This article was written by Brian McKenna
Few have eclipsed Lefty O’Doul as a baseball legend in San Francisco. He was known first as a pitcher and then as one of the game’s best hitters. Later, he managed the local Seals club for 17 years. He was always readily identifiable for his attire and was nicknamed “The Man in the Green Suit” for his penchant of wearing such an outfit daily. Even today, his sports bar is a city landmark.
In the majors O’Doul won two batting titles and nearly hit .400 in 1929. He finished with a .349 career batting average, fourth-best in history. After leaving the majors, he returned to the west coast and managed for more than 20 years, amassing more than 2,000 wins, a total surpassed by only eight men in minor league history. He was recognized as one of the game’s great hitting instructors. Men would travel from far and wide to have the Seals’ manager critique their skills.
O’Doul may have made his greatest contributions to baseball with his many trips to Japan. He trained countless Japanese in the skills of the game and fostered communication and interaction between those in the Japanese and American games both before and after the Second World War. He is also credited as one of the founders of Nippon Professional Baseball. For his efforts, O’Doul was the first American elected to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame.
Francis Joseph O’Doul was born on March 4, 1897, in San Francisco, the only child of Eugene and Cecelia O’Doul. Eugene was born in California to August and Catherine O’Doul. Cecelia, nee Suhling, was born in California to German-born parents. Eugene supported his family as a butcher in a slaughterhouse. He passed away during the 1910s.
O’Doul, known as Frank, grew up in the Butchertown district of San Francisco, the center of the city’s meat-packing industry, an area now known as Bay View-Hunter’s Point. He and his family lived out their lives in the area. It was a tough neighborhood that constantly pitted the kids of Irish parents against those of Italian descent in nearby North Beach. O’Doul fought and identified with the Irish boys but he was more Irish in name than in background. His father was of French descent and his mother’s heritage was German. The only Irish blood came from his father’s mother.
O’Doul’s road to baseball began in 1912 at the Bay View School. The school’s baseball coach, a woman named Rosie Stoltz, helped develop his fundamentals. As O’Doul, a lefthander, later noted, Stoltz “taught me the essential fundamentals of the game. She taught me to pitch, field and hit.” Their club won the city championship that first year. The following year, at age sixteen O’Doul quit school to join his father in the slaughterhouse. He worked six days a week, playing baseball on Sundays for amateur and semi-pro clubs. Late in his teen years, O’Doul made a name for himself locally as a member of the undefeated Native Sons team.
At the end of 1916 O’Doul, a lefthanded pitcher, was plucked off a semi-pro club by his hometown San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. He appeared in three games for the Seals in 1917, recording no decisions, before he was farmed out to Des Moines of the Western League in May, where he pitched in 19 games with an 8-6 record. With San Francisco again in 1918, O’Doul pitched in 49 games, posting a 12-8 record and a 2.63 ERA. He enlisted in the Navy, and was drafted by the New York Yankees on September 21,1918. O’Doul and George Halas were the only two Yankees to enter camp in shape and ready to play in 1919. O’Doul was fresh from playing winter ball, and Halas kept in shape with naval training teams playing football and basketball.
O’Doul impressed quite a few in camp, posting a mark of 8 3/5 seconds sprinting 75 yards; however, he hurt his arm during a throwing contest. He appeared in only 19 games for New York, pitching only three times, but remained with the club all season pinch-hitting, tossing batting practice and doing whatever was needed. His day-to-day services that year though went mostly unnoticed. For example, prior to a doubleheader one day, rain was pouring down. Figuring the games would be cancelled, O’Doul and teammate Chick Fewster took off for Belmont Park race track. Returning home later, they noticed a newspaper which posted the score of the first game with an update of the second game. Fearing reprisal, the two quietly slipped into the clubhouse the following day. Manager Miller Huggins never said a word; he hadn’t missed them.
O’Doul played winter ball at the end of the season to get his arm in shape. Just a few days before Babe Ruth was traded to the Yankees, he and O’Doul met in an exhibition game in California. O’Doul struck Ruth out in his first two at bats, but Ruth homered the next time up. O’Doul appeared in only 13 games for the Yankees in 1920, but again stayed on the roster all season. In January 1921 he was optioned to San Francisco, by way of the Vernon club. O’Doul had his breakout season for San Francisco that year. In 47 games and 312 innings, he posted a 25-9 record and a 2.39 ERA. He also batted .338 in a total of 74 games. On December 6 the Yankees exercised their option on O’Doul, and brought him to spring training.
Once again the Yankees gave O’Doul little playing time. He appeared in only eight games in 1922; however, he was with the pennant-winning club the entire season. On June 23 the Yankees traded Chick Fewster, Elmer Miller, Johnny Mitchell, $50,000 and a player-to-be-named to the Red Sox for Joe Dugan and Elmer Smith, one in a slew of tranasactions between the two clubs during the era. O’Doul found out on September 29 that he was the player-to-be-named. Miller Huggins decided to leave him off the postseason roster despite the fact he was the Yankees’ only lefthanded pitcher. He remained with the club to pitch batting practice and sit on the bench during the World Series. The Yankees formally released him to Boston on October 12.
