Why You Shoud Care – Player Profile – Sadaharu Oh

Sadaharu Oh

Position: First Baseman
Years: 1959 – 1980
Teams: Tokyo Giants, Yomiuri Giants

Bats: L
Throws: L

Why you should care: Oh was unquestionably the greatest player in Japanese Baseball history.  His career home run total of 868 still stands as the most ever by a single player, not only in Japan but, in the world.  In addition to his remarkable prowess as a power hitter, he was also an exceptional defender, winning nine Gold Glove awards.

Above all else, Oh was a winner.

He led the Tokyo – and later, Yomiuri – Giants to 11 championships in a 13-year stretch, a remarkable run of dominance.  Known for his trademark batting stance, Oh was a complete hitter.  That stance, which began by standing in one leg, helped to produce a .301 lifetime batting average and 2,786 career hits, in addition to all of those home runs.

After he retired as a player, Oh managed the Giants for five seasons before being hired as the skipper for the Fukuoka Hawks, a post he held for fourteen years.  He also won a pair of championships while with the Hawks.

As a final encore, Oh was named manager for Team Japan in the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006, and, as befitting his extraordinary legacy, led his team to the title.

The fine print: The laws of physics should have prevented it.

Of course, hitting a baseball while standing on one leg defied any number of conventions.  However, Sadaharu Oh did it for 22 seasons.  And, more remarkably, did it with such ferocity that he set an international record for home runs that still stands.

For sheer scale, his career total of 868 is astonishing.  Consider that such a staggering number is 150 more than Babe Ruth hit, 110 more than Hank Aaron, and over 100 better than Barry Bonds’ Major League record.  Not only that, Oh compiled the number playing most of his career within a 130-game schedule, nearly 25% fewer games than the Major League season.

Critics counter with the argument that Japanese Baseball, even today, is a substantially lesser product than the Major Leagues.  And the quality was lesser still when Oh played in the 1950’s through the 1970’s.  So, some considerable discount inevitably applies when comparing his achievements to those of big league greats like Bonds, Aaron, and Ruth.

However, that argument misses the greater point, namely Oh’s undeniable talent.  Trying to translate his Japanese stats into specific Major League equivalents is pointless, if not impossible.  It’s not about what he might have done in the U.S.  It’s about what he did in Japan.  And what he did was extraordinary, no matter the geography.

Still, if an American endorsement is somehow necessary – although it shouldn’t be – to provide Western credibility to his accomplishments, no less an authority than Hall of Fame pitcher Don Drysdale, a ferocious competitor and notoriously unsentimental towards hitters, provided one.  “He would have hit for average and power here. In a park tailored to his swing, there’s no telling how many he would have hit.”

Greatness recognizes greatness, no translation required.

Although Oh is remembered almost exclusively as a home run hitter, he was a spectacularly complete player.  Perhaps lost in the prodigious gravity of his home run mark are the impressive nuances of his game.

As one of the premier defensive players of his generation, he won nine consecutive Gold Glove awards at first base.  In fact, the award itself was not in existence until 1972, thirteen years after Oh’s debut in 1959.  So, there’s little question that he would have garnered several more while he was in his prime had they been given out earlier.

At the plate, he was a marvel of discipline, collecting over 100 walks a year for 16 consecutive seasons and amassed 2,390 of them over his brilliant career.  That selectivity at the plate narrowed his focus considerably, allowing him to specifically wait for pitches with which he could inflict the most damage.  In 1973, he demonstrated the practice with startling efficiency, hitting .355 with 51 homers and drew 124 walks.  The performance earned him the MVP award, the sixth of nine he would eventually win.

And when it came to winning, few could match Oh’s resume.  He was Japan’s greatest player on the country’s most visible team, the Tokyo Giants.  Playing in the epicenter of the nation, he did not disappoint.  Teaming with slugging third baseman Shigeo Nagashima, Oh led the Giants to 11 championships in 13 years.

The winning happened so often and with such cool efficiency that the Giants seemed less men and more machine.  And Oh’s sleek, flawless game epitomized that precision.

