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So What About Lefty?
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Every year it's the same. The Veterans Committee that decides which old time stars who've been overlooked in the past should be installed in baseball's Hall of Fame. And every year the committee ignores San Francisco's Lefty O'Doul.

Yes, I know lots of other former players belong in the Hall but aren't there, and that you could name a few yourself. But I also know you'd be hard-pressed to find any among the missing with more impressive credentials than Francis Joseph O'Doul.

It would be at least as difficult to find a ballplayer who had a more colorful career than the flamboyant, fiercely competitive, tall, trim, darkly handsome man of Irish and French ancestry once widely known as "Mr. San Francisco" and known, too, as "The Man in the Green Suit" because of the distinctive clothes he wore in his frequent rounds of the night spots in his native city, including his own popular bar and restaurant.

"He was here at a good time and had a good time while he was here," as it says on O'Doul's tombstone, just above an embedded bat and ball.

O'Doul, as he often said, had his most fun compiling a lifetime batting average of .349. That's the seventh highest in the entire history of the major leagues. the only players who did better were super-superstars Ty Cobb, No. 1 at .367, Rogers Hornsby (.358) and Joe Jackson (.356), plus three guys you probably never heard of who played before 1900.

And that's just part of it. Among other notable feats, O'Doul hit .398 in winning the first of his two National League batting titles. That was in 1929. O'Doul, then with the Philadelphia Phillies, got 254 hits that year, an extraordinary total later equaled by the New York Giants' Bill Terry, but still the National League record for a single season. It's just three short of the major league record for a single season. It's just three short of the major league record held by American League super-superstar George Sisler.

O'Doul , furthermore, beat the old record -- it was. 250 held by Hornsby-- by going four- for-four against lefthanded Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell in the first game of a season-ending doubleheader against the Giants. Then he went three-for-four against another lefthander, Bill Walker.

Inspired no doubt by the handsome $500 raise (to $8,500) that his efforts won him, O'Doul did almost as well the next season. Although he lost the batting title to Terry, who hit .401, O'Doul hit .383 for the incredible Phillies of 1930. The team had six starters who hit .324 or better, including outfielder Chuck Klein, the leader at .386 with 40 home runs and 170 runs batted in, plus a utility man at .341 and a reserve catcher at .313.

That's right: The Phillies had eight .300 hitters among the team's regulars (and a starting second baseman and shortstop who both hit better than .285). Yet the team finished dead last, a very distant 40 games behind the pennant-winning St. Louis Cardinals.

Thanks to O'Doul and his fellow sluggers, the 1930 Phils scored an astonishing average of 6.8 runs per game. But thanks to what surely were just about the most inept pitchers and fielders in major league annals, they gave up an astonishing 7.7 runs per game.

O'Doul, later was traded to Brooklyn, winning his second batting title there in 1932 with an average of .368. That time, though, there was no raise. By then, the Great Depression was in full swing, and batting title or no batting title, O'Doul's pay was cut by $1,000 the next season. Imagine a batting champion of today playing a full season for $7,500!

Years afterward, O'Doul told Lawrence S. Ritter, author of "The Glory of their Times":

"If I had to do it all over, I'd be a ballplayer again without pay. Yeah, without pay. I loved it. That's why I never squawked when I didn't get big salaries. I liked to play too much....When I was playing ball in the big leagues my bats would be jumping up and down in the trunk. Couldn't wait to get to the ball park and grab that bat. Big crowd, sock a triple, nothing like it! Maybe I was a ham. What's the use of doing something when nobody's looking? But a packed ball park, crowd roaring, the guy throws you a great breaking curve, you hit it on the nose and drive it over the outfielder's head. What a thrill!"

On another occasion, O'Doul insisted, "There's nothing hard about hitting .300. That's only three every ten tries -- piece-a-cake. If somebody could run for me, I could go up to the plate in a wheelchair and and hit .300."He may not have been exaggerating. While managing in the Pacific Coast League in 1956 at the age of 59, O'Doul once put himself in to pinch- hit -- and got a triple.

Actually, O'Doul worked very hard on his hitting. He frequently studied films of himself batting and regularly showed up at the ball park hours before game time for long sessions of extra practice. He'd have teammates and local kids pitching to him and shagging balls virtually every morning.

O'Doul had good reason to work so hard. He was a converted pitcher who might very well have been as good at pitching as he became at hitting had it not been for a bit of foolishness at the New York Yankees' spring training camp in 1922. O'Doul, who had come up to the Yankees after winning 25 games for the Pacific Coast League's San Francisco Seals, got into a distance-throwing contest with his teammates that left him with a permanently weakened arm. O'Doul remained in the major leagues for two seasons as a pitcher, with the Yankees and then the Red Sox, but managed a paltry overall record of just 1-1.

O'Doul finally was sent back to the Coast League in 1924, switching to the outfield and hitting in the high .300s in each of the next four seasons before being called back to the majors in 1928. O'Doul left the big leagues for good in 1935 to take over as the Seals' 37-year-old player-manager.

O'Doul was a great favorite with San Franciscans. They had sent him off to the big leagues seven years before with a spirited day of his own at the Seals' ball park. O'Doul, donning a cowboy hat, red kerchief and chaps, jumped on a horse to lead a mounted crew of "Butchertown cowboys" around and around the field, the "cowboys" being men who handled cows at the slaughterhouse in the Butchertown district of the city where O'Doul was born and raised. After the game, O'Doul climbed to the grandstand roof and tossed free baseballs to the huge crowd of kids -- and adults -- who scrambled for them on the field below.

