2022 Early Baseball Era Committee Candidate: Lefty O’Doul

The following article is part of a series concerning the 2022 Early Baseball Era Committee ballot, covering managers and long-retired players whose candidacies will be voted upon on December 5. For an introduction to the ballot, see here, and for an introduction to JAWS, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

Lefty O’Doul

2022 Early Baseball Candidate: Lefty O’Doul
Player Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Lefty O’Doul 27.1 27.3 27.2
Avg. HOF LF 65.7 41.7 53.7
1,140 113 .349/.413/.532 143
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

A hard-throwing southpaw, two-time batting champion, longtime minor league manager, pioneer of Japanese baseball, and dapper San Francisco icon — Lefty O’Doul was all of these things and more. He played just 11 seasons in the majors leagues between 1919 and ’34, appearing only sparingly during his 20s as he was unable to sustain success on the mound due to an injury suffered while serving in the U.S. Navy. After converting to the outfield and woodshedding in the Pacific Coast League, he reemerged as one of the game’s top hitters, finding success under particularly hitter-friendly circumstances. While traveling to Japan with a group of All-Stars in 1931, he became engrossed with spreading the game, soon writing a manual for teaching the fundamentals of baseball to Japanese players, and serving as a goodwill ambassador both before and after World War II in addition to his duties managing in the PCL. Though he owns the highest batting average of any eligible player outside the Hall of Fame, his case for Cooperstown rests on his pioneering work in furthering baseball’s reach.

He was born Francis Joseph O’Doul on March 4, 1897, in San Francisco, the only child of a butcher and his wife. He learned baseball at Bay View High School under a female coach, Rosie Stoltz, who taught him the game’s fundamentals and guided the team to a city championship. O’Doul quit high school at 16 to work with his father in a slaughterhouse, playing on Sundays for amateur and semipro teams. He began his professional career with the San Francisco Seals in 1917, but pitched just three games before being sent to the Des Moines Boosters of the Western League. Back with the Seals again in 1918, he went 12-8 with a 2.63 ERA.

After a stint in the U.S. Navy, O’Doul was chosen by the Yankees in the 1918 Rule 5 draft, which in those days allowed major league clubs to draft players from independent minor league teams (the modern farm system had yet to be invented). O’Doul tossed batting practice to the Yankees regularly but played sparingly, pitching just five innings in three games, pinch-hitting 15 times, and playing an inning in the outfield. The 1920 season brought more of the same — or less, rather, as he appeared in just 13 games, two as a pitcher. Optioned to the Seals in 1921, the 24-year-old O’Doul went 25-9 with a 2.39 ERA in 312 innings and batted .338 with a .529 slugging percentage as well. But back with the Yankees in 1922, he languished in the bullpen, appearing in just eight games (six on the mound) despite spending the whole season with the team.

On September 29, 1922, O’Doul was sent to the Red Sox as the player to be named later in a six-player trade that brought the Yankees third baseman Joe Dugan; even so, O’Doul was allowed to stick with the Yankees as a batting practice pitcher through the World Series, which they lost to the Giants. With Boston, O’Doul finally got a chance to show what he could do on the mound… but it wasn’t much. He posted a 5.43 ERA with 31 walks and 10 strikeouts in 53 innings for a 61-91 team. On July 7, he surrendered a record 13 runs (all unearned) in one inning of relief against Cleveland; he allowed 16 runs in three innings in what turned out to be a 27-3 loss.

The Red Sox sent the 26-year-old O’Doul to the PCL’s Salt Lake Bees in 1924. There he went 7-9 with a 6.54 ERA, but was much more successful while playing the outfield, hitting .392 and slugging .565 in 416 at-bats. Chronic arm problems led him to give up pitching save for the occasional cameo, but as an outfielder, he had a field day in three more PCL seasons — long ones at that, playing in as many as 198 games — with the Bees, the Hollywood Stars, and the Seals. In 1927, O’Doul won the PCL’s first-ever MVP award. His .378 batting average placed second to Smead Jolley‘s .397, and the pair’s 33 homers tied for second behind Elmer Smith’s 40.

In October 1927, the New York Giants chose O’Doul in the Rule 5 draft. He played just one season for the team, and missed nearly two months early on due to a broken ankle, but hit .319/.372/.463 (117 OPS+) in 114 games. His defensive struggles soured manager John McGraw on him, however, and after the season, he was traded to the Phillies for Freddy Leach.

(O’Doul’s defense was sketchy enough that in an oft-told tale from years later, someone claiming to be him wrote a bad check for a bar tab. O’Doul paid the tab, telling the bartender that the next time it happened, “Take him out in the back and have somebody hit a few balls to him. If he catches them, you know he’s a phony.”)

