After his playing days came to a close, O'Doul was appointed "Manager for Life" of the legendary San Francisco Seals (a position he held for 17 years); established a reputation as the best (and most cerebral) hitting instructor in the game; and, through sheer force of will and personality, did more than any other person to promote baseball in Japan, where it remains a national obsession (and where O'Doul is still revered).
With Lefty O'Doul: Baseball's Forgotten Ambassador, author Dennis Snelling has written the definitive biography of one of baseball's greatest personalities. It's a book worthy of its subject.The following interview with Snelling was conducted via email.
There are very few individuals as fascinating as Lefty O'Doul.
I've long been a student of the old Pacific Coast League, having authored a couple of books on the subject, so I was well acquainted with Lefty's story. I always felt he was ridiculously overlooked. He was, and is, an important figure in the history of baseball. And it was hard to believe his story had not been told—he deserves to be recognized for his achievements and his impact on the sport. He had an incredible and accomplished career as a player, a manager, a coach, a sponsor of youth baseball leagues, a businessman, and a true ambassador for the game. He was incredibly popular throughout his life, and an incredible showman who showed up at important moments in baseball history.
He had been just about everywhere, and done just about everything one could do. Everyone had stories about him. He was also unique—no one had a baseball career like Lefty. He tasted both failure and success, in spades. Lefty was a complex personality—I spent three and a half years thinking about Lefty O'Doul, and it took two and a half of those before I began to feel I understood him, at least to a degree. I would have loved to have met him.
At his father's urging, he took up baseball seriously in his late teens, beginning his career as a pitcher. He moved from the minors to the majors in two seasons after starring for his hometown San Francisco Seals. However he languished on the bench, rarely used by the New York Yankees for three seasons before being traded to the Boston Red Sox, where he was again a spare part. In between, he spent another season in San Francisco, winning twenty-five games. He stubbornly stuck to wanting to pitch, even after an arm injury robbed him of his fastball.
Over the next four years O'Doul remade himself into an outfielder; by 1927 he was the Pacific Coast League's Most Valuable Player and earned a return to the major leagues at age 31.
Back in New York, this time with the Giants, O'Doul hit well in a reserve role, but was traded after the 1928 season to the Philadelphia Phillies, where he established himself as one of the game's greatest hitters, batting .398 and .383 in consecutive seasons. From there he was off to Brooklyn where he won his second batting title at age 35 with a .368 average.
It was during this time that he began his travels to Japan, first with other players, then on his own. In 1934, he played a major role in organizing an All-Star team that went to Japan, the key being his convincing close friend Babe Ruth to go to the Orient for the first time.
That same year, O'Doul's major league career came to an end, with a .349 lifetime batting average, including that incredible 1929 season in which he batted .398 and hit 32 home runs while striking out only 19 times. He was hired as manager of his hometown San Francisco Seals in the Pacific Coast League and remained there for seventeen seasons, becoming one of the highest paid managers in all of baseball. He also earned a reputation for his unrivaled ability as a teacher of hitting, counting Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams among his disciples. The relationship with DiMaggio was especially close and lasted for the remainder of Lefty's life.
In 1949, he was asked by General Douglas MacArthur to come to Japan to help repair relations between that country and the United States, and his success in that endeavor earned him MacArthur's praise for what he called one of the greatest efforts at diplomacy he had ever seen. O'Doul continued making trips and organizing goodwill tours to Japan for the rest of his life. For his efforts, he was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 2002.
O'Doul remained in the PCL through the 1957 season, ending his career in Seattle having won more than two thousand games as a manager. He turned down several offers to manage in the major leagues, including the New York Giants twice, the New York Yankees, the Philadelphia Phillies, and the Philadelphia Athletics, preferring to stay in San Francisco.
'Maybe I was a ham…but what’s the use in doing something when no one’s looking?'—Lefty O'Doul
In short—he really enjoyed pitching. Lefty was extremely competitive, and nothing in baseball embodies competition more than pitcher versus hitter. Before he hurt his arm during his first spring with the Yankees, he was a good pitcher. Then, after sitting on the Yankees bench for two full years—in a manner most like that of the plight of bonus babies in the 1950s—O'Doul returned to the PCL and won twenty-five games. So that undoubtedly reinforced his conviction that he could be successful on the mound. So, I don't think becoming an everyday player was as obvious to him as it was others. And I don't think he ever got pitching completely out of his system.
He also recognized that he was not a good outfielder; his early efforts in the field with the Seals drew ridicule in the press. Later, when pressed by Miller Huggins, he would make excuses about an early finger injury not allowing him to close his glove properly.