However, lost in the growing expectation of perfection were the struggles of heart and muscle inside the uniforms – none more so than the challenges faced by the seemingly invincible Oh.  Despite the fluidity of his play and his placid demeanor on the field, Oh trained relentlessly, constantly seeking improvement.  Utilizing martial arts principles from different disciplines like kendo and aikido for balance and leverage, he also incorporated the philosophy of those disciplines into his approach to the game.

Holistically speaking, it could be said that Oh was truly as complete a player as had ever taken the field – body, mind, and spirit in synch with the sport.

Inexplicably, for many, it wasn’t good enough.

Despite three 50-homer seasons and ten more with at least 40 home runs; despite a trophy case bulging with Gold Gloves, MVP awards, and championship rings, he was viewed with tepid interest at home and with skepticism abroad.

In Japan, his teammate Nagashima was always more popular, despite the distance from Oh’s statistical stratosphere.  Some claimed Nagashima’s fiery temperament generated more appeal than Oh’s guarded intensity.  However, a disquieting cultural undercurrent likely held the greater truth.  Oh’s lineage – Chinese on his father’s side – tainted him, socially.  Nagashima, a full-blood Japanese, carried no such stigma.

For Oh, the frustration must have been maddening.  He simply could not do anything more on the field to win them over.  His accomplishments were staggering.  Yet, it was Nagashima – albeit a star player in his own right but one from a less prominent constellation – who received national adoration, his adoration.

In the U.S., Oh’s accomplishments, particularly his career home run mark, weren’t regarded with much genuine respect, let alone reverence.  Using the Major Leagues as a benchmark, American fans and pundits largely dismissed Oh’s statistical avalanche as an ancillary anomaly performed in a quaint but inferior baseball environment.

It was a strange reaction from two of the world’s most prominent baseball communities to have towards one of the great talents in the game.

However, whether it was a by-product of his martial arts training or the strength of his natural character, Oh handled it all with uncommon grace and honor.  And in a society that treasures such traits, its lack of embrace of a heroic figure like Oh is all the more puzzling.

Such is the warrior’s way.  Victory in solitude is reward enough.

After his playing days, Oh stayed connected to the Giants, eventually being hired as manager in 1984.  However, he could not guide his old team to a title.  The championships that were practically a given during his heyday now eluded the Giants, their invincibility a distant memory.

After just over four seasons, the ultimate Giant was forced out – leaving behind the only professional ball club he had ever known.

Fittingly, Oh’s baseball story did not end there.  It couldn’t.  Being pushed onto the street by the franchise he had lifted to greatness simply would not do as his final image in the game.

In 1995 he was able to take a more appropriate curtain call.  He was hired as manager of the Fukuoka Hawks and held the post for fourteen years, where he added two more championships crowns to his winning resume. 

And in the course of his tenure with the team, he mentored young players – preaching his philosophy of synergy and effort and molding a perennial also-ran into a consistent winner.  One of his protégés, catcher Kenji Johjima, carried his teachings all the way to the Major Leagues – playing four seasons for the Seattle Mariners.

However, two rare blemishes to his otherwise sterling reputation also occurred while he was with the Hawks.  On separate occasions, foreign players closed in on Oh’s single-season home run record of 55.  And each time, Hawks’ pitchers deliberately pitched around the would-be record breaker late in the season, ensuring Oh’s hold on the mark.

Although Oh denied allegations that he had directly ordered his pitchers to preserve his record at all costs, the damage had been done.  Western critics, in particular, were quick to denounce the entire episode and labeled the record as fraudulent.  It probably didn’t help that a third similar instance had occurred years earlier when he was managing the Giants.  ESPN even smugly ranked the mark among its list of “Phoniest Records in Sports.”

Though, it is curious how the record went from meaning so little in certain circles when Oh set it to sparking insults and indignity when it was prevented from being broken.  Perhaps, it is all about who is doing the setting and who is doing the breaking, after all.

Tarnished reputation or not, Oh finally had the opportunity to shine on an international stage when, in 2006, he was named manager of Team Japan for the inaugural World Baseball Classic – a month-long tournament pitting All-star squads from the greatest baseball-playing nations in the world against one another.

The Americans, Dominicans, and Cubans garnered most of the pre-tournament attention.  The Japanese were largely an afterthought – skilled but woefully undersized, inescapably vulnerable to the power and strength of the American and Latin players.