O'Doul the manager became a fixture at Seals Stadium. For 17 years he was there, striding anxiously between the white lines of the third base coaching box, peering intently from the top of the dugout steps, directing fans as well as players against such opponents as the Oakland Oaks of manager Casey Stengel and the Seattle Rainiers, managed by Rogers Hornsby.

It was during one of the Seals' always hotly contested battles with the Oaks from across San Francisco Bay in 1948 that pine tar was first brought to the attention of serious baseball fans, four decades before George Brett of the Kansas City Royals caused a national furor among fans by being caught smearing it too liberally on his bat. Like every other manager in the league, O'Doul was certain that Stengel's star relief pitcher, Ralph Buxton -- nicknamed "The Cheater" -- was doctoring the ball with pine tar, but unsure of where he was hiding the stuff. Finally, O'Doul hit on it. "Look at his glove! The glove!" O'Doul shouted to the plate umpire. And sure enough, there was the goop smeared all across the heel.

O'Doul demanded that Buxton be tossed from the game, but the umpire tossed out only the gooey glove, ordering Stengel to "get a new one for your pitcher."

O'Doul took his protest all the way to the league president, demanding a forfeit of the game the Seals ended up losing 4-3 and touching off heated controversy on West Coast sports pages. But all the league did was suspend Buxton for ten days. Of course he used pine tar, Buxton admitted -- "but three of Lefty's pitchers use it, too."

Stengel brought Buxton with him when he took over the next season as manager of the Yankees. Years later, Buxton disclosed that by the end of that 1949 season, "the whole Yankee staff was using my pine tar" -- and helping win the first of Stengel's 10 Yankee pennants.

O'Doul usually spoke in quite coherent sentences, but otherwise was every bit as colorful a manager as the very colorful Casey Stengel. I remember that clearly from my own youthful days as a fanatic Seals' fan. Often when the Seals fell behind, Lefty would pull a big red bandana from a hip pocket and wave it wildly at the opposing pitcher, a signal for all of us in the stands to pull out our pocket handkerchiefs and wave them.

When the enemy pitcher faltered, we knew we had helped. We were all on Lefty's team, our team. Lefty wasn't perfect, though. When the Seals lost, and they lost at least as often as they won, he became "Marblehead O'Doul," the manager who had let us down again -- but one of us all the same, a member of the family only temporarily gone wrong.

The spirit of the man! It shone from piercing yet twinkling dark eyes that looked right out at you. You could feel it in the air at Seals Stadium. O'Doul, who died at 72 in 1969, was "an inspiration to kids and catnip to the ladies," noted newspaper columnist Herb Caen - "always in trouble with women, always broke, always laughing like a little boy."

O'Doul spent many of his off-seasons in Japan, where he played a key role in popularizing baseball, He coached at universities and elsewhere and managed all-star major league teams and other touring squads, including the Seals, beginning in 1934. That's the year O'Doul helped form the country's first professional team, the Tokyo Giants, named after the U.S. team O'Doul was playing for at the time. He made it into Japan's Hall of Fame in 2002 for being the country's "Father of Professional baseball."

O'Doul was asked repeatedly to manage major league teams, but turned down the offers because, he explained, "San Francisco is my home." A new team owner from outside the city fired him as the Seals' manager in 1951. But by then, O'Doul - "brokenhearted," he said - was considered a has-been by the major league teams that had coveted him, and he was forced to manage elsewhere in the Pacific Coast League.

For a half-dozen years O'Doul drifted like a man without a country from one Coast League city to another, managing teams in San Diego, Oakland, Vancouver and Seattle until finally retiring in 1957, the very first year major league baseball came to the Pacific Coast.

The major league teams that had sought O'Doul were particularly impressed by his great skill as a hitting instructor, maybe the best in all of baseball.

Among those helped by O'Doul was Joe DiMaggio, who played for him as a 20-year-old right fielder in 1935. DiMaggio led the Seals to the pennant that year, hitting .398, along with 34 homers and 154 RBIs, before moving to the Yankees.

"I was an all-fields hitter," DiMaggio recalled, "but when the Yankees got interested in me, Lefty decided we'd better try pull hitting."

That was exactly what DiMaggio needed to succeed in Yankee Stadium, where it was a relatively cozy 340 feet down the left field line but a long, long 461 feet to center.

"Lefty," DiMaggio noted in a nice bit of understatement, had an eye for the right way to hit."

The best advice O'Doul ever gave a hitter, Lefty and Ted Williams used to say, was the advice O'Doul passed on to Williams when he was a 19-year-old outfielder for the San Diego _Padres, then in the Pacific Coast League.

"A lot of people tried to change my style," Williams recalled, "but Lefty gave me perfect non-advice: 'Kid, don't let anyone change that swing.'"

Nobody did change Williams' swing and he eventually became the only other player in the past three-quarters of a century besides Bill Terry to hit for a higher seasonal average than O'Doul.Williams did it in 1941, when he hit .406.

Bill Terry and Ted Williams are in baseball's Hall of Fame and obviously should be there. But why not Lefty, too?

Copyright Dick Meister