For the inaugural "Lefty O'Doul Day" for kids in San Francisco in 1927, he pitched for the first time in three years and threw a two-hit shutout—one of the many iconic moments of his career. Twenty-two years later, in Japan, Lefty staged another "Lefty O'Doul Day" for the kids of that country, and at age fifty-two pitched three innings. He never completely gave up the mound—when he was a pinch-hitting player-manager for the Seals in the 1930s, he would pitch in relief a few times a year.
You also have to remember that Lefty began his career in the Deadball era, when the pitcher was the king of the diamond. Lefty loved the attention of being on pitcher's mound. There, he was the center attraction, the ringmaster, involved in every pitch. Everyone was watching him. Perhaps a factor in that desire to be at the center of things had to do with his being an only child, constantly showered with attention.
As he told Larry Ritter, "Maybe I was a ham…but what's the use in doing something when no one's looking?"
After his playing days, O'Doul became a legendary hitting instructor. How does a failed pitcher who was basically forced to pick up a bat, one with a care-free, "lackadaisical" attitude, become one of the finest coaches to ever ply the trade? What made him such an effective instructor?
No one studied hitting more intensely than O'Doul. And I think being a former pitcher gave him an advantage—he also had success instructing pitchers. He kept a book on every pitcher he ever faced—no one did that at the time. He used film. He loved hitting and was great at it, but he also worked at it constantly. And as much as he loved hitting, he loved teaching it even more.
Lefty O'Doul was a classic autodidact. Despite lacking formal education—having dropped out before high school—he was extremely intelligent and loved studying new things, and once he got hooked on the study of hitting, it held his attention. I think he was most definitely influenced by Burt Shotton, his manager with the Philadelphia Phillies, who used psychology to motivate his players. As much as technique, O'Doul felt confidence was the key to hitting—same as most things in life. When Shotton showed confidence in him, O'Doul grew exponentially as a player. He remembered that lesson, and taught the psychology of being successful on the diamond alongside proper technique. They went hand-in-hand.
Lefty did not bring baseball to Japan, but he showed the Japanese how to improve their game, and how their skills could be developed. He acted as a mentor, and they wanted to learn from him. He made the effort to understand Japanese culture, and recognized that being honest with them was a sign of respect.
He first traveled to Japan with a major league All-Star team in 1931, and before he left was already plotting his return. He coached college players in 1932, and then worked with his friend Sotaro Suzuki and newspaper publisher Matsutaro Shoriki to bring another All-Star team to Japan in 1934, which would include for the first time, Babe Ruth.
That tour was incredibly successful, and at its conclusion, O'Doul worked with Suzuki and Shoriki on creating the first lasting professional team, the Tokyo Giants (today called the Yomiuri Giants.) O'Doul then arranged for the Tokyo Giants to come to the United States for very successful tours in 1935 and 1936, and the Japanese then established their own professional league—assisted by Lefty's advice and support.
How to explain the instant and abiding connection between O'Doul and the people of Japan?
Lefty's connection to Japan had to do with his ability to understand people and relate to them. But there was something special about the Japanese in O'Doul's eyes. No doubt about it. I think part of it had to do with their custom of always showing respect. Lefty valued that in people, especially peers. Authority figures, not so much. Lefty was impatient with those that did not show respect—especially to others, and especially if they were authority figures. And the Japanese loved to learn, which Lefty loved about them.
O'Doul fell off the HOF ballot in 1962, having never received more than 17% of the vote. Given his long and historic career--as a player, coach and an ambassador of the game--why hasn't O'Doul received more recognition in this regard? Do you think he gets proper credit for his contributions to the game?
A lot of it has to do with the peak of his career being short—his defenders often point to Dizzy Dean as a corollary. And some downplay his statistics because of the lively ball—although he hit .368 and won his second batting title at age 35 after the National League changed the baseball in a successful effort to dampen offense.
Now, nearly fifty years after his death, his contributions to the game of baseball can finally be appreciated.
I think he might very well have made the Hall of Fame had he spent his entire career as a hitter. People also have to remember that he was probably a major league caliber hitter several of the years he was in the minors—stuck there by the PCL's insistence on curtailing the draft and holding onto their best players for a considerable ransom should major league teams show an interest. The Pacific Coast League was very independent and had the money to retain its top talent.
I also wonder if other factors in a player's worthiness are given their proper weight when it comes to Cooperstown. Not having ever voted, it is easy for me to say, but I do feel that contributions to the game, or changing the way the game is played, should be considered when looking at figures such as Lefty. In some ways, Lefty's contributions can only be understood in the context of the past fifteen years, with the influx of Asian players into the major leagues, and the increasing emphasis on the globalization of the sport. Now, nearly fifty years after his death, his contributions to the game of baseball can finally be appreciated.
O’Doul with Douglas MacArthur and Joe DiMaggio. from the David Eskenazi Collection.