O’Doul spent all of 1923 with the Red Sox, pitching in 23 games, including his only major league start on April 21, the fourth game of the season. Five days later, O’Doul notched his only big league victory, a 5-4 win over the Yankees. But on July 7, as Cleveland was clobbering Boston 23-7, he gave up a record 13 runs in the sixth inning. On February 2, 1924, the Red Sox sent the 26-year-old O’Doul to Salt Lake City of the Pacific Coast League. He appeared in 140 games, showcasing a .392 batting average and a 7-9 won-loss record. Suffering chronic arm trouble, he gave up pitching and became a full-time outfielder, but he acknowledged his deficiencies with the glove. One of his favorite stories, true or not, concerned a man who signed O’Doul’s name to a bad check in a bar. O’Doul told the bartender, “The next time somebody comes in here and says he’s me, take him out in the back and have somebody hit a few balls to him. If he catches them you know he’s a phony.”
In 198 games for Salt Lake in 1925, O’Doul hit .375 with 309 hits and 24 home runs. On September 12 he was purchased by the Chicago Cubs for $50,000, but he never played for the club. With Hollywood in the PCL in 1926 he batted .338 with 223 hits and 20 home runs. Back with San Francisco in 1927, O’Doul won the first-ever PCL most valuable player award, batting .378 with 278 hits and 33 home runs. On October 4 he was drafted by the New York Giants. Returning to the majors at age 31, O’Doul broke his ankle in the seventh game of the 1928 season, and missed six weeks. He managed to hit .319 in 94 games in left field. On October 29 he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies with cash for Freddy Leach.
O’Doul, a lefthanded hitter, was among the elite in 1929, finishing second in the MVP voting to Rogers Hornsby, 60 votes to 54. He played in every game for the Phillies, hitting a league-leading .398, and adding 122 RBI and 32 home runs. He also led the league with 254 hits and a .465 on-base percentage. He had another outstanding year in 1930, batting .383 with 97 RBI and 22 home runs. Nevertheless, he was traded to the Dodgers after the season with Fresco Thompson for Clise Dudley, Jumbo Elliott, Hal Lee and cash. O’Doul hit .336 for Brooklyn in 1931. On January 21, 1932, he signed a new contract for $4,000, even though it called for a 5 percent pay reduction. He even enclosed a note with it thanking Brooklyn management for treating him nicely during 1931 when he was in a batting slump. (Salaries were being cut all around the majors because the Depression was hurting attendance.)
O’Doul hit .368 in 1932 to capture his second batting title. But when his average dropped to .252 in the first 43 games of 1933, he was traded to the Giants on June 16 with pitcher Watty Clark for first baseman Sam Leslie. He joined the Giants for the pennant drive, batting .306 in 78 games. That summer O’Doul made his only appearance in an All-Star Game, as an unsuccessful pinch-hitter. The Giants won the pennant and met the Washington Senators in the World Series. He made his only at-bat count. In the sixth inning of Game 2 he pinch hit after Mel Ott was intentionally walked to fill the bases. O’Doul singled to knock in Hughie Critz, and Bill Terry and later scored. The six-run inning led to a 6-1 New York victory.
After 83 games with the Giants in 1934, O’Doul’s major league career ended with some stellar figures: a .349 batting average, .413 on-base percentage, and .532 slugging percentage in 3,264 at bats. San Francisco offered O’Doul the job managing his hometown Seals, but he was still under reserve by the Giants. He requested his release from manager Bill Terry. The Giants originally wanted $4,000 from the Seals, but O’Doul was a ten-year player who would have to clear waivers in the majors before he could be sent down. Rather than jamming him up, the Giants granted his unconditional release on February 16, 1935.
O’Doul managed the Seals through 1951. On November 3, 1937, San Francisco owner Charlie Graham gave him a contract to manage the club “for life.” The Seals won the championship in 1935 and took four straight pennants from 1943-1946. O’Doul was mentioned many times as a potential major league manager, but it never happened. He was named Minor League Manager of the Year in 1945 by The Sporting News.
After leaving San Francisco, O’Doul continued managing other Pacific Coast League teams: San Diego, 1952-54; Oakland, 1955; Vancouver, 1956; and Seattle, 1957. He currently ranks ninth on the all-time victory list for minor league managers with a 2,094-1,970 record. On September 16, 1956, at age 59, O’Doul went to bat for his Vancouver Mounties against Sacramento. The opposing manager pulled in his outfielders. O’Doul knocked the ball over the centerfielder’s head for a triple and later scored. After the National League Giants relocated to San Francisco, O’Doul served as a part-time hitting instructor from 1958-1961. He was a renowned baseball teacher, especially of hitting. Over the years, O’Doul tutored some of the best in the game. Joe and Dom DiMaggio started their careers with his San Francisco clubs. His many other pupils included Ted Williams, Willie Mays and Willie McCovey.
