Nice Guys Don’t Always Finish Last

Tony Gwynn was good friends with Barry Bonds. Gwynn was also close with Ted Williams.

Perhaps, that tells you all you need to know about Tony Gwynn.

Two of the most combative and complicated personalities in the history of baseball – separated by decades in their playing careers, no less – both found peace and camaraderie with him. That Gwynn smiled as much – or more – than Bonds and Williams snarled (which was plenty), that he was genial and openly joyful while the other two wrestled figurative alligators on and off the field was a testament to the simple unifying power of being a gentleman.

Gwynn Smile3

As it turns out, Leo Durocher had it all wrong. The famous curmudgeon posited that nice guys were doomed to finish behind the angry and arrogant. But Tony Gwynn, arguably the nicest guy to ever play Major League Baseball, rarely finished last.

Durocher

In 20 big league seasons – all with his beloved San Diego Padres, he won eight batting titles, five Gold Gloves, and seven Silver Slugger awards. He was named to 15 All-star teams and finished his brilliant career with a lifetime .338 batting average and 3,141 hits.

In fact, the only time he ever hit below .300 was in 1982, his rookie season, when he hit .289 in 54 games as a 22- year old neophyte. After that, he ran off 19 consecutive years above the .300 line. In his final season, 2001, he battled weight issues and cranky knees but still managed to hit .324 as a 41-year old pinch hitter. It was as if the baseball gods simply wouldn’t let a hitter of his magnitude and remarkable skill fade below the mark that defines hitting excellence, even as his body was failing him.

Gwynn Swing

Not that his batting prowess was owed to some sort of cosmic serendipity. Gwynn painstakingly made himself a great hitter, maximizing his athletic potential through patience, study, and physical repetition.

Long before iPads and smart phones brought HD video at our collective beck-and-call, Gywnn immersed himself in the relatively primitive visual technology of the day, lugging a bulky VCR and stacks of video cassettes with him on the road. However, by studying his swing endlessly and dissecting the smallest details, he shaped it and refined it and shaped it some more – like an architect coaxing a sleek structure from a paper sketch.

Gwynn Swing Drawing

That meticulous attention to hitting served as the connective source between Gwynn and Williams, because the two seemed to have little in common other than that. After all, Williams made his big league debut 21 years before Gywnn was even born and served in combat duty during two American wars while Gwynn spent nearly the entirety of his baseball life in peace time.

Williams was aggressive and prone to argument and confrontation; Gwynn was calm and gregarious, more likely to shake a hand than slap it away. And they came from different generations in life and different eras of baseball. Yet, the two men knew better than nearly everyone else in the world the how difficult it was to hit a baseball in the big leagues and how few people had ever done it better than they had.

Williams was the last player to hit .400 in a full big league season, reaching the rather impressive figure of .406 in 1941. Gwynn nearly joined him 53 years later, when he hit .394 in the strike-shortened season of 1994. And Williams, who was especially guarded about those he allowed to get close to him, felt a kinship with other great hitters. Considering his resume – 521 career home runs and a lifetime .344 batting average – that distinction was an exclusive one, indeed.

Williams Swing

However, Williams developed a special rapport with Gwynn. Whether it was due to the younger player’s excellence at the plate or Gwynn’s endless study of hitting or simply his eternally sunny disposition, Williams gravitated to him like no other player from the current generation. And the same could be said of Gwynn’s affinity for Williams. He revered the legendary slugger and sought his advice on hitting whenever he could.

That mutual respect was never more apparent than during a stretch between the summer of 1999 and winter of 2000. At the 1999 All-star Game at Fenway Park, Williams – whose health was deteriorating quickly – made what turned out to be one of his last big public appearances. As he readied himself to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, Williams had Gwynn steady his shoulder for support while he made the throw.

