From San Francisco to the Ginza in Tokyo, Lefty O’Doul relates the untold story of one of baseball’s greatest hitters, most colorful characters, and the unofficial father of professional baseball in Japan.
Lefty O’Doul (1897–1969) began his career on the sandlots of San Francisco and was drafted by the Yankees as a pitcher. Although an arm injury and his refusal to give up the mound clouded his first four years, he converted into an outfielder. After four Minor League seasons he returned to the Major Leagues to become one of the game’s most prolific power hitters, retiring with the fourth-highest lifetime batting average in Major League history. A self-taught “scientific” hitter, O’Doul then became the game’s preeminent hitting instructor, counting Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams as his top disciples.
In 1931 O’Doul traveled to Japan with an All-Star team and later convinced Babe Ruth to headline a 1934 tour. By helping to establish the professional game in Japan, he paved the way for Hideo Nomo, Ichiro Suzuki, and Hideki Matsui to play in the American Major Leagues. O’Doul’s finest moment came in 1949, when General Douglas MacArthur asked him to bring a baseball team to Japan, a tour that MacArthur later praised as one of the greatest diplomatic efforts in U.S. history.
O’Doul became one of the most successful managers in the Pacific Coast League and was instrumental in spreading baseball’s growth and popularity in Japan. He is still beloved in Japan, where in 2002 he was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame.
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About the Author
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Baseball's Forgotten Ambassador
By Dennis Snelling
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2017 Dennis Snelling
All rights reserved.
Shortly after celebrating his sixty-first birthday in March 1958, Lefty O'Doul invited a friend of his, sportswriter Harry Brundidge, for a stroll along the streets of San Francisco. O'Doul was, as always, in excellent spirits and chattered incessantly; he was excited that his old team, the New York Giants, had pulled up stakes and was about to open the new baseball season in his hometown. Recently retired after forty years in professional baseball, the two-time National League batting champion, legendary hitting instructor, and successful Minor League manager would soon be opening a restaurant on Geary Street bearing his name, around the corner from a pub he had owned in the 1940s.
As the two men strode through historic Union Square, Brundidge noted O'Doul's always impeccable appearance — this day his sartorial selection featuring an alpine hat with a feather and a herringbone jacket — and marveled at his friend's countenance, which made him appear twenty years younger than he had the right to. O'Doul was on a first-name basis with world-famous athletes, movie stars, and politicians, and the city seemed to belong to him — San Francisco Examiner columnist Charles Einstein famously wrote about O'Doul's habit of riding in the front seat of taxis and steering the driver to destinations based on route instructions that were always the most direct, if not always the most legal. In those circumstances, police would invariably halt the vehicle until spotting O'Doul, at which point an officer would smile and wave the driver on his way.
It appeared to Brundidge that the city was devoid of strangers; O'Doul recognized everyone crossing his path — and they him — as he greeted each person by name and spoke softly in rapid, staccato half-sentences, punctuating their delivery with animated facial expressions. Brundidge began to understand why San Francisco Seals owner Charlie Graham had dreaded walking down the street with Lefty O'Doul — it wasn't a walk so much as a never-ending series of interruptions. O'Doul had an easy air about him — a generous spirit that shone through; people were genuinely glad to see him. Brundidge thought to himself that the best word to describe his friend was "dynamic."
During their stroll, O'Doul and Brundidge were suddenly hailed by a group of Japanese businessmen who removed their hats and bowed. "O'Doul-san!" shouted one of the men, clearly delighted at encountering the baseball star. "Konnichiwa!" O'Doul bowed in turn and was introduced to the man's associates.
They shook hands and continued to exchange pleasantries in Japanese. Before parting, the man who had first greeted O'Doul turned to Brundidge and, after apologizing for his rudeness in not addressing him earlier, told the reporter, "In [Japan], O'Doul-san is great national hero. O'Doul [is number one] in Nipponese hearts. Great hero. O'Doul most admired American, including [the] illustrious MacArthur-san."
