The book: “Lefty O’Doul: Baseball’s Forgotten Ambassador”
The author: Dennis Snelling
The vital statistics: University of Nebraska Press, 392 pages, $27.95, to be released May 1
Find it: At Amazon.com, at Barnes & Noble, at Powells.com, at Vromans.com, at the publishers’ website, or the writers’ website
The pitch: You can’t put yourself in the heart of Union Square in San Francisco and not end up wandering into Lefty O’Doul’s Restaurant and Piano Bar across the street from the St. Francis Hotel.
Well, not any more.
If any Dodgers fans plan a getaway to see the team start a four-game series against the Giants today, be prepared for disappointment. The place is vacant.
A dispute over the expiring lease with the bar’s operator and the hotel landlord led to Lefty’s shutting down in early February. Lefty’s operator Nick Bovis said he’ll find a new site for it and reopen this fall, bringing all the memorabilia and musical acts with him.
It must be done.
The cafeteria-style restaurant may have shown some age, but it was still an institution that kept O’Doul’s name in lights that cut through the fog, in the city that created him.
“The atmosphere was that of a Hofbrau house, with a menu featuring a wide range of drinks at the bar … corned beef sandwiches, roast beef, turkey and gravy with mashed potatoes … mementos from O’Doul’s long career lined the walls – there were photos of Lefty with Douglas MacArthur, with Babe Ruth, with Gary Cooper, Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio. It was a second home (for O’Doul) and a celebration of his accomplishments.”
Dennis Snelling’s recreation of the place built in 1958 is there on page 255.
But he also starts the book with O’Doul walking the streets of San Francisco on his 65th birthday in March, ’58. He was proud that the team he last played for, the New York Giants, were moving to his city. The two-time NL batting champion who started his career on the New York Yankees’ pitching staff in 1919 (just before Ruth’s arrival) talked about how he could launch a new gathering place bearing his name for him and his friends, and this one was to be just around the corner from a pub he once owned in 1940s.
In essence, O’Doul owned the city, and The City loved him back for it.
As Snelling writes in the first chapter, O’Doul was practically on a first-name basis with everyone he ran into as he strolled the neighborhood with a sportswriter friend, Harry Brundidge.
What took the writer by surprise even more was how a group of Japanese businessmen saw O’Doul, took off their hats and bowed to “O’Doul-san.”
Connecting the dots in the next several hundred pages, Snelling takes the reader back to how O’Doul was not only San Francisco’s favorite son, but also one of the most important figure in international baseball for his frequent trips to Japan with U.S. teams that occasionally included Ruth and other greats of the day.
O’Doul was a drawing card as a player, minor-league manager, and bridge builder. And Snelling, with direction from Pacific Coast League historian Dick Beverage and “Banzai Babe Ruth” author Robert K. Fitts, explains it in full.
Why O’Doul is already in the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame – in 2002, the first American elected — but not the one in Cooperstown may also be the impetus for this well-researched project.
Look it up again: Between 1948 and 1962, O’Doul never gathered more than 16.7 percent of the vote with the BBWAA. Despite his .349 career batting average, fourth all-time in 11 seasons spanning 3,658 at-bats, he also got in two-plus seasons with the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1931-33, playing in more games for them than any other team.
He won the NL batting title for Brooklyn (.368) in ’32, ending up in the All Star game and third in MVP balloting in ’32 (and second in ’29 when he hit .398 for the Phillies). His only World Series ring came with the New York Giants, who picked him up at mid-season in 1933 and hit .306 for them in 78 games.
More impressive, perhaps, is a storied career as a Pacific Coast League manager, in San Francisco right after his playing days ended (1935) through 1951, winning five league titles, and then putting in three more years with the San Diego Padres. Those are facts Snelling should know well having written the 2011 epic “The Greatest Minor League — A History of the Pacific Coast League, 1903-1957.”
What may bes “forgotten,” as the book title doesn’t want hidden, is O’Doul’s connection to Japanese baseball, as a hitting coach and instructor, before and after World War II. None of that is forgotten here, thankfully. He’s credited for giving the Tokyo Giants their name, and helping to start the first professional league.
As it turned out, O’Doul was also the person who got Gary Cooper into shape to play Lou Gehrig in “Pride of the Yankees” in 1942 on a six-week crash course around parts of Southern California that included having him chop wood left handed.
If that’s enough to get O’Doul inducted in Cooperstown as a contributor to the game, that could stand on its own merits, thanks to Snelling’s efforts.
More to know:
== A 1997 book, “Lefty O’Doul — The Legend That Baseball Nearly Forgot,” by Richard Leutzinger, prior to O’Doul’s entry into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame.
= O’Doul’s biography on the SABR.org biography project
Also of note:
== “Home Team: The Turbulent History of the San Francisco Giants,” by Robert F. Garratt (University of Nebraska Press, 264 pages, $29.95) takes the six-year research of an emertis professor of English and humanities at the University of Puget Sound to trace the journey of owners Horace Stoneham through Bob Lurie, Peter Magowan, Bill Neukom and Larry Baer, and how their ballparks also shaped their identities, especially the latest AT&T Park and its incredible views and its location. Garratt’s book also came with access to the Walter O’Malley archive in L.A. because, as he writes in the preface, “the Giants’ move from New York to San Francisco has been long overshadowed by an emphasis on the Dodgers and their colorful owner, Walter O’Malley, who masterminded his team’s move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles the same year the Giants came west (1958). This book widens the focus on West Coast baseball to treat the story of the Giants’ move in its own right, rather than as a footnote to the Dodgers’ story.”
At least the Dodgers never threatened to leave California and move to Florida as Magowan and Baer all but did in 1992.
== “Giants vs. Dodgers: The Coast-To-Coast History of the Rivalry Heard ‘Round The World” by Joe Knote, which came out in hardback in 2013 is now in paperback. Our original review.