FILE PHOTO OF BASEBALL LEGEND TED WILLIAMS ALONGSIDE CONTEMPORARY STARS GWYNN AND MCGWIRE

Given Ted Williams’ enormous pride, allowing such a moment of vulnerability on such a public stage must have been incredibly difficult. That he allowed Tony Gwynn not only to be a part of that moment but to be the one who provided strength and stability was as powerful a statement as he could make about his admiration for Gwynn as a person.

The following year, Gwynn authored a book, “The Art of Hitting”, and had Williams provide the foreword. Gwynn’s book, likely an homage to Williams’ classic manual on batting, “The Science of Hitting”, was the student’s study of the art form. The forward was the teacher’s much coveted endorsement.

The two men also had geography as a common tie. Although Williams was most immediately associated with Boston due to his famed exploits with the Red Sox, he was born in San Diego and got his first professional break there as a member of the city’s Pacific Coast League team in 1936. Gwynn, of course, became such a San Diego icon that he will be forever linked to the place.

Before his Major League glory, Gwynn was a star basketball and baseball player at San Diego State University. In fact, he was so talented on the basketball court that he set the school’s assist record. In retrospect, it was fitting for a man who would become renowned for his generosity to have an official entry in the record books for the number of times he helped others.

Gwynn Basketball

As a member of the San Diego Padres, he quickly became the face of the franchise. If there were others made famous by their association with the team, Gwynn’s overwhelming popularity engulfed them. For the twenty seasons he played in the uniform, no one ever thought of anyone else when they thought of the Padres.

Even though he went from a sleek, base stealing speedster – in one four-year stretch, he swiped 159 of them – to rotund veteran playing on wobbly knees, he never lost the two things for which he will always be remembered: that crisp, compact swing and a smile that made an entire city feel good about itself.

The swing, tuned like a Stradivarius over the years, seemed equal parts hard physics, mechanical brilliance, and minor magic. Gwynn was so skilled with the bat that it looked like he actually caught the ball on the surface of the barrel – like a lacrosse player cradling a ball in the pocket of his stick – and then flicked it to an open patch of grass.

San Diego Padres v Philadelphia Phillies

As for the smile, it was the signature for one of the game’s most gracious personalities. Reporters marveled at his accessibility and insight, while fans delighted in the homespun delivery. There was never anything pretentious or demeaning about the things he said or the way he said them. He spoke honestly and personably but used humor and wit to make sure the message was available to all – he always made sure to let everyone in on the joke.

Because of his easy relationship with the media, which bordered on adoration, the press could never quite reconcile his friendship with Bonds – the ultimate villain in the eyes of most reporters. Bonds rarely let anyone in on the joke, because he rarely joked – at least with the media. He was adversarial with the pundits and highly guarded around most everyone else, not unlike Ted Williams.

However, like Williams, Bonds had a special rapport with Gwynn. Perhaps, it was their shared greatness as hitters but also maybe because they shared the same race and the same challenges of contemporary fame. And, maybe, just maybe, Gwynn saw something in Bonds that others had stopped looking for – or more likely – had never bothered to search for at all.

Baseball - 1994 All-Star Game - Barry Bonds

The rest of the world saw Bonds in a black hat, and that was pretty much that.

To his credit, Gwynn recognized that Bonds was a much more complicated person than cartoon bad guy. He once urged Bonds to soften his image a little, to be less abrasive to the media. In other words, Gwynn wanted Bonds to let everyone else see the guy who became one of his best friends in the game. But Bonds couldn’t do it. He needed the edge he got from all of that negative energy.

If Gwynn thrived by charming people and making them laugh, Bonds fed his competitive fire by getting people to root against him. And in the 16 seasons their careers overlapped, they were the best hitters in the game – by a fairly wide margin.

In fact, the year Gwynn rode off into the big league sunset – 2001 – Bonds hit 73 home runs in just 476 at bats (roughly a home run every 6.5 at bats). Three years later, he drew 232 walks, 120 of the intentional variety. Pitchers weren’t just afraid of Bonds, they were scared to even compete against him anymore.