Lefty O'Doul had visited Japan more than a dozen times as a player and ambassador for the game, including momentous trips in 1931 and 1934 — the latter headlined by Babe Ruth — and in 1949, when he was asked to help repair U.S.-Japanese relations with a baseball tour. Brundidge remembered arriving in Tokyo in 1945, shortly after the surrender of Japan, and being peppered with questions from Japanese citizens, including Emperor Hirohito's brother, wanting to know about Lefty O'Doul. Prince Fumimaro Konoe, who twice served as Japanese prime minister, told Brundidge that O'Doul should have been a diplomat rather than a ballplayer.
Pleasantries concluded, the Japanese businessmen continued on their way, as did O'Doul and Brundidge. While they walked, Brundidge remained struck by the adulation accorded O'Doul in his hometown by men who had traveled several thousand miles and recognized him during a chance meeting on the street.
* * *
San Francisco was a young city full of ambition in the late 1860s. It was rough — not only around the edges, but through and through — and when its aspiration to become a major metropolis collided with the incompatibility of unsightly industries located within its city limits, especially butchering and meatpacking (and the unpleasant by-products), pressure was brought to force the butchers, prosperous though they were, to leave. City fathers acquiesced, banning the slaughtering of animals within the town proper, compelling the meat merchants to relocate their livelihood to marshy land purchased from the state of California, at the outlet of Islais Creek — a former Ohlone fishing spot just southeast of the city on what was known as Hunter's Point. The area was almost immediately dubbed "Butchertown."
The move proved fortuitous, as San Francisco quickly became a center for the beef industry, which employed more than three thousand people; one company, Miller & Lux, emerged as one of the largest meatpacking operations west of Chicago. The old problems resurfaced, however. Despite the natural barrier of Potrero Hill, which hid many of the less desirous aspects of Butchertown, within a few years the muck, the dung, and the stench and pollution from the slaughterhouses, tanneries, and tallow works spawned concern on the part of city officials. Instead of cleaning up and properly disposing of the offal produced by their trade, butchers often extended their slaughterhouses out over the ocean, filling the water with bloody remains that — sometimes — washed out to sea. Rats proved a constant problem, and hogs were often stationed under the wooden floors to devour carcasses dropped into the basement. This was an embarrassment to officials attempting to convert their city from a roughshod, ramshackle outpost into the "Paris of the Western Hemisphere," as San Francisco began vying for the coveted, and lucrative, role of trade center to Asia and the Pacific Rim. There would be repeated crackdowns.
Butchertown also produced Lefty O'Doul — nearly all of his family members were butchers. Lefty's paternal grandfather, Augustus, was born in Louisiana to parents of French and Italian ancestry and had come to California to make his fortune. For a time, Augustus partnered with his cousin and fellow bayou native Emile Peguillan in a sheep butchering concern. O'Doul's grandmother, Catherine Fitzgerald, was born in Ireland — family lore has Catherine insisting Augustus add a proper Irish apostrophe to his last name of Odoul before she would marry him.
Lefty O'Doul's father, Eugene, was born in 1872, the second of five children, four of whom were boys. In 1895 Eugene O'Doul married Cecelia Suhling, a native Californian born to German parents; two years later, Eugene and Cecelia's only child, Francis, was born on Connecticut Street, the same day as President William McKinley's inauguration, an event that dominated San Francisco newspapers, especially those of a Republican bent. (The family moved repeatedly — some accounts state that O'Doul was born on Galvez Street, while city directories show the family living on P Street. However, according to second cousin Tom O'Doul, Lefty was born on Connecticut.)
