Musings: The Case For Lefty O'Doul

By Dick Flavin
Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate
and New York Times Best Selling Author

THE CASE FOR LEFTY O’DOUL

My pal George Mitrovich called the other day to talk about Lefty O’Doul. If you’ve ever
wondered what two old guys talk about during the baseball season, now you know. We
talk about guys even older than us, some of whom have been dead for a half century or
more. O’Doul has been dead for only forty-nine years, but we talked about him,
nonetheless.

For those of you who are not familiar, Frank “Lefty” O’Doul was a failed pitcher who
broke in with the New York Yankees in 1919. He blew out his arm during his rookie year
in a throwing contest; but he labored on as a fringe, sore-armed pitcher with Yankees,
then the Red Sox, for four years with a grand total of one victory and one defeat. That’s
not just for a season; that’s his lifetime record. Eventually he was exiled to the Pacific
Coast League at the end of the 1923 season, his big league pitching career at an
inglorious end.

In his time with them, he was not exactly a key member of the Yankee team. One day
when they had a doubleheader scheduled he awoke to find it raining heavily. Figuring

that the twin bill would be postponed he and a teammate went off to spend the day at the
racetrack. Upon returning they found to their chagrin that the games had been played
after all. Fearing that he’d be fined or even released for his unexcused absence, he
showed up the next day up in the clubhouse, filled with trepidation, only to discover that
the manager, Miller Huggins, had never noticed he hadn’t been there the day before.

Anyhow, my friend George and I, who do not always agree on everything, do
enthusiastically concur on this: Lefty O’Doul should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

That’s because, once back in the Pacific Coast League, things started to get interesting.
Lefty switched from pitching to the outfield. He taught himelf to hit. Did he ever.

He returned to the majors in 1928 after a four year absence, a virtual rookie at the age of
31, and he became one of the greatest hitters in baseball history. He ended up with a
career batting average of .349, the fourth highest in history and five points higher than
that of the great Ted Williams. In 1929, for example, he hit .398 for the Philadelphia
Phillies, racking up 254 hits in the process, a National League record that has since been
tied but never broken. He was not just a slap hitter, either; in that ’29 season he hit 32
home runs and drove in 122. But he was no longer a kid; by the time he got restarted, the
end was already in sight. He retired following the 1934 season at the age of 37.

He was, by his own admission, not a defensive whiz. A story he often told on himself
was that someone in a barroom cashed a check signing Lefty’s name and the check

bounced. Lefty called the bar’s owner and suggested that if the guy ever came back, to
take him outside and hit him some balls. If he catches them, Lefty said, you’ll know it’s
not me.

He is perhaps baseball’s greatest example of perseverance in the face of adversity for the
way he turned a failed career into such a resounding success. He was living proof that
when the going gets tough, the tough get going. His story is an example, not just for
baseball players, but for all or us.

And he’s not in the Hall of Fame! Go figure.

The reason, according to those who are supposed to know about such things, is that he
didn’t have a very long career. But he came up to the big leagues in 1919, lasted four
years with a sore arm, then returned for seven more after reinventing himself as a great
hitter. That’s eleven years, and the requirement for eligibility for the Hall of Fame is ten
years. I’m not very good at math but I’m pretty sure that eleven is more than ten.

Here’s the problem: too many people aound baseball simply weigh statistics rather than
analyze them. A player can be pretty good and, if he’s lucky enough to remain healthy
and have a long career, he’s got a decent shot at induction into the Hall, but if he’s great,
really great – like Lefty O’Doul was - for a shorter period of time, fuggetaboudit. Life
isn’t fair – and neither is the selection process for the Hall of Fame.

We haven’t even touched on O’Doul’s contributions to baseball after he retired as a
player. He returned to his native San Francisco as manager of the Seals for seventeen
years. Not only was he fabulously successful, but he also became the most sought after
hitting instructor in the game. He famously taught the DiMaggio brothers how to hit (not
Vince, who could have used his help). Major leaguers trooped en masse out to the west
coast to learn at the feet of the master.

Beginning in 1931 O’Doul made annual pilgrimages of his own to Japan, preaching the
gospel of baseball and teaching the Japanese people how to play the game. He recruited
teams to tour the country playing exhibitions there during the off-season. When the
Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he took it as a personal affront. But once the war was
over, he resumed his calling there as a baseball missionary and in the process helped to
heal the wounds of war. The Japanese showed their appreciation for his pioneering efforts
by naming him the first American to be inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of
Fame.

But he’s not in Cooperstown, New York, in the Baseball Hall of Fame. There is
something wrong with that, and don’t just take my word for it. Ask George Mitrovich,
he’ll tell ya.