Bonds Walk

In 2007, Bonds, playing in his final season, passed Hank Aaron as the All-time Major League home run leader. And all hell broke loose.

The whispers of Bonds cheating via PED’s weren’t really whispers anymore. They were loud, angry voices and self-righteous finger points. All of the negative publicity Bonds had accumulated over the years manifested itself into the fervor – perhaps, leaning towards bloodlust – of wanting to see him publicly humiliated as a cheat.

While the baseball world collectively rung its hands every time Bonds reached a home run milestone and argued endlessly over the morality – or lack thereof – of it all, Gwynn, in typical Gwynn fashion, refrained.  What he said on more than one occasion with regard to Bonds and his other worldly hitting prowess was that it was the approach that impressed Gwynn the most, not the results. Everyone else obsessed over the muscle; Gwynn marveled at the technique.

As with much else in his life, Gwynn was calm and thoughtful in his professional assessment of Bonds – one of the very few who weighed in on the matter that stayed clear of the chaos and media clutter. As for his friendship with Bonds, it remained intact, because, among his many virtues, Gwynn was incredibly loyal.

That loyal nature, in large part, made Gwynn such a beloved figure in San Diego. Once he set his roots there, he simply refused to leave. Despite the lure of more money and more national fame elsewhere, Gwynn repeatedly signed team-friendly deals with the Padres. In an age of professional sports where players and owners operated – and continue to operate – under a mercenary code, Gwynn chose a place over a paycheck. And the good people of San Diego loved him for it.

Gwynn Tip Cap

Not only was Gwynn an enduring part of the team, he was as big a part of the community. Although he never sought recognition for his public generosity, he earned baseball’s three highest humanitarian accolades – the Branch Rickey Award in 1995, the Lou Gehrig Award in 1998, and the Roberto Clemente Award in 1999. All three awards focused on celebrating the depth and breadth of community giving by a Major League player. Not that the locals needed a trio of awards to know how good Gwynn had been to the area.

As a final ode to his adopted home, Gwynn, who was born in Los Angeles, accepted the head coaching job of the baseball program at his alma mater, San Diego State, less than a year after he retired from the big leagues. It turned out that the old point guard wasn’t quite done dishing out assists.

Even if he couldn’t play in the majors any more, he could help the next wave of aspiring big leaguers get there. Plus, he could still put a uniform on every day and walk out on a baseball diamond and feel the intoxicating energy of the game.

Gwynn Coach

As a mentor, he helped a shy, slightly awkward young pitcher named Stephen Strasburg get prepared for the media blitz that came with being the top pick in the 2009 amateur draft. There was little question that Strasburg had the pitching ability to succeed at the highest level of the game. Some even compared his extraordinary skill on the mound to Tom Seaver. It was the rest of it – the money, media, and ungodly expectations – that Strasburg wasn’t certain about.

So, Gwynn relayed his own pro experience – two decades worth as a Major League superstar – to the young man but fashioned it so that Strasburg could relate to it, could imagine himself in that spot, and how he might best deal with the possibility of big, bright athletic fame.

During the young player’s three seasons at San Diego State, Gwynn also taught Strasburg how to handle the inevitable ups and downs of the game itself. Just as he had done when evaluating Bonds’ swing, Gwynn told Strasberg that it was the approach that mattered more than the results.

Even after Strasburg left the university to pitch in the big leagues, his old college coach never lost touch. There were phone calls and personal visits. And every off season, when Strasburg held his annual 5k charity run in San Diego, Gwynn was there.

Stephen Strasburg, Tony Gwynn

For a man with as few vices as Tony Gwynn, it seemed especially cruel that the one he had the hardest time shaking might have been the one that killed him.