The trade to the Phillies meant hitting in the Baker Bowl, a true bandbox, with distances of just 300 to right center field and 280 to right, with a 60-foot wall to compensate. O’Doul hit a sizzling .398/.465/.622 for the Phillies in 1929, leading the league in batting average, on-base percentage, and hits (254) while ranking second in WAR (7.4), third in OPS+ (161), and fifth in both homers (32) and slugging percentage. At the Baker Bowl, he hit a ridiculous .453/.515/.689 with 19 homers.

O’Doul couldn’t quite replicate that performance in 1930, hitting .383/.453/.604 in a league that hit .303/.360/.448 as a whole; the Phillies, who scored 6.06 runs per game, allowed 7.69 runs per game and went 52-102. O’Doul’s batting average and OBP ranked fourth in the league, his 146 OPS+ sixth, his slugging ninth. After the season, he and Fresco Thompson were traded to the Brooklyn Robins for three players.

O’Doul spent two years and change with the Dodgers, most notably winning his second batting title while hitting .368/.423/.555 with 21 homers in 1932; that year his OBP placed second, his 163 OPS+ third, his SLG fourth, his 6.3 WAR fifth. By this point, he had gotten his feet wet in Japan, traveling the country following the 1931 season in a tour organized by former major leaguer Herb Hunter and playing a series of exhibition games in front of half a million fans alongside the likes of Mickey Cochrane, Frankie Frisch, Lou Gehrig, Lefty Grove, Rabbit Maranville, and Al Simmons. The team went 17-0 against Japanese collegiate, commercial, and All-Star teams. Following the 1932 season, O’Doul went back to Japan for nearly three months, training collegiate ballplayers along with pitcher Ted Lyons and catcher Moe Berg (whose second career as a spy was still a couple of years away).

O’Doul found that he enjoyed teaching the game even more than he enjoyed playing it. As Dan Holmes wrote, “Many of the things O’Doul taught about hitting became the foundation for teaching in Japan. Batters were urged to make contact, spray the ball around the field, and use a timing mechanism (like lifting the front leg or cocking the bat). For decades up to modern times, many of the greatest Japanese batters have used these techniques.”

After a comparatively sluggish start with Brooklyn in 1933 (.252/.320/.390), O’Doul was traded back to the Giants on June 16 as part of a three-player deal. His bat perked up (.306/.388/.472, 145 OPS+), he participated in the inaugural All-Star Game (grounding out as a pinch-hitter), and he helped the Giants win the NL pennant. In his lone plate appearance in the World Series against the Senators, he hit a two-run single in the sixth inning of Game 2, giving the Giants a lead they wouldn’t relinquish; they won in five games.

O’Doul played just one more season in the majors, and sparingly at that; he hit .316/.383/.525 (143 OPS+) in 197 PA but appeared only as a pinch-hitter from July 31 onward. After the season, he organized another tour of Japan, recruiting Babe Ruth to headline a group that also included Gehrig, Berg, Earl Averill, Jimmie Foxx, Charlie Gehringer, Lefty Gomez, and Connie Mack. The group played 18 games in Japan, temporarily smoothing over relations between the country — which was becoming increasingly nationalistic and militaristic — and the U.S.

In the winter of 1934-35, the Seals offered O’Doul a chance to come home and manage the team, and the Giants, after some haggling and the pocketing of a $4,000 signing bonus meant for O’Doul, granted him his release. Working under what was effectively a lifetime contract, O’Doul began a 17-year run that solidified his standing as the toast of the town. He continued to play part-time through 1940, mainly as a pinch-hitter with the occasional relief appearance. During that time, he won five PCL championships (1935, ’43-46), the first of them with a 20-year-old Joe DiMaggio hitting .398 in his final year before joining the Yankees. When later granted some credit for DiMaggio’s success, O’Doul deferred, saying, “I was just smart enough to leave Joe alone.” Other Seals who went on to major league success following his tutelage included Dom DiMaggio, Ferris Fain, Larry Jansen, and Gene Woodling. In addition, O’Doul mentored Ted Williams, who while growing up in San Diego had watched him. Via Holmes for MLB.com:

“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.”

O’Doul, after watching Williams take BP and play one game, told Williams, “Kid, don’t ever let anyone change your swing.”

O’Doul helped to found the Japanese Baseball League in 1936; the Tokyo Giants named their team in honor of his connection to the New York Giants. Due to the buildup, action, and aftermath of World War II, he stayed away from Japan from 1937 until October ’49, when at the behest of General Douglas MacArthur, he brought his Seals (who had gone just 84-103 in the PCL) to Japan for a series of 11 exhibitions that drew over half a million fans. According to Dennis Snelling, author of Lefty O’Doul: Baseball’s Forgotten Ambassador, more than a million people lined the streets when he came. “It wasn’t only the baseball part of it,” said Snelling in 2017, “It was how he treated them with respect, even though we’re talking just four years after the war ended.”