Led by Ichiro Suzuki, who had burst onto the Major League scene in the US in 2001 and was widely considered the best Japanese player in decades, Team Japan had two considerable weapons to help neutralize their power deficit – flawless execution of the fundamentals and an overwhelming sense of national duty.

It was up to Oh to harness those elements and channel them into a winning formula in the span of a few short weeks, but he had to convince the players he was up to the challenge first.  They were mostly jaded professionals who only knew Oh by his fading celebrity – dusty press clippings from a distant age trying to compete for attention in a high-speed, high-def world.  But Oh’s intensity of message won them over.

Perhaps it was because he knew first-hand exactly how difficult earning international respect could be and how rarely the opportunity presented itself.  Whatever the genesis, Oh’s directive resonated – honor the game and your country by playing with maximum effort and focus, because the rest of the world will be watching and judging everything you do.

Ultimately, Team Japan outlasted and out willed them all, defeating Cuba in the tournament final to win the title.  And in a moment of spontaneous celebration, the players rallied around their manager, abandoning any pretense of professional detachment, and tossed their aging coach in the air with unembarrassed joy.

If he had ever wanted or needed validation on a world stage, that tournament victory provided it.

Back home, Oh received devastating news in 2007.  He was diagnosed with stomach cancer.  In an agonizing procedure, his stomach had to be removed.  However, as a testament to his unfailing determination, he not only survived he was back in the Fukuoka dugout for another two seasons.  When he retired after the 2008 season, he left on his own terms – the graceful exit from the game that he deserved.

Today, he remains active in the World Children’s Baseball Fair, a charitable organization he co-founded with Hank Aaron to promote the sport to young people around the globe.  That the two great sluggers – the men at the center of the decades-old argument about whose career home run mark held more merit – could not only become friends but also joint ambassadors of the game to the next generation of players speaks to the futility of that argument.  After all, greatness recognizes greatness, no translation necessary.

Besides, Sadaharu Oh, the hitter who defied physics by balancing on one leg, was more than a stack of numbers to be sifted through to determine some sort of fictitious Major League value.  He was a warrior and a champion.  He was also a gentleman and a committed student of the game.  Mostly, he was a supreme talent who overwhelmed and impressed his competition.

While numbers are certainly part of his story – as they are with any baseball saga – they aren’t the entire one.  However, if a number is to be used to reveal something about his remarkable career, 868 isn’t a bad place to start and finish.

Sources:

http://sports.jrank.org/pages/3487/Oh-Sadaharu-Career-Statistics.html

http://www.seattlepi.com/sports/article/Mariners-Notebook-Say-it-ain-t-so-Oh-Johjima-s-1286108.php

http://www.nytimes.com/1994/08/17/sports/sports-people-baseball-oh-expected-to-manage-again.html?src=pm

http://www.japanesebaseball.com/writers/display.gsp?id=21172

http://www.amiannoying.com/(S(jnptt1zzqixlj155rrnpe155))/collection.aspx?collection=7510

Photos:

http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_dfWsvfeutrw/SOVeLlL2y2I/AAAAAAAAAg8/qR2m6Y4GV6c/s320/81+Calbee+Oh.jpg

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/images/photos2008/sb20081029j1a.jpg

http://images.google.com/hosted/life/f?imgurl=0ad1527a60cc7383

http://www.robsjapanesecards.com/20c3.jpg

http://i.cdn.turner.com/sivault/multimedia/photo_gallery/0804/mlb.best.baseball.players.numbers.0-22/images/01.sadaharu-oh.jpg

http://www.aikidojournal.com/blog/media/king0.jpg

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http://img.snowrecords.com/ep/2/11507.jpg

http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2008/05/04/sports/04oh.1.600.jpg

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/ABPub/2009/10/19/2009674482.jpg

http://i.a.cnn.net/si/2006/writers/jon_weisman/03/09/wbc.format/t1_ichiro.jpg

http://photos.signonsandiego.com/gallery1.5/albums/World-Baseball-Classic/NL_WBC_254262x2245.jpg

http://nbchardballtalk.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/japan.jpg?w=320

http://f00.inventorspot.com/images/156464800_6dbfd9b4d6.img_assist_custom.jpg

http://cdn.bleacherreport.net/images_root/slides/photos/000/288/083/SadaharuOh3_display_image.jpg?1278472155

