O'Doul did it all; Cooperstown next?

December 1st, 2021
Design by Tom Forget

On Dec. 5, the Hall of Fame’s Early Baseball Era Committee (pre-1950) and Golden Days Era Committee (1950-69) will meet to vote on 10-player ballots, with the results announced live on MLB Network that night at 6 p.m. ET. We're here to offer a primer on the 20 players who are up for consideration. Click here to view the other posts.

Player: Lefty O'Doul

Years: 1919-20, 1922-23, 1928-34 (MLB)

Career stats: .349/.413/.532, 1,140 H, 113 HR, 542 RBIs, 36 SB

In 1928, Francis Joseph "Lefty" O'Doul was 31 years old and had already played 11 seasons of professional baseball. His Major League career to this point was rather nondescript. Pulling double duty as an outfielder and a pitcher, O'Doul received limited playing time with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox between 1919-23, but his most famous MLB moment during this period is likely a pitching appearance on July 7, 1923, in which he allowed 13 runs in one inning as part of 23-7 Boston loss to the Cleveland Indians.

But beginning in 1928 and continuing for the next 30-plus years, O'Doul would cement a legacy as a fantastic Major League hitter, an extremely successful Minor League coach who mentored some of the sport's most legendary players, and one of the game's most important global ambassadors.

O'Doul received Hall of Fame votes in 10 different cycles between 1948-62, topping out with 16.7% of the vote in 1960. His candidacy is back up for review on this year's Early Baseball Era ballot. Here is why his impact on and off the field deserves enshrinement in Cooperstown.

A short but superb peak

O'Doul shined in the Pacific Coast League from 1924-27. He transitioned away from pitching following the '24 campaign due to injuries and rapped out 973 hits and a .369 average over a four-year span, which featured him winning the PCL's first MVP Award in 1927. That success got him back to the Majors in 1928 with the New York Giants, and a 31-year-old O'Doul just kept hitting.

He batted .319 through 354 at-bats with the Giants, but since manager John McGraw was unhappy with O'Doul defense and didn't think he could hit left-handed pitchers, O'Doul was dealt to the Philadelphia Phillies in October.

It was there where he authored one of the best offensive seasons in National League history. O'Doul led the league in 1929 with a .398 average, a .465 on-base percentage, and his 254 hits still stand as an NL single-season record. He smashed a career-high 32 homers and struck out only 19 times, joining Joe DiMaggio as the two players to ever have fewer than 20 strikeouts during a 30-homer season. He also quelled any concerns about his ability to hit left-handers; O'Doul posted a 1.018 OPS versus southpaws and went 13-for-26 with three home runs against future Hall-of-Fame lefty Carl Hubbell in '29. O'Doul finished second to Rogers Hornsby in the NL MVP voting that year.

He registered another 204 hits and batted .383 in 1930 before being traded to the Brooklyn Robins, who would become the Dodgers prior to the 1932 season. O'Doul captured his second batting title in '32, hitting .368, and finished third in the NL MVP voting.

O'Doul's stats finally started to slump the following year, his age-36 season, and he was traded back to the New York Giants in June 1933. However, he did appear in that year's first MLB All-Star Game and got his only World Series at-bat that October: a go-ahead, two-run single as part of a Game 2 win for the 1933 MLB champions.

O'Doul hit .310 in 161 games with the Giants through the end of the 1934 season, which would be his last in the Majors.

From 1928-34, O'Doul's slash line was a robust .353/.417/.539. He hit at least .300 in all but one of those years and had three 200-hit seasons. He is one of only 14 players to ever record a .300/.400/.500 slash line both on the road and at home. His career 143 OPS+ is tied with Hall of Famers Harmon Killebrew, Eddie Mathews and Mike Piazza. And O'Doul's .349 career batting average is the sixth-best all-time, but only Shoeless Joe Jackson has a higher average among players who aren't in the Hall.

More than 2,000 wins

The Early Baseball Era committee will also consider O'Doul's managerial success, which began in 1935 as O'Doul, who was born near what would become San Francisco's Candlestick Park, managed the San Francisco Seals of the PCL. He would stay with the Seals through 1951 and turned down MLB managerial opportunities from the Yankees, Phillies, New York Giants and other teams to remain close to home. Over his 23 seasons in the PCL, O'Doul won 2,094 games, the most in league history.

O'Doul's gifts for teaching were clear when he was still playing as he helped sharpen the swing of a teenage Mel Ott while the two were teammates with the Giants in 1928. He prepared Joe DiMaggio for what awaited him in New York while the latter helped the Seals win the league championship in '35. O'Doul also told a young Ted Williams to never let anyone mess with his swing. The Splendid Splinter took those words to heart and said that if he ever needed hitting advice, he would ask Lefty.

Huge impact on Japanese pro baseball

Although O'Doul's playing and managerial careers aren't enough to get him into Cooperstown on their own, they supplement what was probably O'Doul's greatest contribution to the game: fostering pro baseball in Japan.

O'Doul made his first trip to Japan in 1931 as part of an exhibition tour around Asia with a team that included Lou Gehrig, Lefty Grove, Frankie Frisch and others. He got injured during the tour and spent a lot of time speaking with Japanese players and immersing himself in the culture. He returned in 1932 to teach and train players at colleges around the country.

Each year from 1932-37, O'Doul spent time in Japan and organized tours that included the likes of Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Charlie Gehringer, Lefty Gomez and Babe Ruth, who was met with tremendous fanfare upon his arrival in 1934. By that point, O'Doul had taught himself to speak Japanese and was acknowledged by many as a baseball ambassador.

Because of his association with the New York Giants, O'Doul named Japan's first pro baseball team the Tokyo Giants (presently the Yomiuri Giants). He also helped found the first Japanese pro baseball league in 1936. That would become Nippon Professional Baseball in 1950.

O'Doul rarely visited Japan between 1938-48 as hostilities between the two countries grew leading to the attack on Pearl Harbor and World War II. In 1949, at the behest of General Douglas MacArthur, O'Doul led a baseball goodwill tour, bringing his San Francisco Seals team to the country. He was greeted warmly by as many as one million people on the streets of Tokyo from some estimates when he arrived. Those games marked the first time that American and Japanese flags flew side-by-side since the end of the war. Nearly 100,000 people were in attendance for some of the games.

O'Doul continued to bring popular American players to Japan throughout the 1950s, including Joe DiMaggio, Dom DiMaggio and Yogi Berra. He also invited top Japanese players to Spring Training in America. O'Doul joined the New York Giants in 1953 when they became the first entire MLB team to travel to Japan. He also traveled with the San Francisco Giants to the country for a series of exhibition games in 1960.

In 2002, more than 30 years after his death, O'Doul became the first American elected to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. His election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame is overdue.