O'Doul was no flash-in-the-pan ... he ended with a lifetime batting average .349, fourth highest all-time and five points higher than that of Ted Williams, generally considered to be the greatest hitter of all-time.
There are more than a few players who deserve to be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, but who, for whatever reason, have never made the cut. My choice as the most deserving non-member has never come close to being elected. In fact his best showing was in 1960 when he received just 16 percent of the 75 percent of votes needed for induction.
Do you remember Lefty O'Doul, the old ballplayer? Of course you don't -- unless you're up around 100 years old. O'Doul played his last big league game way back in 1934.
He was a sore-armed relief pitcher for the New York Yankees who they later fobbed off onto the last place Red Sox. He was the proverbial player-to-be-named-later in the deal that sent Jumpin' Joe Dugan to New York, part of Harry Frazee's unconscionable sell-out to the Yankees. He couldn't even stick with the then American League bottom-feeders, though, and was sent down to the minors. In one relief appearance for the Sox he gave up an unbelievable 16 runs in only three innings. His career pitching totals after four seasons: one victory and one defeat.
That was the end of that. Except that it wasn't.
Once back in the minors Lefty reinvented himself as a hitter -- and what a hitter he turned out to be. After four years he returned to the major leagues with the New York Giants, a veritable rookie at the age of 31. He hit .319 that year, 1928, and then was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies, where he really took off. He won the National League batting title with an average of -- are you ready? -- .398. Added to that, he had 32 home runs and 122 runs batted in. He also set a league record with 254 hits that year. Bill Terry tied the record the following season, but it still stands 90 years later. O'Doul was no flash-in-the-pan, either. The next season, 1930, he hit .383. In 1932 he won another batting title with a .368 average. All told, he ended with a lifetime batting average .349, fourth highest all-time and five points higher than that of Ted Williams, generally considered to be the greatest hitter of all-time.
His career as a hitter lasted only seven seasons, 1928-1934, because he was already in his thirties by the time he came back up to the majors, but he also had four seasons as a pitcher, which makes him eligible for induction into the Hall of Fame. Of those who are eligible he has the highest batting average of anyone not in the Hall.
Many voters tend to weigh a player's statistics rather than measure them. If a player is very good for a long period of time his chances of getting elected are better than someone whose career was great but did not last as long.
After his playing days O'Doul took over as manager for his hometown San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. He had unprecedented success there and established himself as the most famous teacher of hitting in all baseball, his prize pupils being the DiMaggio brothers, Joe and Dom. Dom used to tell of how he had a habit of lunging at pitches and, in order to teach him to stay back and let the torque of his body provide power, O'Doul would tie a rope around Dom's waist during batting practice then stand a few feet behind him holding the other end of the rope. Whenever Dom would lunge at a pitch, O'Doul would tug the rope and Dom would wind up flat on his keister. When O'Doul showed him film of his brother Joe batting, Dom was amazed at how still Joe's body remained while swinging. He stopped lunging and Lefty stopped tugging on the rope.
One day before a Pacific Coast League game against the San Diego Padres, O'Doul left the Seals' dugout, went across the field, and engaged a young Padres hitter in earnest conversation. This was in the days when fraternization was frowned upon, and when questioned about it, he explained that he told the kid never to let anyone change his swing. It was perfect the way it was and the kid was going to be a great hitter. That kid was eighteen-year-old Ted Williams and O'Doul was one of the first to spot his potential for greatness. Williams, in turn, was a great admirer of O'Doul's and in 1941, the year he hit .406, he used a Lefty O'Doul model bat.
Following the 1931 season O'Doul joined a group of major leaguers who barnstormed around Japan, bringing baseball culture to that country. A born teacher, he returned every year during the thirties to instruct the Japanese on the finer points of the game. The visits stopped, of course, during World War ll and for a few years thereafter, but beginning in 1949 they resumed. O'Doul was credited with helping restore friendly relationships between the two countries and he became a national hero there for his role in bringing baseball to Japan.
In 2002 he became the only American to be enshrined in the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame.
No one ever did more as an ambassador for the game; no one was ever a better teacher of the game, especially of the art of hitting; and no one was a better example of perseverance for the way in which, as a failed, sore-armed pitcher, he went back to the minor leagues, turned himself into an elite hitter, returned to the big leagues and compiled one of the best career batting averages of all-time. If those accomplishments don't add up to Hall of Fame credentials then I must be missing something.
Lefty O'Doul has been dead for 50 years now. His heyday as a player was nine decades ago. Realistically, the chances of his ever making it to Cooperstown are somewhere between slim and none. But it's the Hall of Fame's loss, not his.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.
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