Francis Joseph "Lefty" O'Doul, to put it briefly, was a baseball player
, a baseball manager
, a goodwill ambassador
, a restaurateur
and a famous native son of San Francisco
. But that short list doesn't do him justice.
His father's name was "Doul," but his mother was Irish, so his father changed his name to O'Doul to impress his in-laws. Their son Francis Joseph "Lefty" O'Doul was born in San Francisco in 1897.
Lefty O'Doul became a professional baseball player and reached the major leagues as a pitcher ... but his arm went dead at the young age of 26.
Normally, that would mean retirement; but O'Doul took the unusual route of going back to the minors and turning himself into a hitter. After tearing up the minors in the Pacific Coast League, O'Doul made it back to the bigs and put together some very good seasons. In 1929 he hit .398 with 32 homers; a year later he hit .383. True, this was an era of baseball when hitting dominated, but you can't sneeze at .398. In any case, O'Doul finished with a .349 career average is the only player other than Babe Ruth to truly excel as a hitter after a pitching career.
If O'Doul had a big day at the plate, he would wear a green suit the next day. For good luck, you see.
After seven years of big-league ball, O'Doul went home to San Francisco, where he was a player-manager for the local Pacific Coast league team, the Seals. He ran the team from 1935-1951, a time that was the glory era of the PCL.
(Before Major League Baseball moved to the West Coast, the PCL was as good as it got out there, and local fans considered the PCL to be their version of the majors. But when the Giants and the Dodgers came to California after the 1957 season, the PCL's importance faded.)
O'Doul wasn't a side-show manager; he was a local hero. To wit:
"Lefty O'Doul was the pride and joy of the city in his day," former Seals infielder Dario Lodigiani told the Oakland Tribune. ``I don't know anybody who had a bad word to say about him. Playing for him was like playing for your big brother. He drew big crowds when even he was managing. How many managers can say that?"
Meanwhile, O'Doul made annual visits to Japan in the 1930s to promote baseball there -- mostly, with tours of major-league and PCL stars. Baseball had already been introduced to Japan earlier -- by American schoolteachers -- but O'Doul was instrumental in publicizing the game. He is often called the "Father of Japanese Baseball."
The attack on Pearl Harbor shook O'Doul, but once the war ended, he continued to make trips to Japan.
Once he decided to quit managing, O'Doul did what many professional athletes do ... he opened a restaurant. Most jock-restaurants go bankrupt quickly; Lefty O'Doul's has been open for more than 40 years.
Located in downtown San Francisco -- near Union Square, on 333 Geary Street -- "Lefty O'Doul's Restaurant and Piano Bar" is a cross between a sports bar, a dim tavern, a college dining hall, a music joint and an antique store. Food is served buffet-style -- I think waiters bring the drinks; I'm not sure, it's been a while for me -- and you can either sit at the bar or around a table. There's televisions around showing sporting events, but they're not obtrusive or loud. The walls are filled with jerseys, photos, pennants -- all from decades ago.
Yes, it's still open, although things were getting sketchy a few years ago. Of course, given San Francisco's ever-present churn of commercial real estate, it's not a given that Lefty O'Doul's will be open forever. So go there! Even if you're not a sports fan. There's few places left as old-school as Lefty O'Doul's.
Though Lefty O'Doul has been dead since 1969, when the San Francisco Giants built their new ballpark, a nearby bridge was renamed "Lefty O'Doul Bridge." To the older generations, he's still a hero.
O'Doul is not yet in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, though many feel he should be.