Baseball players chew tobacco. They just do. Perhaps, not all of them but a huge number, nonetheless. The practice has been around the game long enough that many players end up with the habit somewhere along the way. Whether or not the risk is ever fully evaluated – likely, not – the sport’s culture accepts it as part of the landscape. That said, those who chew probably know, somewhere in the back of their consciousness, that it’s a habit that could eventually turn very, very bad.

Chewing Tobacco

So, when Gwynn was diagnosed with cancer of the salivary gland in 2010, he was convinced that chewing tobacco had helped to put it there. Some doctors disagreed with the correlation; others wouldn’t pinpoint the origin. Whatever had caused the cancer, the fact remained that he had it, and the prognosis wasn’t good.

Treatment was arduous, relief was sparing, and, ultimately, the relentless cruelty of the disease took what was thought to be untakeable – his trademark smile. Surgery to remove a portion of malignant tumor in his cheek left Gwynn unable to use many of his facial muscles. So, for months, he couldn’t grin – not that there was much to smile about, anyway.

His medical battles forced him to take a leave of absence from San Diego State, and, for the first time in decades, the game wasn’t a part of his life. But he soldiered on, because he had to. If he ever wanted to return to the diamond and his cherished role at his alma mater, he needed to endure the needles and the radiation and the horrible physiological aftermath. Mostly, he needed to beat the disease, because he never backed down from a challenge.

He fought the cancer off two times – stopping the initial spread and beating it again when it returned in 2012. Sadly, when it came around for a third time in 2014, his body had had too much.

On June 16, 2014, Tony Gwynn died. He was 54 years old.

As legacies go, few athletes have ever left a better one than Gwynn. He was a Hall of Fame player in his chosen professional sport and a record-setting amateur in another. His athletic greatness was a fascinating blend of natural gifts, academic grit, and calculated prophecy. He was so charismatic that the press, the public, and the two most difficult figures in the history of American sports all adored him.

Gwynn Sign

He loved the city for which he played for twenty seasons so much that he stayed there after his playing days just so he could teach a new generation of players about baseball and San Diego, all at the same time. And his charity didn’t stop at the gates of the ballpark. He and his wife, Alicia, not only gave money to help the community, they gave their time – hours and hours of it.

At home, his son, Tony Jr., was proud to call his father his best friend and followed his footsteps all the way to the big leagues. Alicia was his high school sweetheart and never left his side – through the glory of his playing days and his utterly bitter fight with cancer.

Perhaps, the most amazing thing about Gwynn’s legacy ,though, is for all of the eye-popping baseball statistics, on-field brilliance, countless friendships, charitable generosity, and personal courage, the one thing that remains in most people’s minds when they think of Gywnn is, maybe, the most simple thing – his smile. His everyday joy was at the core of what he was all about.

Gwynn Smile2

So, no, Leo Durocher, nice guys don’t always finish last. Sometimes, they finish way ahead of the rest of us. And we can thank Tony Gwynn and the grand way that he led his life for proving you wrong.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/gwynnto01.shtml

http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Tony_Gwynn.aspx

http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/2014/06/16/tony-gwynn-dies-appreciation-barry-bonds/10647275/

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/b/bondsba01.shtml

http://static.espn.go.com/mlb/columns/gwynn/1364950.html

http://www.csnwashington.com/baseball-washington-nationals/talk/stephen-strasburg-reflects-mentor-tony-gwynn

http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/baseball/hall-famer-gwynn-dead-54-article-1.1831442

http://drmirkin.com/histories-and-mysteries/tony-gwynn-mr-padre-dead-at-54.html

Images:

http://www.trbimg.com/img-539f78f8/turbine/la-me-tony-gwynn-obit-pictures-012/500/16×9

http://www.gammonsdaily.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Tony-Gwynn.jpg

http://90feetofperfection.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/tonyhrinworldsereis1.jpg

http://img.auctiva.com/imgdata/1/0/1/4/2/4/6/webimg/538052630_tp.jpg

http://www.beabetterhitter.com/text/fundamentals/sweetswing/images/TedWilliams.jpg

