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The legend of Lefty O'Doul

We celebrate St Patrick's Day responsibly with a story about the legendary baseball player from San Francisco, Lefty O'Doul.

There are no photos of O'Doul, so here's a photo of Hurling.
There are no photos of O'Doul, so here's a photo of Hurling.
David Rogers

If you're in San Francisco, standing at the side of the St Francis Hotel, and you look directly across Geary Blvd, you will see a place called "Lefty O'Doul's Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge". The place is named after one of the most influential baseball players who was never inducted into the major league baseball hall of fame.

Francis Joseph O'Doul was born in 1897 in San Francisco, the town he would call home until he died in 1969. Just inside the establishment entrance, at the end of a long dark brown bar is a plaque on the wall listing O'Doul's accomplishments. When I read this information for the first time, I literally did not believe it. I then learned that all that was written there was absolutely true.

O'Doul's major league career included two batting titles, a career .349 batting average, and he twice finished among the top three in MVP voting in the National League. He was also the first American to be inducted into the Japanese baseball Hall of Fame. He was nicknamed "Lefty" because he threw and batted left handed, and he now has a famous pub, a bridge that spans McCovey cove, and Budweiser's famous non alcoholic beer named in his honor.

In a major league career that spanned eleven seasons, he played for the New York Yankees, New York Giants, and Brooklyn Dodgers, as well as the Boston Red Sox and the Philadelphia Phillies. He played baseball in San Francisco before the Giants were there, and for the Giants before they moved to his home town.

O'Doul grew up in an Irish neighborhood in the meat packing district in San Francisco, where his father worked as a butcher in a slaughterhouse. His heritage was German on his mother's side, and French and Irish on his father's side. He credits a woman named Rosie Stoltz for teaching him the game of baseball. According to SABR, he said that Stoltz "taught me the essential fundamentals of the game. She taught me to pitch, field and hit."

He quit school to work with his father in the slaughterhouse, and started playing semi- pro ball when he was picked up by the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. The PCL is a story unto itself, and we'll leave that for another time, but suffice it to say that you will find many on the west coast who swear that the old PCL was a legitimate major league.

O'Doul pitched 49 games for the Seals in 1918, with an ERA of 2.63, and then enlisted in the Navy. He was drafted by the New York Yankees as a pitcher where he was a team mate of George "Papa Bear" Halas. He injured his arm in a throwing contest during the 1919 season, but the Yankees kept him on the team as a utility player and pinch hitter. It took a couple of seasons to recover from the injury, and he was optioned back to San Francisco, where he threw 312 innings in 47 games with an ERA of 2.39.

The Yankees recalled O'Doul in 1922, but he played very little before being shipped as a player to be named later to the Red Sox at the end of the season. After one season in Boston, he was optioned to Salt Lake of the PCL, where he pitched 23 games and hit .392 in 140 games one season, then hit .375, with over 300 hits in 198 games in 1925. He played for Hollywood and San Francisco in the PCL. 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.

The New York Giants brought him back at age 31, this time strictly as an outfielder for the 1928 season, and traded him to the Phillies after the season. O'Doul's heroics were now just getting started. In 1929, he posted an amazing slash line of .398 .465 .622 1.087 with 32 home runs and 122 RBI. He led the league with 254 hits and a .465 on base percentage, and finished second in the MVP voting to Rogers Hornsby, losing by 60 votes to 54. He followed that by hitting .383 with 22 home runs in 1930. For his trouble, he was traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers.

O'Doul hit .368 .423 .555 .978 for the Dodgers in 1932 and was third in the MVP voting, winning his second batting title. After a slow start to the 1933 season, he was traded back across town to the Giants, where he would finish out the season and finish out his major league career after one more season. In all, he posted a stat line of .349 .413 .532 .945. Baseball Reference lists his career OPS+ at 143.

O'Doul's 254 hits in 1929 still stands as the National League's single season record, and his .349 career average is the fourth highest in major league history, behind Ty Cobb, Hornsby, and Shoeless Joe Jackson.

For the next 15 years, O'Doul would manage his hometown San Francisco Seals, until 1951. His team won the championship in his first year as manager, and won several more after that. After leaving the Seals, he managed in San Diego, Oakland, Seattle, and Vancouver of the PCL. When the Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958, he was a part time hitting instructor. Some of his students included Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, and Ted Williams.

During his tenure as manager of the San Francisco Seals, O'Doul would organize trips to Japan, where they would play exhibition games. In the off season, he recruited major league stars to go on unsanctioned trips to Japan. He is credited with being one of the founders of the Nippon Baseball league.

O'Doul once said that the day that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor was the saddest day of his life. That was December 7, 1941. He died of a heart attack on that same date, in 1969, at age 72.