Due to its relative isolation from the center of San Francisco, Butchertown developed a separate and, what seems today, surprising identity. Well into the 1930s, cowboys tended livestock on the nearby hills before driving them through the neighborhood streets to their final destination — it was not uncommon for pedestrians to suddenly find themselves flattened against buildings as cattle passed. There were also stereotypical scenes one might imagine in a tight-knit community of that era: O'Doul and his mates, bare feet pounding heavily against the well-worn wooden plank pathway, racing off to the mudflats near the Chinese shrimp camp on Hunter's Point where they would spend hours digging for clams. Then, once the fog cleared in the early afternoon, they would skinny dip in the surf. Milk and ice were delivered to the neighborhood each day, and on sweltering afternoons the boys, likely as not, would launch themselves onto the back of an ice wagon and grab chips from one of the blocks to stick in their mouths, or down each other's backs. The Irish lads of Butchertown would often fight the Italians of North Beach, and O'Doul learned early the fundamentals of fisticuffs — Butchertown spawned more than its share of professional prize fighters. Lefty sided with the Irish even though his bloodlines were tied less to the Emerald Isle than to his French and German roots. He would carry a bit of Butchertown inside him throughout his life.
The family suffered through some hard times. O'Doul's uncle August fled to Seattle following a New Year's Day 1900 bar fight that began with an argument over the price of drinks and escalated into a brawl that allegedly resulted in a death. The police ultimately dropped the charges for lack of evidence. Less than a year later, Lefty's grandmother died suddenly at age fifty-four. Butchertown nearly burned down in 1904, the result of a carelessly tossed cigar under the plank road. Then came the 1906 earthquake, which devastated block after block of buildings in Butchertown; in later years, O'Doul vividly recalled the scene he witnessed as a nine-year-old: "A lot of packing houses ... were on the bay shore and they just shook down. Couple of days later ... I walked into town. There were beds hanging out of the houses, where the walls had fallen away." O'Doul's family was fortunate in that they were able to move back into the home they had been renting on Sixth Avenue since 1904, remaining until around 1911.
Lefty enrolled at Bay View Grammar School, where it was said he excelled at geography — other subjects, not so much. His reputation was that of an extremely likable and unfailingly polite young man with a quick sense of humor and a gift for leadership. O'Doul's education ended somewhere in the vicinity of the eighth grade because his father felt it vital that he learn a trade — specifically the family tradition of butchering. Eugene O'Doul, who was often subjected to good-natured shouts of "Froggy" because of his French blood and bayou lineage, had labored in the slaughterhouses but by 1908 was a salesman. That position eventually enabled him to secure a spot in the Don Biggs Company for his teenage son, whom Eugene's friends playfully dubbed "Young Froggy." Lefty, who became a card-carrying member of Amalgamated Meat Cutters Union Local 508, regretted the premature end to his schooling, but his quick mind, insatiable curiosity, and love of people ultimately fostered within him a talent for self-education.
O'Doul always claimed that, prior to abandoning his formal education, he was instructed in the fundamentals of baseball by his teacher, a woman in her midthirties named Rose Stolz, who recognized and encouraged the development of his athletic talent. Under her mentorship, fifteen-year-old Lefty led Bay View to the finals of the San Francisco grammar school championship.
"Sure I had always played some ball ever since I learned to walk," explained O'Doul. "[But] she taught me the essential fundamentals of the game. She taught me to pitch, field and hit. ... Miss Stolz, alone, is responsible for my success in baseball." Lefty always took great pride in pointing out that a woman had taught him to play ball.
It was an exaggeration that made for a good story — Rose Stolz was the first to admit she was far from a baseball expert. Her interests tended more toward drama and literature — she had obtained autographs from nearly every prominent actor who had appeared in San Francisco, dating back before the turn of the century. She coached sports at the school despite her lack of knowledge because she saw a need and no one else was willing. As a result, she became a lifelong fan of O'Doul, and he credited her with his success.
Rose Stolz did teach Lefty and his teammates to be gentlemen. All of the members of the grammar school team wore carnations in their lapels as they marched to the ballpark for the championship game. "She insisted flowers were not sissy," remembered O'Doul, "and that washing your ears, combing your hair and wearing your Sunday-Goto-Meeting clothes made you a man. I learned a lot from her."
