Lefty O’Doul may never enter the National Baseball Hall of Fame as a player. Although he had gaudy statistics over an 11-year major-league career — he had a lifetime .349 average and was a two-time National League batting champion — only four of his seasons were truly remarkable.
Short bursts of greatness have landed players in Cooperstown — Sandy Koufax’s five-year stretch of dominance from 1962 to 1966, or Dizzy Dean's short but brilliant career come to mind — but O’Doul has faded from the consciousness of the veterans committee.
However, if one factors in what a man has done for the game of baseball, Frank “Lefty” O’Doul should receive more consideration. O’Doul was a baseball ambassador who organized trips to Japan before and after World War II. It was his 1949 trip that was such a morale boost for fans in the Far East, and O’Doul remains a revered figure among Japanese baseball fans.
That trip and a long, colorful career are the main themes in Dennis Snelling’s jaunty, interesting biography, Lefty O’Doul: Baseball’s Forgotten Ambassador (University of Nebraska Press; hardback; $27.95; 356 pages).
O’Doul played 11 seasons in the major leagues, from 1919 to 1934. In between, he played and managed in the Pacific Coast League, mostly with the team of his hometown, the San Francisco Seals.
Snelling is certainly qualified to write about O’Doul, who was a hanky-waving, gregarious figure in the PCL. In 2011 Snelling wrote The Greatest Minor League: A History of the Pacific Coast League, 1903-1957, which was a Casey Awards finalist for best baseball book that year.
O’Doul was a two-time batting champion, hitting .398 in 1929 and collecting a National League record 254 hits (which was tied the following year by New York Giants first baseman Bill Terry). He also hit a career-high 32 home runs in 1929 while striking out just 19 times. O’Doul followed that landmark season by batting .383 in 1930, but Terry batted .401, becoming the last National League player to reach that hitting plateau.
While O’Doul gained an advantage by hitting in tiny Baker Bowl, he also was at a disadvantage because he wasn’t able to hit against the Phillies’ pitching staff, which had collective ERAs of 6.13 in 1929 and 6.71 in 1930.
Interestingly, O’Doul also is one of 12 players who played for the New York Yankees, New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers during his career.
Snelling uses a compelling literary device to open each chapter, relating an anecdote that concerned baseball in Japan. Much of the opening passages have to do with the baseball tour to Japan that O’Doul organized in 1949 as a morale-booster for the people of the defeated empire.
As a young player, O’Doul cut an impressive figure as a pitcher and then as a hitter. He was “ramrod straight, clear of eye, and fleet of foot,” Snelling writes. He had a strong arm and a beautiful batting stroke.
O’Doul “had an ingratiating personality,” Snelling writes, but his quest to have a good time and his lack of fear at authority figures did not sit well with his first manager, Yankees skipper Miller Huggins.
Snelling digs out interesting facts about O’Doul in this biography. For example, the left-handed hitter struck out in his major-league debut in 1919, and he would only fan 122 times in his career. In his second at-bat, O’Doul pinch hit for a young outfielder named George Halas, who flopped with the Yankees but found his niche in the National Football League as the owner of the Chicago Bears.
Originally a pitcher, O’Doul finally was shifted to the outfield. While that enabled managers to use his potent bat, O’Doul was never a great outfielder. He never mastered the art of getting a jump on the ball, and his arm, ruined by pitching, did not scare base runners. But he was popular in the clubhouse and kept his teammates loose with his outgoing personality.
It was O’Doul who convinced Babe Ruth to participate in the Japan barnstorming tour in 1934. Snelling’s narrative of the tour is excellent, and his correspondence with author and Japanese baseball authority Rob Fitts (who wrote the ground-breaking book of the 1934 tour, Banzai Babe Ruth, in 2012) was essential in putting the trip into the proper context of the political and social atmosphere that prevailed in the 1930s.
The tour was so successful that the O’Doul arranged for the Tokyo Giants to tour the United States in 1935 and 1936. But the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 broke O’Doul’s heart — and angered him, too. “He considered it a personal betrayal,” Snelling writes. But O’Doul still had a soft spot for the Japanese people, and his 1949 tour of the country was evidence of that.
Snelling documents O’Doul’s 23-year managerial career in the PCL, with San Francisco (17 years), and for six with other squads in the league (San Diego, Oakland, Seattle and Vancouver). He also points out how O’Doul gave batting tips and advice to two up-and-coming hitters who would blossom into the game’s best —Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams.
His best pupil might have been actor Gary Cooper, who had to learn how to bat properly in the movie Pride of the Yankees, the film biography of Lou Gehrig. “The actor swung a bat until he ached all over,” Snelling writes.
O’Doul was uniquely a San Francisco man, and his many years managing the Seals and running a restaurant in town made him a beloved figure. While he never made it to the majors as a manager — despite rumors through the years that he would take over a squad — O’Doul had a simple credo. That was to empathize with a player when he was down.
It certainly worked. O’Doul went 2,094-1,970 as a minor-league manager.
O’Doul was a talented scratch golfer and played in the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am Tournament from 1948-1954, winning the pro-am portion of the event in 1949 and 1954. He had a soft spot for children, even though his two marriages were childless. And O’Doul never turned down a request for help from a hitter who needed his swing critiqued.
In 2002, O’Doul finally made it to the Hall of Fame — but not the one in Cooperstown. He was the first American elected to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. “The Man in the Green Suit” may not get a plaque in Cooperstown, but Snelling’s richly detailed, well-written biography offers compelling evidence that O’Doul’s contributions to the game should be taken into consideration.