If not for the baseball missionary work of Lefty O’Doul there might have never been an Ichiro Suzuki.
O’Doul was baseball’s polymath: star pitcher, batting champion, father of professional baseball in Japan, successful manager, innovative batting coach, conduit to major league’s expansion to the west coast. He even created a popular Bloody Mary recipe. If there was ever a reason for inducting a person into the Baseball Hall of Fame for his lifetime contribution to the sport, the life of Francis Joseph O’Doul is it.
They called him “The Man in the Green Suit” because that was his favorite garb off the field, and O’Doul loved to be seen wearing his dapper outfit, usually with a fresh carnation in his lapel. As much as anyone has ever personified a city, O’Doul owned San Francisco for decades. He rubbed shoulders with mayors, business owners, as well as the common people who sold fruit on the streets or mowed the grass at the ballpark. Years before there was Major League Baseball in the Bay Area, O’Doul was already “big league.”
He was born in San Francisco in 1897, about the time electric cable cars first started to criss-cross the city. It was 50 years after the Gold Rush, but when little Francis was growing up in the meat-packing neighborhoods the city was undergoing a transformation that led to people calling San Francisco the “Paris of the West.”
O’Doul was originally a pitcher, a hard-throwing southpaw. He became “Lefty” when he pitched for the San Francisco Seals in 1917. Initially, O’Doul didn’t have a great idea where his fastball was going, he struggled to throw strikes. But he became proficient and was signed by the Yankees, where he pitched without distinction for a few years before he was shuffled to the Red Sox. But somewhere in there, Lefty suffered the final and most serious arm injury of his career, and he was forced to concentrate on playing the outfield and hitting.
Fortunately for O’Doul and the teams he later played for after ending his pitching career, Lefty could hit a baseball. His transition to the outfield was smooth: in 1925 back in the Pacific Coast League with Salt Lake City, O’Doul hit .375 with 309 hits in 198 games. Two years later for his hometown Seals, O’Doul batted .378 with 33 home runs and 278 hits in the long PCL season. For his career, O’Doul hit .352 in the minor leagues, which was only a shade higher than what he would hit in the majors.
At the age of 31 and after a four-year absence, O’Doul returned to the big leagues in 1928 to play for John McGraw’s Giants. He broke his ankle early in the season and missed nearly two months, but still managed to hit .319 in 114 games. McGraw didn’t see enough to be impressed, and making one of his worst decisions, traded Lefty to the Phillies. O’Doul responded with one of the greatest seasons on record. In 1929, Lefty hit .398 with a league-record 254 hits, 152 runs, 32 homers, and 122 RBIs. He struck out only 19 times all season and finished second in NL MVP voting to Rogers Hornsby, who hit .380 and found himself in an unfamiliar position of looking up at O’Doul, who won the batting crown. Though he was helped greatly by playing his home games in the Baker Bowl (where he batted an amazing .453 in 76 games in 1929), Lefty batted .344 on the road.
O’Doul’s batting style was a throwback to the deadball era. He stood with his feet close together on the left side of the plate, similar to the stance of Ty Cobb. His hands at the end of the handle, O’Doul held the bat far back on his rear left shoulder but cocked it down and into position for a swing as the pitch was delivered. He used his front (right) foot as a guide, stepping toward first base to pull the ball, pointing toward third to go the other way. His swing was a beauty, and many people tried to copy it in his day. In 1932, again with a new team (the Dodgers), Lefty won his second batting title, hitting .368 with 219 hits and 21 home runs. But he was 35 years old and it was his last great season in the big leagues. In 1934 the Seals offered O’Doul his dream job: manager of his hometown team. He took the offer and retired from the majors with a .349 career average in 970 games.
The next chapter of Lefty’s story was written in the 23 years he spent in the Pacific Coast League as manager. O’Doul eventually won more than 2,000 games as a manager in the top minor league, most of them coming with the Seals. But it was his international work that made an impact that lasted well beyond his own life.
Starting in 1931 with an exhibition tour, Lefty made several trips to Japan in the 1930s. Before O’Doul, Japan did not have an organized professional league, their coaches did not fully understand the methods for teaching pitching and hitting, which Lefty had personal experience with. O’Doul wrote a manual that outlined the principles for creating a baseball team, including drills, basics of uniforms, and game strategy. Within a few years the Japanese Baseball League was founded, and after an interruption of relations by the world war, O’Doul returned to the country several times in the 1950s where he was regarded as a legend.
Many of the things O’Doul taught about hitting became the foundation for teaching in Japan. Batters were urged to make contact, spray the ball around the field, and use a timing mechanism (like lifting the front leg or cocking the bat). For decades up to modern times, many of the greatest Japanese batters have used these techniques. His legacy went beyond the field: the Tokyo Giants were so named because of Lefty’s association with the New York Giants.
As manager of the Seals, Lefty shepherded several of his players to the big leagues, including Joe and Dom DiMaggio, Gene Woodling, and Ferris Fain. Later after he retired from managing, his home in San Francisco became a mecca for hitters who needed advice. Ted Williams, Willie Mays, and Willie McCovey bent Lefty’s ear on the art of hitting over the years.
O’Doul knew a hitter when he saw one. He was managing the San Francisco Seals in 1937 when a skinny 18-year old kid playing for San Diego approached him before a game and asked how he could become a better hitter. O’Doul, having only seen Ted Williams take batting practice and play one game, said “Kid, don’t ever let anyone change your swing.” But that was O’Doul’s general philosophy: don’t fix what ain’t broken. Once, years after Joe DiMaggio had become a superstar and someone was trying to give Lefty credit at an awards banquet, O’Doul said, “I was just smart enough to leave Joe alone.”