Lefty was the real Natural
Appeal Sports Writer
He was a man who loved to see kids at the ballpark, and to this day, his name is well known to an older generation of fans, many of whom never even saw him play. Fans who walk into the San Francisco Giants’ SBC Park cross a foot bridge renamed in his honor. The restaurant/bar in downtown San Francisco, located on 333 Geary St. near Union Square, bears his name – “Lefty O’Doul’s Restaurant and Piano Bar.”
So, who was Lefty O’Doul?
A real life Roy Hobbs, among other things. Francis Joseph “Lefty” O’Doul was a player who had two distinct careers. His first was as a pitcher who was 1-1 with a 4.87 ERA in 34 appearances as a reliever with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox between 1919 and ’23. The second career came after a five-year hiatus when he returned to the majors as a 30-something outfielder who emerged as a slugger feared around the National League.
Even though he finished as a .349 career hitter, O’Doul has never been inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame, largely because his career statistics are not what you would call impressive – 1,140 hits, 113 home runs and 542 RBIs in 11 seasons.
At age 26, his arm was dead and so was his career as a pitcher. Instead of retiring, he returned to the minors to work on his hitting in the Pacific Coast League and worked his way back to the majors. The work paid off.
After hitting .319 with the New York Giants in 1928, O’Doul was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies and ran off a string of seasons that had few equals at that or any other time. In 1929, he hit .398 with 32 home runs, 122 RBIs, 254 hits, .622 slugging percentage and he was named NL MVP. In 1930, he hit .383 with 22 home runs and 97 RBIs in just 140 games. In 1931 with the Brooklyn, he hit .336 with seven home runs and 75 RBIs. And in 1932, he hit .368 with 21 home runs and 90 RBIs at age 35.
O’Doul split the 1933 season between the Dodgers and Giants – he was selected for the first All-Star Game – and then played his final major league season in 1934.
He came back home to manage the Seals between 1935 and ’51 and became known as a tremendous hitting instructor whose pupils included Joe DiMaggio, Gene Woodling and Ferris Fain.
Another of those pupils was Bob Jensen – his son, Kirk Jensen, is now a coach in Virginia City; and his brother, Babe Jensen, is a long-time Carson City resident – broke in with the Seals as a rookie pitcher from Mill Valley in 1940. Jensen later served four years during World War II and when he returned to baseball, set a Western International League record with 295 strikeouts for Victoria.
Kirk Jensen grew up with baseball, and among the players he heard about was Lefty O’Doul. One particular story stands out:
“I remember my dad telling me they went bowling one time,” Kirk Jensen said. “Lefty was pretty good – a 190, 200 bowler – and afterward, my dad said, ‘Hey, you’re a good bowler.’ Lefty told him, ‘At anything you do, you want to excel and do to the best of your ability.’ That always stuck with my dad, that you never want to do something half-hearted.”
O’Doul is also remembered for his work as a baseball ambassador during tours of Japan in the 1930s and even after World War II. He has been called the Father of Japanese baseball because his influence helped lead to the development of professional baseball in that nation.
And Lefty O’Doul was known as a champion of the kids. During his time as manager, the Seals would host Lefty O’Doul Day, usually a Sunday doubleheader when kids 14 and under could come and watch two games, receive a miniature baseball bat and a bag of peanuts, all free of charge.
Even though he passed away in 1969, there is no escaping the name if you follow baseball in San Francisco. Maybe it’s time Lefty O’Doul is remembered in Cooperstown.
n Contact Dave Price at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 881-1220.
Francis Joseph “Lefty” O’Doul
Bats: Left, Throws: Left
Height: 6-0. Weight: 180
Debut: April 29, 1919
Final Game: Sept. 30, 1934
Born: March 4, 1897 in San Francisco
Died: Dec. 7, 1969 in San Francisco