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Sonoma Stories: ‘Lefty’ O’Doul was like an uncle to this Rohnert Park man

Retired postman Tom O’Doul helps keep alive the stories and legacy of a San Francisco baseball star.|

Tom O’Doul played Little League as a kid in San Rafael. One year on opening day, a couple of guys drove up to Albert Park in a Cadillac to see him in his new uniform.

In the passenger seat was the East Bay-born Joe DiMaggio, recently retired from the New York Yankees and one of the most astonishingly spectacular careers in the history of baseball.

Behind the Caddy’s wheel was a friend of DiMaggio and the fellow young O’Doul regarded as an uncle though in fact they were second cousins: Francis Joseph “Lefty” O’Doul.

“They stayed maybe 10 minutes,” recalls Tom O’Doul, now 75 and savoring retirement in Rohnert Park after having delivered mail on the same route for 43 years.

No autographs were signed that day at the San Rafael ballpark by either Joltin’ Joe or Lefty, then a minor-league manager and operator of a San Francisco bar-restaurant bearing his name, a name well on its way to joining those of some of the region’s loftiest sports immortals.

To Tom O’Doul the kid, that drive-by appearance in 1952, or whenever it was, was yet another Lefty moment. He remembers his second cousin cruising up to Marin from San Francisco any number of times on those afternoons that his dad, Edward O’Doul, Lefty’s first cousin, slow-grilled a roast.

“Lefty was around frequently,” Tom O’Doul said. “He drank Acme Beer and Jim Beam, not a lot.”

The Sonoma County O’Doul was far less aware as a boy, than he is now, of all that Lefty had done before his phenomenally successful run, from 1935 to 1951, as manager of San Francisco’s storied minor league team, the Seals of the Pacific Coast League.

“I never saw him play,” said O’Doul, who was born in 1942, eight years after Lefty retired from his on-and-off, position-switching, team-swapping, frequently sensational but, on the whole, less-than-extraordinary run in big league ball.

Born in San Francisco in 1897, the left-throwing, left-hitting Francis O’Doul started out as a pitcher with the Seals. From 1919 to 1923 he was a major league relief pitcher, first for the New York Yankees, then the Boston Red Sox.

The New York Giants signed him in 1923 and sent him back to the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, where he became an outfielder and a force at the plate. He returned to the majors in ’28 and the following year, on the Philadelphia Phillies, won the National League batting championship with what’s considered one of the best offensive years in baseball history: a .398 average with 254 hits (then a National League record), 32 home runs, 122 runs batted in and 152 runs scored.

After the 1930 season when he hit .383, Lefty was traded to the Brooklyn Robins, which became the Dodgers, then back to the Giants, then still more than 20 years from their move to California in 1957.

He retired in 1934. Eighty-three years later, his lifetime batting average of .349 has him at No. 4 on the best-of list, behind Shoeless Joe Jackson (.356), Rogers Hornsby (.359) and Ty Cobb (.366).

Lefty returned to San Francisco and in 1935 found his niche as manager of the Seals. Soon he was winningest skipper in the Pacific Coast League and renowned for his success as a batting instructor.

Throughout his run as a PCL manager, he helped develop the likes of Joe and Dom DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Ted Williams and Orlando Cepeda.

A natural ambassador for the game, Lefty not only encouraged and mentored boys but became famous for fostering professional baseball in Japan.

He traveled there first in 1931 with an exhibition tour and returned several times to coach Japanese collegiate players, arrange exhibition games by prominent American players and, in 1936, to oversee the construction of Korakuen Stadium in Tokyo.

A biographer, Brian McKenna, wrote that Lefty “took the bombing of Pearl Harbor as a personal affront.” Following World War II, at the invitation of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, he took his San Francisco Seals to Japan for reconciliation games attended by Emperor Hirohito and hundreds of thousands of Japanese.

It was in 1940 that he opened a bar and restaurant on San Francisco’s Powell Street. “Lefty” O’Doul’s moved to Geary Street on Union Square in 1957. Lefty ran the joint, famed for its baseball memorabilia, kitschy personality and free holiday meals for the needy, until he died in 1969 at the age of 72.

San Francisco that same year honored him and his contributions to baseball and the city by renaming the Third Street or China Basin Bridge the Lefty O’Doul Bridge. The Giants’ AT&T Park, which opened alongside the bridge in 2000, boasts both a Lefty O’Doul Plaza and Lefty O’Doul Gate.

Lefty’s second-cousin in Rohnert Park walks often through that gate as a devout Giants fan and season-ticket holder. And it’s with great pride that Tom O’Doul works proudly to honor and sustain Lefty’s legacy.

When Lefty was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 2002, the first American major leaguer to receive the tribute, the Sonoma County resident flew to Tokyo to accept the honor. He carried home a plaque that Peter Magowan - at that time the Giants’ managing general partner - had duplicated, then had one placed inside AT&T Park’s O’Doul Gate and the other on the Club Level.

Tom O’Doul serves as a director of the nonprofit Lefty O’Doul’s Foundation for Kids. He said the charitable organization operates on the premise that “kids need baseball” and provides grants to youth teams throughout the Bay Area.

O’Doul was one of many patrons of “Lefty” O’Doul’s broken-hearted when the hofbrau closed in January amid a battle between the owner of the business, Nick Bovis, and the landlord, hotelier Jon Handlery.

O’Doul, who owns much of the Lefty memorabilia displayed at the bar-and-eatery and who long volunteered as its public relations guy, said he’s hopeful it will return to life soon in a new location.

If and when the reopening happens, there’s no doubt Lefty’s second cousin from Rohnert Park will be there in a baseball jersey with “Giants” on the front and the great one’s number, 16, on the back.

Chris Smith is at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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