http://www.boston.com/sports/baseball/redsox/extras/extra_bases/2014/gwynn_williams.jpg

http://90feetofperfection.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/42-19213500.jpg

http://www.10tv.com/content/graphics/2014/06/16/tony-gwynn-ap-30457689_12279_ver1.0_320_240.jpg

http://media.nbcsandiego.com/images/654*368/Gwynn-Fans-1.jpg

http://www.drugfree.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Tony-Gwynn-KENT-HORNER_AP.jpg

http://library.sdsu.edu/sites/default/files/imagecache/gallery_full/a-gwynn_tony4-sdsu-052404.jpg

http://natsinsider.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/ap090218045418.jpg?w=320

http://martinisatthebluemax.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/personal-jmf001.jpg?w=620

http://library.sdsu.edu/sites/default/files/imagecache/gallery_full/sp-bkm-61.jpg

http://cdn2.vox-cdn.com/assets/4623841/Tony_Gwynn_1990.jpg

http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/photos/2001/10/02/barrysports_t440.jpg?9e2a24ba44807f8f9b96aad7c4082bf6ded075dc

http://i.usatoday.net/sports/_photos/2011/09/26/Will-Major-League-Baseball-toss-tobacco-THDUVQ5-x-large.jpg

A Crowning Achievement

It is the one crown in baseball that gets the least amount of use.

The figurative garland bestowed upon a player who leads his league in batting average, home runs, and RBI’s in the same season – the much ballyhooed Triple Crown – has only been worn by a dozen Major League hitters since 1900.

The most recent honoree, Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera, earned the distinction this season as he led the Tigers to the American League Central Division title.  Cabrera, a seven-time All-Star, solidified his place as one of the premier hitters in the sport by clubbing 44 home runs, batting .330, and driving in 139 runs – besting all other players in the American League in each category.

In the buildup to Cabrera’s 2012 ascent to the throne, the difficulty of the task was underscored merely by citing the last instance of such triangular excellence.  Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski was the last player before Cabrera to wear the Triple Crown, and Yaz had achieved the rarity in 1967 – a reign of 45 years before the regal headwear was handed to a new recipient.

As baseball rightly lauds the new king, his predecessor merits a linger in the limelight before he cedes it entirely.  So, Yastrzemski’s magical run to his triumphant thrice deserves another look.

1967 is lovingly referred to by Red Sox partisans as the “Impossible Dream” season.  The year before Boston finished next to last, twenty-six full games behind the first place Baltimore Orioles.  So, little was expected of the team in 1967.  In fact, the Red Sox hadn’t finished higher than third in over twenty years.

Even mediocrity was a longshot; triumph lunacy.  However, Boston’s best player was hardly free from lofty expectations.

Carl Yastrzemski had earned the team’s starting left field job in 1961, stepping into a pair of the biggest footsteps in baseball history.

Ted Williams was larger than life, a genuinely heroic figure – on and off the field.  Williams was a Marine fighter pilot, a baseball icon who had willingly stepped away from the sport to fight in two wars, and a champion for minority players who had never received the opportunities he felt they deserved.  And his personality seemed to be guided by the furies.  He was cantankerous and profane but also generous and fiercely loyal, rarely doing anything in life at less than loud acceleration.

He was also the greatest player in the storied history of one of baseball’s most venerable franchises.  Williams, who retired in 1960 after nineteen extraordinary seasons with the Red Sox, owned virtually all of Boston’s hitting records and capped his remarkable career with one of the most lasting farewells in the game.

In his final at-bat of his last game, Williams hit a towering home run into the right field stands – the perfect baseball goodbye.  With that, the man with 521 career homers, six batting titles, and two Triple Crowns of his own, circled the bases one last time and left the diamond for good.  His daunting legacy promised to swallow the poor fellow who assumed his spot in the Red Sox lineup.