While possessing the same piercing blue eyes and fair complexion as his father, Lefty would outgrow him by a good three inches, rounding out at an even six feet tall. And Rose Stolz was correct. He was indeed a gifted athlete — both fast and strong. Lefty O'Doul would always consider himself lucky, and accordingly made it a priority throughout his life to assist those less fortunate; the discovery of his athletic prowess proved one of his luckiest breaks.
However, after taking the job at the Don Biggs Company, it appeared that O'Doul had abandoned sports in favor of females — or at least one member of the fairer sex — while settling into a life of grueling six-day work weeks, herding sheep through the streets of Butchertown and cutting meat at the slaughterhouse; he relished being on horseback and would always admire the cowboys of his youth. O'Doul's future seemed set. Other than a brief stint pitching for what he called a "bush league" team in the Visitacion Valley Athletic Association in 1914, he largely forgot about baseball.
That changed in 1916 when O'Doul's father convinced the nineteen-year-old to join the South San Francisco Parlor of the Native Sons of the Golden West, a social organization open exclusively to native-born Californians and dedicated to preserving California history.
The Native Sons also sponsored a baseball league.
Games were scheduled on Sundays and involved some eighteen teams, representing various parlors in and around San Francisco. Admission was free but the competition intense; some teams hired former professional players. Contests were generally staged at Ewing Field, Golden Gate Park, or on a ball field located at Fourth and Bluxome, only a few blocks from the present-day home of the San Francisco Giants.
Lefty did not immediately join the baseball team — as enamored as he had been with the game, he was more enamored with his girlfriend and continued passing his Sundays with her. Then, as so often would be the case for Lefty O'Doul, fate stepped in.
According to a 1932 interview conducted by Ed Hughes of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, O'Doul insisted, "I wasn't what you call crazy about the game. I also had liked the girls some too, and one in particular at that time. But it seems that this particular charmer liked another fellow, also. I had an engagement to take her to a picnic one Sunday, but the other kid got there first. That left me with an afternoon on my hands."
So, instead of squiring an attractive female that summer day in 1916, Lefty accompanied his father to a Native Sons baseball game being played by the Butchertown-based South San Francisco Parlor. One of the team's scheduled pitchers was ill (according to another account, he was missing following an unlucky night shooting craps.) South San Francisco's manager, Jack Regan, who had been attempting without success to persuade O'Doul to play for his team, finally convinced him to take the mound.
"I won that game," recalled O'Doul, "and made quite a hit all around. Guess it gave me the yen to be a big league star." O'Doul gave up the slaughterhouse — and the girl — and grabbed what he recognized was an opportunity. He went undefeated for South San Francisco and was also their best hitter. At least that's the way the story is always told — and it is technically true.
Four weeks into the season, O'Doul threw a one-hit shutout, and followed up the next Sunday with a four-hit, 3–2, victory, pushing his team's record to five wins without a defeat. On the first of October he tossed another shutout, allowing only three hits, and it was announced that the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League (PCL) had signed him for the 1917 season. O'Doul's instant success was unusual, as was the reaction of his family. At a time when parents almost never encouraged ball playing by their sons, Lefty's had no qualms. "My dad didn't think a thing about it," remembered O'Doul. "He was elated, if anything."
By the end of the month, South San Francisco was 13-0, and only the Stanford Parlor, at 13-1, remained within striking distance. It was announced that those two teams would meet for the league title on November 12 in a game played at Recreation Park, home field of the Seals, with a special admission charged to raise funds for homeless children.
More than three thousand were on hand for the championship contest — O'Doul had never before played in front of a crowd that size. There was considerable interest in the game throughout the city. Ping Bodie, a Seals outfielder bound for the Philadelphia Athletics, offered ten dollars to the first player hitting a home run. A local judge matched Bodie's offer for a triple. The A. G. Spalding Company supplied gold watch charms intended for each member of the winning team. As a measure of O'Doul's popularity, the game was halted when he came to bat in the second inning so fans could present him a floral horseshoe for good luck.
Excerpted from Lefty O'Doul by Dennis Snelling. Copyright © 2017 Dennis Snelling. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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