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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,229

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This is the grave of Lefty O’Doul.

Born in San Francisco in 1897, Francis O’Doul became a high school pitching star, known as Lefty for being, well, a lefty. He got picked up by the San Francisco Seals in AAA and was pretty successful there. So the Yankees took a shot on him as a reliever, which was kind of a bottom of the roster thing at a time when pitchers were expected to throw complete games. He didn’t do much with it. He pitched a few games in 1919 and 1920, just a couple of innings. He was back in the minors in 1921 and then the Red Sox gave him a shot in 1922 in a similar role. He wasn’t really that good of a pitcher. In fact, he holds the all-time record for most runs given up by a relief pitcher in one appearance, with 16, though only 3 of them were earned. That’s been tied a couple of times since.

So this was not a successful pitcher. He was a marginal guy. It was 1924. O’Doul was 27 years old at probably at the end of the line. So he decided to take one last shot, by giving up pitching and becoming a full time outfielder back with the Seals.

To say the least, this was a good idea. O’Doul had a 30 homer, 30 steal season in San Francisco in 1927. This got the attention of major league teams. So even though he was now 31 years old, the New York Giants decided to give him a shot. Batting against righties in a platoon situation, he hit .319/372/463 with just a little bit of power. Useful player. But the Giants didn’t really see a future here and they traded him to the Phillies after the season. And then O’Doul just went off in 1929. Seemingly out of nowhere, here was this old man who had one of the greatest seasons in baseball history to that point. He hit a ridiculous .398/465/622 with 32 runs and 254 hits. He led the league in batting average, OBP, and hits. In fact, the 254 hits broke the National League record for hits previously held by Rogers Hornsby. This was by far his best season, which Baseball Reference rates as a 7.4 WAR year. That seems a bit low to me, though I imagine his notably terrible defense hurts here.

In any case, literally out of nowhere O’Doul became a huge star in one season at age 32. He was really good the next year too, hitting a mere .383/453/603 with 22 homers and 202 hits.

But still, he was old and therefore no team wanted to go all in here. After the 1930 season, the Phillies moved O’Doul to the Dodgers. He was good but not great in 1931 and then had another outstanding season in 1932, when he again led the NL with a .368 batting average and added 21 homers to that total. And again, the Dodgers decided to move on from him in the 1933 season, sending him back to the Giants in a midseason trade. He was getting pretty old at this point and mostly was a platoon player in his last year and half with the Giants, though still a good one who could hit over .300 with a touch of power still. He retired at the end of the 1934 season, though he had hit .316/383/525 in 177 at bats. That’s still a useful player. But he was finished with the grind I guess.

In 1935, O’Doul returned to San Francisco, this time as the manager of the Seals, where he would remain until 1951. The Seals were probably the most notable of the minor league system during these years, sending a lot of players on to the major leagues. Among them was Joe DiMaggio. O’Doul took no credit for developing DiMaggio, saying he was already great before he ever got there. But that’s false modesty.

O’Doul was also a pretty charismatic guy. He became baseball’s ambassador to Japan in the 1930s. We all know that Japan is a baseball crazy nation and O’Doul is part of the reason why. The reason the Tokyo Giants have their name is because they knew O’Doul as a Giant and wanted to honor him. This was all the way back in 1935, when the U.S. and Japan still had relatively close relationships. O’Doul visited Japan on several occasions to promote the game. In the aftermath of the war, he visited again and helped revive the game and its infrastructure during the American occupation.

Late in life, O’Doul helped pioneer the idea of an athlete opening a mediocre restaurant in the city where he’s popular, a money making enterprise for the many who want to get a glimpse of a legend or at least eat a burger surrounded by memorability and televisions showing sports (years ago, I was in Phoenix and somehow ended up at Dan Majerle’s version of this). O’Doul’s restaurant opened in 1958 and the restaurant was successful. It remained open until 2017, evidently having some famous Bloody Mary that Lefty liked. Of course, it closed due to rising rents like everything else in the New Gilded Age capital of San Francisco.

O’Doul has been considered for the Hall of Fame but has never made it. He was a finalist with the Veterans Committee last year but did not receive enough votes. It’s a bit hard to justify his inclusion given the brief period he was good. He does have the highest career batting average of any player not in the Hall of Fame outside of the banned Shoeless Joe Jackson–.349. But it’s only a few years.

O’Doul died in 1969, at the age of 72.

Lefty O’Doul is buried in Cypress Lawn Memorial Park, Colma, California.

According to Baseball Reference’s WAR stat, O’Doul is the 71st best left fielder of all time, definitely not evidence that he should be in the Hall of Fame. In terms of contemporary players you may remember (or who I remember anyway), this puts his slightly behind Kevin Mitchell, Alfonso Soriano, and Kevin McReynolds and slightly ahead of Carlos Lee, Mike Greenwell, and Cliff Floyd. In other words, good players that no one in the right mind would consider for the Hall. If you would like this series to visit other left fielders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Topsey Hartsel, who played in the first years of the twentieth century, mostly with the As, and ranks 67th, is in Toledo, Ohio and George Stone, who had a brief but fantastic career with the St. Louis Browns in the late 1900s, and who ranks 75th, is in Coleridge, Nebraska. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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