O’Doul was a scratch golfer, regularly shooting in the seventies, and played nearly every day for years. He ran into trouble with San Diego management when he insisted on a clause in his contract granting him a daily round of golf. He played in the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am Tournament from 1948-1954, winning the pro-am portion in 1949 and 1954. In 1955 he opened a pitch-and-putt course in San Francisco. He played golf with numerous baseball men as they traveled through California, such as former teammate Babe Ruth, and was a regular partner with lifelong friend Joe DiMaggio.
In 2002 O’Doul was elected to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame for his promotion of the sport, particularly in helping to restore friendly relations between the United States and Japan after World War II. He first went to Japan, the Philippines and China at the end of 1931 as part of an exhibition tour organized by former major leaguer Herb Hunter, who had made numerous similar trips. They were joined by Frankie Frisch, Lou Gehrig, Lefty Grove and Al Simmons.
In October 1932 O’Doul went back to Japan for nearly three months to help train ballplayers at the Big Six colleges, Hose, Imperial, Keio, Meji, Rikkio and Waseda. He coached the hitters and outfielders, Ted Lyons taught pitching and Moe Berg showed his catching skills. The men conducted about 40 lessons at each school. Members of the royal family attended, including Prince Chichibu. The Americans also participated in exhibition games that drew crowds of well over 60,000. One day, O’Doul and Lyons were walking along Tokyo’s waterfront with a camera taking “moving pictures.” They were arrested for violating Japan’s strict espionage laws. After they were identified, the American ballplayers were cordially treated at the precinct and happily granted unlimited access with their camera; however, they were arrested again by an officer in another precinct.
Lefty returned to Japan at the end of 1933, and organized a tour to the country the following year. After being rebuffed by National League officials, he recruited an impressive crew of American Leaguers, including Earl Averill, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Charlie Gehringer, Lefty Gomez, Connie Mack, Babe Ruth and Earl Whitehill. In 1935 and ’36 O’Doul helped organize tours of the United States by professional Japanese players. He also helped form the Japanese professional baseball league and is credited with naming the Tokyo Giants after his last major league club. He spent months in Japan at the end of 1936 and into 1937, helping to oversee the building of Korakuen Stadium in Tokyo.
O’Doul was deeply distressed as Japan slipped into militarism. He stayed away from the country for a time and took the bombing of Pearl Harbor as a personal affront. In October 1949, though, O’Doul took his San Francisco Seals to Japan to foster reconciliation between the countries. He even pitched at age 52. He was roundly and enthusiastically greeted by all, including Emperor Hirohito and Prince Akihito. The club drew 500,000 to 10 games.
O’Doul flew to Japan with Joe DiMaggio for a personal appearance tour in 1950 and led a group of all-stars to the country for a series of exhibition games in 1951. That group included Yogi Berra, Joe and Dom DiMaggio, Ferris Fain, Eddie Lopat, Billy Martin, Mel Parnell and Bobby Shantz. On November 13, 1951, O’Doul’s All-Stars lost 3-1 to a Pacific League all-star squad. It was the first time an American professional team lost to a Japanese professional team.
At the end of 1952 O’Doul went to Japan on another training mission, and he joined the New York Giants on a trip to the Orient the following year. It was the first time an entire major league team traveled to Hawaii, Japan and Manila. O’Doul and family accompanied Joe DiMaggio and his new bride, Marilyn Monroe, for two weeks in Hawaii and Japan in January and February 1954. In November O’Doul returned to take a Japanese club on a tour of Australia.
In October 1960 O’Doul traveled to Japan with the San Francisco Giants for a series of exhibition games and personal appearances. He initiated discussions of a trans-Pacific World Series to be played every year between Nippon Professional Baseball and the American major league champions. A representative of Commissioner Frick met with leaders of the two Japanese leagues to discuss the possibility. In January 1961 O’Doul accompanied Honolulu owner Nick Morgan to Japan and Manila in an effort to recruit ballplayers for the new PCL club.
O’Doul retired from managing after the 1957 season at age 60. Shortly thereafter, he opened a restaurant in San Francisco. Lefty O’Doul’s is still a popular hangout and is one of the oldest continuous sports bars in the country, if not the oldest. He married twice, the first time in 1924 to Abigail Lacey, a Californian. His second marriage took place in 1953 to Jean Goodman. Neither marriage produced children, but he was known in San Francisco for catering to children. He made countless public appearances, entertaining audiences with his treasury of baseball stories. He was a soft touch for anyone who was down and out. “Why shouldn’t I help the guy?” he would say. “He’s in trouble.”
On November 12, 1969, O’Doul suffered a stroke and was taken to French Hospital in San Francisco. He died on December 7 of a massive coronary blockage at age 72. He was interred at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Colma, California.
Christian Science Monitor
Los Angeles Times
New York Times
The Sporting News