Updated: Oct 11, 2020
Lefty O’Doul was the greatest manager in the history of the San Francisco Seals. The local product from the City by the Bay had a great influence on the Seals during their glory years but his influence would not just reside in San Francisco. His influence would go beyond the Bay Area and reach through out baseball in the US as well as Japan. This is his story.
Francis Joseph “Lefty” O’Doul was born on March 4, 1897 in San Francisco, California. Known as Frank as a child, O’Doul grew up in the Butchertown district of San Francisco, now known as Bay View-Hunters Point, where his father worked as a butcher. His baseball journey began in 1912 at the Bay View School under the tutelage of Rosie Stoltz, a woman, who helped develop his skills as a baseball player. Bay View won the city championship that year and O’Doul quit school after the season, at the age of 16, to work in the slaughterhouse with his father. While working six days a week, he kept his baseball skills sharp by playing for amateur and semi-pro ball clubs on Sundays. By 1916 the Seals had taken notice of his skills and signed him for the 1917 season.
In three starts with the Seals the left-handed pitcher recorded no decisions before he was sent to their farm team in Des Moines of the Western League. After recording an 8-6 record in Des Moines, O’Doul returned to the Seals in 1918 where he pitched in 49 games and recorded 12 wins against eight losses with a 2.62 ERA. After the season, O’Doul enlisted in the Navy and was signed by the New York Yankees.
Lefty O’Doul’s early days in New York were to little fanfare. He only appeared in 19 games that first season and decided to skip a double-header when there was a rain delay. He went to the Belmont Park race track with his teammate Chick Fewster instead and when he got home he read in the newspaper the result of the game he had missed as well as an update for the second game of the double header. He was surprised when Miller Huggins, the Yankees manager, didn’t even notice his absence.
The 1920 season looked to be promising for O’Doul. A few days before the Yankees signed him, O’Doul pitched against Babe Ruth during Winter Ball and struck him out twice before Ruth hit a home run in his third at-bat. The promise of 1920 quickly disintegrated as O’Doul only appeared in 13 games. He didn’t play in 1921 due to injury and played in eight games the following year. He signed with the Boston Red Sox in 1923 where he recorded a one win and won loss along with a very high 5.43 ERA in his final season as a pitcher.
He signed with the New York Giants in 1928 and played for the Philadelphia Phillies the next two years, hitting 32 home runs in 1929 which was a huge number in those days. He found a home with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1931 where he played for the next two and a half years. In his final half season in Brooklyn, O’Doul finally became an All Star. He hit 14 home runs and batted .284 between stops in Brooklyn and the New York Giants that season. He also won the World Series with the Giants in 1933.
The 1934 season was his last year as a player. In 83 games he collected 56 hits, 46 RBI and nine home runs. As a player he had a decent career, winning the World Series and becoming an All Star is all a ball player wants for his career. His coaching career is where his influence truly shined bright.
A New Path
After he finished his playing career, Lefty O’Doul returned home to San Francisco a hero. He was one of the first athletes from the city to truly make a name for himself in a major sport. His old team, the San Francisco Seals, was looking for a new manager and decided to give him a shot. When he became their manager, Joe DiMaggio was still with the organization. In their lone season together, O’Doul helped groom DiMaggio into the great player he would become as a New York Yankee.
The Seals won the PCL championship in O’Doul’s first year at the helm and they would make the playoffs in 10 of his 15 years as their coach. His greatest years were from 1943 to 1946 when they won four straight PCL titles. In all, he won five league championships while in San Francisco. He left the Seals following the 1951 season where he managed teams in San Diego, Oakland, Seattle and Vancouver, all resided in the PCL.
It was around this time when he began to reacquaint himself with Japan. His affiliation with that country began in 1931 when he went on an exhibition tour to that region. In 1932 he came back to Japan when he went on a trip to train ball players for the Big Six colleges (Hose, Imperial, Keio, Meji, Rikkio and Waseda). There he trained hitters and outfielders. Along with fellow Major League players Ted Lyons and Moe Berg, the men held roughly 40 lessons at each school. They also held exhibition games which were attended by as many as 60,000 spectators.
Lefty O’Doul continued his relationship with Japan by organizing tours of the United States in 1935 and 1936 by professional Japanese baseball players. In 1950 O’Doul helped found the Japanese professional baseball league, what is now known as Nippon Professional Baseball, and he is credited with naming the Tokyo Giants after the last Major League club he played for. The Tokyo Giants are now known as the Yomiuri Giants, though they still play in Tokyo, and they are one of the most successful franchises in Nippon Professional Baseball. Since joining NPB in 1950 they have won 22 Japan Series championships.
O’Doul stayed away from Japan during World War II and took the attack on Pearl Harbor especially hard. He helped bring reconciliation between the United States and Japan in 1949 by bringing his San Francisco Seals to the country for an exhibition tour. In 10 games, the Seals drew over 500,000 fans. He continued to make personal appearances and lead exhibition tours throughout the 1950’s. His influence on baseball in Japan earned him a spot in the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. It took a few decades but Japanese baseball made it’s way to the United States. Notable players such as Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Yu Darvish and Shohei Ohtani have made a major impact on the game of baseball in America.
After retiring from managing after the 1957 season, O’Doul returned to San Francisco to mentor legendary sluggers such as Willie Mays and Willie McCovey. He opened up his own restaurant, Lefty O’Doul’s, in San Francisco shortly after retiring from managing. It is one of the oldest sports bars in America. He died from a stroke on December 7, 1969 but his influence on the game of baseball lives on to this day.