O’Doul was even greeted by Emperor Hirohito, who called him “the greatest manager in baseball.”

“It’s a good thing he didn’t know I finished in seventh place last season,” quipped O’Doul.

MacArthur felt that a baseball trip would boost the morale of Japan and ease tensions between the former enemies. He viewed the trip as a great success, saying, “All the diplomats together would not have been able to do what [O’Doul] did. It was the greatest piece of diplomacy ever.”

After bringing Joe DiMaggio to Japan on a tour of personal appearances in 1950, he brought Joe, Dom, Fain, Yogi Berra, Eddie Lopat, Billy Martin and others to the country for a series of exhibitions in ’51; when O’Doul’s All-Stars lost a game to a Pacific League All-Star team on November 13, it marked the first time an American professional team lost to a Japanese professional team.

O’Doul’s travels through Japan continued; he accompanied the New York Giants on a tour of Japan, Hawaii and Manila in 1952, and took a Japanese team to Australia in ’54. After stepping down from his post as the Seals’ manager and vice president (a post he’d held since 1948), he bounced around the PCL, managing the San Diego Padres (1952-54), Oakland Oaks (1955), Vancouver Mounties (1956), and Seattle Rainiers (1957), and compiling a record of 2,094-1,970 (.515) over 23 seasons. While with the Mounties, the 59-year old O’Doul collected a pinch-hit triple, which he credited to “clean living… And [batting] against a pitcher who’s laughing so hard that he can hardly throw the ball.”

Upon retiring from managing, O’Doul served as a part-time hitting instructor for the Giants, working with Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, and others from 1958-61. In 1958, “The Man in the Green Suit” (his favorite outfit when not in a baseball uniform) also founded a restaurant in San Francisco, Lefty O’Doul’s, which survived and thrived at Union Square until 2017, 48 years after his own death from a heart attack.

O’Doul was elected to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 2002 for his efforts to promote the game and to foster friendly relations between Japan and the U.S. He’s had a more difficult time with the National Baseball Hall of Fame, where his accomplishments resist easy categorization. Per the research of Graham Womack, he was considered at least 11 times by the Veterans Committee between 1963 and ’85 without being elected, and received just 18.2% via the expanded VC in 2007. This is his first time on an Era Committee ballot.

For as impressive as his rate stats are — the only eligible player with a higher batting average outside the Hall is the banned Shoeless Joe Jackson — O’Doul had a major league career too short to merit serious consideration by itself. His 1,140 hits is fewer than any non-Negro Leagues position player who’s been elected, and likewise for his total of 3,660 PA. Only 19th-century outfielder Tommy McCarthy has a lower WAR than O’Doul’s 25.5, and he should have been inducted as a pioneer, if at all.

Thus it comes down to applying a whole lot of subjective weighting to O’Doul’s accomplishments. For as interesting and impressive as his PCL career was — and for as interesting as the PCL of his time was — there really isn’t much precedent for considering achievements there in a Hall context; it’s not as though Jigger Statz, with his 3,356 PCL hits, is in the Hall, either. Likewise, those who earned a spot in the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame, from Sadaharu Oh to Hideki Matsui, aren’t granted entry to the Cooperstown one on the basis of their accomplishments in the foreign league.

That’s not to say that opening an entire country to baseball should be so easily dismissed, particularly given the time and place that O’Doul did so, to say nothing of the joy that players such as Oh, Matsui, Ichiro Suzuki and others have brought thanks to the foundation he helped to establish. But the Hall’s uneven record at honoring pioneers — witness this ballot’s absence of Doc Adams, the top vote-getter on the 2016 Pre-Integration ballot and the man who proposed the standardization of nine-man lineups, 90 feet between bases, and nine-inning games in 1857 — makes it harder to properly weigh the contributions of an O’Doul, or a Buck O’Neil for that matter. I think O’Doul’s accomplishments are a better fit for the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement award. While I wouldn’t object to O’Doul being a full-fledged Hall of Famer, I’m not yet convinced that I’d devote one of my four ballot slots to him, particularly when I believe so many of this ballot’s Negro Leagues and pre-Negro Leagues players deserve closer looks as well.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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2 years ago

Lefty O’Doul. What a name

2 years ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

I’m still reveling in Jigger Statz.

free-range turducken
2 years ago
Reply to  Spahn_and_Sain

Jigger Statz – that’s what we seamheads are often accused of doing, isn’t it?