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Why You Should Care – Player Profile – Rube Foster

Rube Foster

Postion(s) – Pitcher, Manager, Executive
Years – 1902-1926
Teams – Chicago Union Giants, Cuban X Giants, Philadelphia Giants, Leland Giants, Chicago American Giants

Bats – R
Throws – R

Why you should care: Foster was the driving force behind the Negro Leagues.  Without his fearless dedication, nationally organized African-American baseball would not have succeeded to the extent it did and may not even have existed at all.  In the face of daunting racial and economic difficulties.  Foster’s unwavering leadrship kept the operation from failing.

And given the multitude of talent that emerged from the Negro Leagues, its success proved crucial to the enrichment of the sport for generations.

He was also a star pitcher in the 1900’s and 1910’s, believed by many to have taught the legendary Christy Mathewson his formidable “fade away” pitch.

As a manager, Foster employed a hyper-aggressive strategy on the diamond, focused heavily on using base runners to put pressure on the defense.  He frequently deployed hit-and-run plays, squeeze bunts, and other methods to create motion on the bases.

In a brilliant career that thrived despite institutional as well as cultural opposition, he did it all – as a player, manager, executive, and pioneer.  The game hasn’t seen such encompassing brilliance since, and, perhaps, never will again.

The fine print: There was something regal about him.

Andrew “Rube” Foster had an aura – an impressive melange of confidence, defiance, and ambition – and he used it to create one of the great organizations in the history of baseball.  More impressively, his ascent of one of the more comprehensive career ladders in the game included multiple triumphs.  And befitting his undeniable charisma, he commanded attention at every rung along the way.

Unfortunately, he was fated to live his remarkable baseball life at a time when most refused to embrace his accomlishments.  Successful black sportsmen were not merely ignored by the sporting public in the early 20th century they were largely reviled.  However, Foster persevered, because that’s what he always did.  He simply outwilled his opponents.

Beginning in 1902, he first garnered attention as a star pitcher for the Chicago Leland Giants, one of the best African-American teams in the country.  The big Texan’s pitching repertoire was daunting – a powerful fastball, a knee-buckling curve ball, and a devastating breaking pitch that almost defied description but was technically labeled a “screwball” when a more apt moniker couldn’t be found.

Reportedly winning more than fifty games a season between 1903 and 1905 for the Cuban X Giants and Philadelphia Giants, Foster was the envy of teams everywhere – Black or White.  Sadly, the sport’s biggest stage, the Majors, refused to provide the arena of opportunity that Foster’s talent demanded, because of a profoundly stupid objection to his pigmentation.  His skin color, however, was mysteriously not an issue when it came time for him to offer advice and pitching instruction to big league players.

No less than the great Christy Mathewson, pitching ace for the New York Giants and considered by many to be the most dominant pitcher of his era, was thought to have learned his greatest pitch, the fade away, from Foster.  However, years of innuendo over the episode – and a lack of tangible proof – have dimmed its credibility.  Still, the fact that so many so readily accepted the story as fact speaks to the legacy of Foster’s considerable picthing skill – that he could be easily seen as teaching one of the true greats of the game how to be even greater by using one of his, Foster’s, trademark pitches.

In 1907, Foster was given the opportunity to more fully demonstrate that teaching ability – as well as his extraordinary capacity as a leader – when he was named the player-manager of the Leland Giants.  His Leland teams, who were based out of Chicago, were fearless.  Under his taut instruction, his players relentlessly raced around the diamond.

Despite the sport’s reputation as a static and halting endeavor, Foster created his own more dynamic version.  Above all else, his vision of the game emphasized speed and precision.  The synchronicity of runners flashing from base to base and the hitter putting the ball in play at the just the right moment and location required immense discipline.

Under less demanding leadership, such a bold strategy would have disintegrated into chaos.  However, Foster demanded attention and obediance because of his supreme confidence in himself and his players.  Subsequently, those players succeeded largely because they simply believed they could not fail.

