Monday, October 21, 2013

Blast from the Past: Who Was Lefty O'Doul?

I spent the last couple of days hanging out in the Union Square downtown area of San Francisco where my older daughter was running in the Nike Women's Marathon.  BTW, this was her first full marathon and she finished it in 4 hours and 10 minutes, #115 out of 700 in her age group!  I think that is pretty darn impressive!  Anyway, while I was exploring the area around Union Square, I came across a SF landmark, Lefty O'Doul's Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge, on Geary Blvd.  I ate breakfast there one of the mornings and got to look around a bit at some of the pictures and memorabilia.  Now, I have known for a long time that Lefty O'Doul was a revered figure in both San Francisco and Giants history, but I have to confess that I've never had a good idea of who he was or why he was so poplular, so I did a little research.

Lefty was born in San Francisco in 1897, so that would be 4 years before the Great Earthquake.  Lefty began his baseball career as a lefty reliever with the San Francisco Seals, the SF AAA team.  He eventually worked his way up to the majors pitching a handful of games each season from 1919-1923 with the Yankees and Red Sox.  His busiest season was 1923 when he made 19 appearances with an ERA over 5.  He set a dubious MLB record in 1923 for the most runs allowed by a reliever in one appearance when he gave up 16 runs over 3 IP.  Errors behind him by the Red Sox made only 3 of those 16 runs Earned.  The record was later equaled by 2 other pitchers.

A sore arm suffered in the 1923 season ended his pitching career.  Lefty went back to the Seals and became a hitter.  He re-appeared in 1928 with the New York Giants hitting .318 in a platoon role.  He was apparently traded to the Phillies for the 1929 season and produced one of the most remarkable seasons in baseball history:  .398/.465/.622 with 32 HR's.  He drew walks in 10.4% of his PA's and struck out in just 2.6%.  In fact, his career K rate was just 3.3%.  Too bad Ol' Lefty isn't still around to give some batting tips to some of these hitters on how to hit for power without hardly ever striking out!  His 254 Hits that year broke the NL record held by Rogers Hornsby and is tied with Giant Bill Terry for the NL record to this day!

He had another fine season with the Phillies in 1930 then another in 1931 with the Brooklyn Robins who later became the Dodgers.  He finished his career back with the Giants where he hit .316/.383/.525 with 9 HRs in 197 PA's.

After retirement from his playing career, Lefty went back to San Francisco and became the manager of the AAA Seals where he had the distinction of managing a young Joe DiMaggio.  He also became an ambassador for baseball in Japan.  He was instrumental in naming the Japanese League team in Tokyo the Giants and outfitting them with similar colors as the New York Giants.  He also likely played a role on the San Francisco Giants being one of the first teams to sign Japanese players.

He started a successful restaurant business in downtown San Francisco that has become a landmark of the city.  It features roast beef and turkey sandwiches and dinners served from a cafeteria style line.  I didn't eat dinner there, but the food looks absolutely yummy.  I spoke with a customer who said they serve "killer" sandwiches.

Lefty O'Doul died in 1969 at the age of 72.  He must have been an outgoing personality who people liked because he seemed to have had numerous friends and was a significant figure in a many lives.  He has the highest career BA(.349) of any player eligible for the HOF, but not yet inducted.  His relatively short career probably means he won't make it.  Personally, I think his impact and influence on Major League Baseball went way beyond the accomplishments of his playing career, which were considerable even though short lived.  After all, it is called the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Most Impressive Career Counting Stats!  He is in the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame and has a bridge named after him down by AT&T Park.  Come on, Veterans Committee!  Get it done!


  1. Great write-up, thanks for the information! I've crossed old Lefty's bridge many times, but I didn't know too much about the guy either, to be quite honest. I knew he had played in the majors, but with a name like Lefty, I assumed he was a pitcher! Shows how much I know. I think his influence on the Japanese leagues is one of the most interesting facets of his career. Thanks again for giving us younger fans a little bit of history, and congrats to your daughter... very impressive.

  2. Lefty's restaurant actually makes the best corn beef EVER. Hands down.


    1. Good to know. I'm personally not a huge corned beef fan, but the roasted turkey looked unbelievably good.

  3. Correct me if I'm wrong, but if Lefty was born in 1897 and the Great Earthquake was in 1906, that would mean he was 9 y/o at that time.

    A genealogy buff.

    1. Yup. For some reason I was thinking it was in 1901.