That unenviable task fell on a rookie from Southampton, New York with a tongue-spraining Polish surname.

Yastrzemski lacked the panache of the home run hitting war hero.  He was reserved and difficult to read.  On the field, he played well but could not equal Williams’ herculean stats – few mortals ever could.  And a passionate fan base starving for success had yet another reason for displeasure.

The kid with the funny name wasn’t an acceptable substitute for their brash record setting virtuoso.  But he was the best they had.  It just wasn’t good enough for most of them.

Although Yastrzemski had won a batting title and made three All-Star teams entering the 1967 season, he was still cast firmly in Williams’ considerable shadow, and the team limped along, vainly waiting for a transformational player to lead them out of the doldrums.

As it turned out, Yastrzemski was such a transformative force.  He had needed only to mature into that role, and in 1967, he fully displayed his considerable potential.  Flanked by a hard-hitting 22-year-old from nearby Revere, Tony Conigliaro, Yastrzemski led the Red Sox on an unlikely surge up the American League standings.  By August, Boston had closed to within three games of first.

Yastrzemski who had never hit more than 20 home runs in a season, already had 26 by August 1.  Later that month, in one of the game’s most frightening episodes, Conigliaro was lost for the season after he was hit in the face with a pitch.

Without the talented young right fielder to help him, Yastrzemski single-handedly carried the Red Sox to the American League pennant.

Over Boston’s final 44 games – from the day after Conigliaro was injured – the man now affectionately known as “Yaz” hit .344 with 15 homers and 38 RBI’s.  As an exclamation, with the Red Sox needing to win the last two games of the season against the Minnesota Twins to take first, Yaz had seven hits in eight at bats and drove in six runs – including two in the season finale to help Boston come from behind and take the title.  It was the first American League championship that the Red Sox had won since 1946.

When it was over, Yastrzemski had finished the year with a .326 batting average, 44 home runs, and 121 RBI’s – all career highs and all either tied for or exclusively in the league lead,  He had finally proved himself to be a worthy successor to Ted Williams and had a Triple Crown of achievement to prove it.

Although the Red Sox lost the 1967 World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, Yaz didn’t disappoint in that ultimate showcase, either.  He hit an even .400 with three homers and five RBI’s in the seven-game series, bringing Boston within an eyelash of baseball’s biggest prize.

Yastrzemski went on to play sixteen more big league seasons and finished his brilliant career with more than 3,400 hits, 452 home runs, and seven Gold Glove awards.  As such, he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.  The skinny kid with the odd name turned out to be every bit as good as Red Sox fans could have hoped.

So, while Miguel Cabrera deserves all of the accolades given to him as baseball’s newest Triple Crown winner, a former crown bearer who lifted an underdog to unlikely heights and allowed all of New England to dream for an entire season merits another bow in the spotlight as well.

Sources:
http://www.baseball-almanac.com/awards/aw_triph.shtml
http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/c/cabremi01.shtml
http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/BOS/
http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/y/yastrca01.shtml
http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/gl.cgi?id=yastrca01&t=b&year=1967
http://www.baseball-reference.com/postseason/1967_WS.shtml

Photos:
http://i2.cdn.turner.com/si/2012/writers/cliff_corcoran/10/02/miguel-cabrera-triple-crown-best-season/miguel-cabrera-usp2.jpg
http://a.espncdn.com/photo/2008/0819/mlb_g_yastrzemski_200.jpg

http://cdn.bleacherreport.net/images_root/slides/photos/002/641/830/carl_yastrzemski_mvp_display_image.jpg?1349203197
http://www.veteranstoday.com/story_images/ted_williams.jpg
http://www.esquire.com/cm/esquire/images/ted-williams-0209-lg.jpg
http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/cover/featured/8183/index.htm
http://blog.mitchellandness.com/image.axd?picture=2012%2F8%2F136887266.jpg

Videos:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_St0-1sGh0Y

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