02/26/07 1:59 PM ET
O'Doul on Vets ballot for first time
Prolific hitter also managed for years in Pacific Coast League
By Dan Holmes / Special to MLB.com
To his admiring fans in San Francisco, O'Doul was most commonly known as "The Man in the Green Suit," whose .349 career batting average is the highest of any National League outfielder after 1900. In baseball history, only Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby and Joe Jackson posted higher career batting averages, and O'Doul remains the only Major Leaguer to hit more than 30 homers and strike out fewer than 20 times in the same season. O'Doul received a high of 45 votes in the 1960 Hall of Fame voting, and 2007 marks the first time he has been on the Veterans Committee list since the process was changed in 2003.
Francis Joseph O'Doul was born in San Francisco in 1897, and he earned the tag "Lefty" for the typical reason -- his talented pitching arm. He made his big-league debut with the New York Yankees in 1919, but the team's deep staff and O'Doul's ineffectiveness led to few opportunities. Over the course of four seasons in the Yankee organization, O'Doul got into just 11 Major League games and never figured in a decision. To some of his teammates, it was what O'Doul could do with the bat that caught their attention. In batting practice O'Doul routinely hit the ball with authority.
But O'Doul considered his best chance to stay in the big leagues was as a pitcher, and Yankees manager Miller Huggins agreed, refusing to write O'Doul's name in the lineup on days he wasn't pitching despite the urging of some of his players. Huggins was content to play another former pitcher every day -- Babe Ruth -- but less inclined to be the manager who switched a hurler into an outfielder. The decision helped delay the emergence of O'Doul as one of the game's most dangerous batters. After an arm injury, the Yanks dealt him to the Boston Red Sox in 1922.
At that point, a clever San Francisco Chronicle writer summed up O'Doul's Major League career: "He could run like a deer. Unfortunately, he threw like one, too."
After the Red Sox let him loose, O'Doul returned to the Bay area and played for the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. Under the gaze of his hometown fans, who adored the green-eyed, left-handed-hitting slugger, O'Doul flourished. In his four years in the PCL, O'Doul batted .369 and averaged more than 240 hits per season. In 1928, he was purchased by John McGraw and the New York Giants and made his return to the Majors.
He quickly paid dividends, batting .319 in part-time duty in his first season, but McGraw saw his value more as trade bait swapping O'Doul to the lowly Phillies. O'Doul responded with one of the greatest offensive season in history, batting a league-best .398 with a National League-record 254 hits, while scoring 152 runs and swatting 32 homers. At 32 years of age, he was a star in his "second career" in the Majors. He hit .383 the next season, and two years later he garnered his second batting title, this time with Brooklyn. In 1933, O'Doul played for the NL in the first All-Star Game.
August Busch Jr.
During the 1931 offseason, O'Doul made a trip that would change his life forever. He was asked to travel with a team of Major League All-Stars to Japan to spread the game to that country. Among his teammates were Mickey Cochrane, Frankie Frisch, Lou Gehrig, and Lefty Grove. The Major League team played 17 exhibition games, winning them all against Japanese collegiate clubs, commercial teams and All-Star teams. On the trip, the gregarious O'Doul was a hit with the Japanese officials and fans. The Japanese hosts asked O'Doul to try to convince Ruth, his old teammate from his Yankees days, to travel to Japan for a tour in the future. Not only did O'Doul deliver on that assignment, he personally went back to Japan dozens of times over the remaining 30-plus years of his life.
Through his dogged determination, O'Doul spread the fundamentals of the game in Japan and encouraged the creation of professional leagues. After World War II, the U.S. government solicited O'Doul to visit Japan to boost morale in the defeated, war-torn nation and to smooth tensions between the former enemies. In that role, General Douglas MacArthur recognized O'Doul's immense contribution.
"All the diplomats together would not have been able to do what he did," MacArthur wrote in his memoirs. "It was the greatest piece of diplomacy ever."
Following the 1934 season, in which he batted over .300 for the sixth time in his second career, O'Doul accepted the position as manager of the Seals in the PCL. At the helm of the team for parts of 17 seasons, he won two pennants and churned out several Major League ballplayers, including Joe DiMaggio, his younger brother Dom and Bobby Doerr. Later, in a three-year stint as skipper of San Diego in the PCL, he captured another flag. Frequently, O'Doul spurned offers to manage in the Majors, citing his fondness for the West Coast, and his generous contract -- at one time he was being paid more than every manager in the big leagues.
"He was always three innings ahead in his thinking and he was rarely wrong," Joe DiMaggio recalled.
While in the PCL, O'Doul, one of the most respected teachers of hitting, had an effect on opposing players as well as his own charges. A few of the players who credited O'Doul with their batting success included two-time batting champion Ferris Fain, Yankee outfielder Gene Woodling, Doerr, and the DiMaggio brothers. Hollywood even recognized O'Doul's brilliant teaching instincts. The producers of the Lou Gehrig picture, "Pride of the Yankees" had O'Doul teach Gary Cooper to swing a bat from the left side. As a teenager growing up in San Diego, Ted Williams never forgot the first time he laid eyes on O'Doul.
"I saw him come to bat in batting practice," Williams said. "I was looking through a knothole, and I said, 'Geez, does that guy look good.' It was my first look at an all-time great. A kid copies what he sees. ... If he never sees it, he'll never know. He was the first guy I ever asked for advice."
Throughout his days as the most celebrated man in the PCL, O'Doul was also the toast of San Francisco. He was famous for his generosity to strangers, his fun-loving lifestyle and his sharp dress, which often consisted of a freshly pressed green suit. When he died in 1969, practically the entire city of San Francisco came to a halt on the day of his funeral, which drew more than 20,000 mourners. His saloon, which was a popular watering hole when he was doling out drinks, remains a favorite in the city, and the inscription on his gravestone captures the personality of the man:
"He was here at a good time, and he had a god time while he was here."
Dan Holmes is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.