Lefty O’Doul, great MLB killer and ambassador


On December 5, the Hall of Fame’s Early Baseball Era Committee (pre-1950) and Golden Days Era Committee (1950-69) will meet to vote on ballots for 10 players, with the results live that evening at 6 p.m. to be announced on the MLB Network PM ET. We are here to offer an introduction to the 20 players that will be considered. Click here to see the other posts.

Years: 1919-20, 1922-23, 1928-34 (MLB)

Career statistics: .349 / .413 / .532, 1.140 H, 113 HR, 542 RBIs, 36 SB

In 1928, Francis Joseph “Lefty” O’Doul was 31 years old and had played professional baseball for 11 seasons. His career in the major league was rather nondescript up to this point. As an outfielder and pitcher, O’Doul had limited stint with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox between 1919 and 23, but his most famous MLB moment during that time is likely a pitching appearance on July 7, 1923, in which he did Allowed 13 runs in one inning as part of Boston’s 23–7 loss to the Cleveland Indians.

But by 1928 and for the next 30+ years, O’Doul would cement a legacy as a fantastic major league player, a hugely successful minor league coach who coached some of the sport’s most legendary players and was one of the game’s most successful global ambassadors.

O’Doul received Hall of Fame votes in 10 different cycles between 1948 and 62, with a maximum of 16.7% of the vote in 1960. Because of this, his influence on and off the playing field in Cooperstown deserves a place.

O’Doul shone in the Pacific Coast League from 1924 to 1927. After the ’24 campaign, he switched from pitching due to injuries and scored 973 hits and a 0.369 average over a four-year period, winning the PCL’s first MVP Award in 1927. That success brought him back to the majors in the 1928 New York Giants, and a 31-year-old O’Doul just kept beating.

He hit .319 to 354 at-bats with the Giants, but since manager John McGraw was dissatisfied with the O’Doul defense and didn’t think he could hit left-handed pitchers, O’Doul was dealt to the Philadelphia Phillies in October.

There he wrote one of the best offensive seasons in National League history. O’Doul led the league in 1929 with an average of 0.398, a percentage of 0.465 on the base, and his 254 hits are still an NL single season record. He shattered a career high of 32 homers and struck only 19 times, joining Joe DiMaggio as the two players to ever score less than 20 strikeouts in a 30 homer season. He also suppressed any concerns about his ability to hit left-handed people; O’Doul scored a 1,018 OPS against southpaw and went 13-26 with three home runs against future Hall of Fame leftist Carl Hubbell in ’29. O’Doul finished second behind Rogers Hornsby in the NL MVP poll that year.

It recorded another 204 hits, hitting .383 in 1930 before being sold to the Brooklyn Robins, who became the Dodgers prior to the 1932 season. O’Doul won his second hit title in ’32 with a hit of 0.368 and finished third in the NL MVP vote.

O’Doul’s stats eventually began to decline the following year, his season at the age of 36, and he was traded back to the New York Giants in June 1933. However, he appeared in the first MLB All-Star game of that year and got his only World Series at-bat in October: a green two-pass single as part of a Game 2 wins for the 1933 MLB champions.

O’Doul reached .310 in 161 games with the Giants by the end of the 1934 season that would be his last in the majors.

From 1928-34, O’Doul’s slash line was a sturdy .353 / .417 / .539. He hit at least 0.300 in all but one of those years and had three 200-hit seasons. He is one of only 14 players to ever record a .300 / .400 / .500 slashline both on the street and at home. His 143 OPS + career is linked to Hall of Famers Harmon Killebrew, Eddie Mathews, and Mike Piazza. And O’Doul’s batting average of 0.349 is the sixth best ever, but only Shoeless Joe Jackson has a higher average among off-hall players.

The Early Baseball Era Committee will also consider O’Doul’s management success, which began in 1935 when O’Doul, who was born near what would later become San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, headed the PCL’s San Francisco Seals. He would stay with the Seals until 1951, turning down MLB managerial opportunities from the Yankees, Phillies, New York Giants, and other teams in order to stay close to home. In his 23 seasons in the PCL, O’Doul won 2,094 games, the most in league history.

O’Doul’s aptitude for teaching was evident while he was still playing, helping to hone the swing of a teenage Mel Ott while the two were teammates with the Giants in 1928. He prepared Joe DiMaggio for what awaited him in New York as this helped the Seals win the ’35 championship. O’Doul also told a young Ted Williams not to let anyone play with his swing. The Splendid Splinter took these words to heart and said that if he ever needed some advice he would ask Lefty.

Great influence on Japanese professional baseball

While O’Doul’s career as a player and manager wasn’t enough to bring him to Cooperstown on his own, they complement what is probably O’Doul’s greatest contribution to the game: promoting the professional baseball in Japan.

O’Doul made his first trip to Japan in 1931 as part of an exhibition tour of Asia with a team that included Lou Gehrig, Lefty Grove, Frankie Frisch and others. He injured himself during the tour and spent a lot of time talking to Japanese players and immersing themselves in the culture. He returned in 1932 to teach and coach players at colleges across the country.

From 1932-37, O’Doul spent some time in Japan organizing tours with the likes of Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Charlie Gehringer, Lefty Gomez, and Babe Ruth, all of whom were received with a roar when he arrived in 1934 O’Doul had taught himself to speak Japanese and was recognized by many as a baseball ambassador.

Because of its association with the New York Giants, O’Doul named Japan’s first professional baseball team the Tokyo Giants (currently the Yomiuri Giants). He also helped found the first Japanese professional baseball league in 1936. In 1950 it became Nippon Professional Baseball.

O’Doul rarely visited Japan between 1938-48 as hostilities between the two countries increased and led to the attack on Pearl Harbor and World War II. In 1949, O’Doul went on a baseball goodwill tour at General Douglas MacArthur’s behest and brought his San Francisco Seals team into the country. On arrival, it is estimated that up to a million people greeted him on the streets of Tokyo. These games marked the first time American and Japanese flags fluttered side by side since the end of the war. Almost 100,000 people attended some of the games.

O’Doul continued to bring popular American players to Japan in the 1950s, including Joe DiMaggio, Dom DiMaggio, and Yogi Berra. He also invited top Japanese players to spring training in America. O’Doul joined the New York Giants in 1953 when they were the first full MLB team to travel to Japan. He also traveled to the country in 1960 with the San Francisco Giants for a series of exhibition games.

In 2002, more than 30 years after his death, O’Doul became the first American to be elected to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. His election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame is long overdue.


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