losing by three runs with only two innings left in Game Six (yes, more Game Six madness!).

Although St. Louis had cut the lead to two runs in the eighth, they were now down to their final strike in the bottom of the ninth. And everything rested on the kid from Wildwood to save the season. With two runners on, Freese hit a long looping fly ball into right field. Texas outfielder Nelson Cruz made a desperate leap for the ball, but it landed just beyond his glove and bounced against the fence.

As Freese sprinted into third with a triple, the other two runners scored and the game was tied – new life granted with an electrifying bolt out of the blue.

In the 10th, the Rangers re-took the lead, only to watch the Cards tie it back up.

In the 11th, Freese made his way to the plate again and, this time, delivered the dagger that finally put Texas away. During a game in which the lead changed hands five different times, he hit a booming fly ball to straight away center with no outstretched gloves in the vicinity. As he rounded first, he thrust his right arm up in the air in triumph. As his giddy teammates spilled out of the dugout to celebrate, David Freese’s October snapshot was made complete.

Whether or not David Freese’s moment of triumph will endure in World Series lore like the disparate images of Fisk and Buckner remains to be seen. Certainly, the timing of Freese’s dramatic homer – capping, perhaps, the greatest game in World Series history – will help. However, historical memory takes time, because the snapshots that are commemorated in that album stay fixed for years, recalled instantly at the mere mention of a name or circumstance.

So, decades from now, the name of the young St. Louis third baseman or the phrase – Game Six, Cards/Rangers – may conjure the reflexive image of a euphoric hero in crimson circling the bases with a triumphant fist in the air.

World Series moments have that kind of power. Just ask Carlton Fisk, Bill Buckner, or the next unwitting player whose baseball life will change in an October instant.

Sources:

http://www.accuracyproject.org/cbe-Frazee,Harry.html

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/r/ruthba01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/BOS/BOS197510210.shtml

Shaughnessy, Dan, At Fenway: Dispatches from Red Sox Nation, Random House Digital, Inc. 1997.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/b/bucknbi01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYN/NYN198610250.shtml

http://articles.latimes.com/2001/apr/13/sports/sp-50553

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/SLN/SLN201110270.shtml

Photos:

http://www.angleton.isd.tenet.edu/secondary/hs/smith/web/webs%202010/Boston_Red_Sox/Images/carlton%20fisk.jpg

http://img.timeinc.net/time/photoessays/2008/world_series/world_series_buckner.jpg

http://s3.amazonaws.com/data.tumblr.com/tumblr_lts4niRjU51qm9rypo1_1280.jpg?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAJ6IHWSU3BX3X7X3Q&Expires=1320996468&Signature=mU3TSu2J7G9hzIvkmRmDOU6zglA%3D

Videos:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jg_9FQk6UnA