In 1910, Foster and his players perfected the concept.  Compiling an astonishing 123-6 record that season, the Leland Giants may have been one of the greatest teams to ever take the field.  Led by incomparable shortstop John Henry “Pop” Lloyd, the Giants were a blur on offense and seamless on defense, executing Foster’s demanding game plan flawlessly.

As the cleanup hitter, it was Lloyd who made the team go, finishing the year with a .417 average.  On defense, Lloyd, center fielder Pete Hill, and catcher Bruce Petway gave the ball club formidable strength up the middle of the field (Lloyd and Hill were later inducted into the Hall of Fame, in part, for their defensive prowess).  On the mound, Frank Wickware and Pat Dougherty dazzled.

In 1911, the Leland franchise was re-formed as the Chicago American Giants, and Foster cemented his reputation as one of the game’s greatest managers.  After leading the American Giants to multiple championships (1911-1914, 1916), Foster expanded his influence in the game multi-fold by organizing top African-American teams in the Midwest into the Negro National League in 1920.

Prior to that, African-American baseball was a patchwork of smaller regional leagues operating independantly and on shoestring budgets – diluting revenue potential and, more importantly, talent over a wide-ranging and disconnected wasteland.  Foster’s ability to consolidate the best clubs in his area into one organization and place them in direct competition with one another yielded two important benefits.

First, the increased level of overall play drew more interest which increased the gate and attracted top players.  Second, by securing a league presence in the biggest Midwestern poplation centers, teams had access to better facilities – often renting Major League ballparks while big league clubs were on the road – and were able, in turn, to provide greater access and capacity for fans in big cities to attend games.

Of course, administrating such a sprawling operation was a monumental task.  And there was an added degree of difficulty involved.  Racial tension was never far from anything black businesses tried to accomplish in the 1920’s.

Even with those stacked odds hovering ominously over him, Foster remained unfazed.  When addressing the situation, he once said, “We are the ship, all else the sea.”

And with his steady hand on the wheel, Foster navigated the league through the turbulent waters that inevitably come with success and notoriety.  When a rival eastern league swept in to lure top players away, he negotiated an uneasy truce and arranged for the two leagues to play a championship series at the end of each season beginning in 1924.

However, the constant struggles and strain of keeping his newly expanded operation going began to wear Foster down.  By 1926, his considerable will finally collapsed.  He suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be institutionized.

Sadly, he never fully recovered.

The man whose pitching prowess first brought him attention, whose managerial brilliance held it, and whose entrepreneurial vision expanded it was tragically reduced to a frightened and confused shell of his former self.

He died in 1930, deprived of the opportunity to see his considerable efforts advance African-American baseball to its greatest glory.

Despite his troubled and tortured final days, Foster’s true legacy is impressively enduring.  His tactical genius as a manager influenced strategies in the Negro Leagues for years.  In fact, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Basbeall in 1947, he brought the dazzling style of the Negro Leagues with him.  As he amazed big league crowds with his daring and fearless baserunning, few probably realized that his game was largely a by product of a philosophy dreamt up decades earlier by Rube Foster.

And those early pioneers of baseball integration, like Robinson and Larry Doby, owed their professional foundations and preparedness for the rigors ahead directly to Foster’s organizational handiwork.  The Negro Leagues served as the bedrock for developing the best African-American baseball had to offer for years.  Even before the integration of the Majors, Foster’s creation led to a prime showcase for scores of legendary players like Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, and Satchel Paige.

Rube Foster’s remarkable baseball life was appropriately honored with induction to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1981.  Sadly, though, the long overdue acknowledgement of his equal – and, perhaps, superior – footing of greatness in the game to his caucasin counterparts happened fifty years after he was gone.

Still, such an honor is a fitting final chapter to one of the most extraordinary stories in the history of the sport.

Sources:
http://coe.ksu.edu/nlbemuseum/history/players/fostera.html

James, Bill and Neyer, Rob, “The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers: an Hisotrical Compendium of Pitching, Pitchers, and Pitches,” Simon and Schuster, 2004.

http://blackbaseball.com/2010/12/chicago-leland-giants-of-1910/

http://coe.ksu.edu/nlbemuseum/history/players/lloydjh.html

http://sports.jrank.org/pages/1529/Foster-Rube-Negro-National-League.html

Photos:

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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