Lefty O'Doul: Baseball's Forgotten Ambassador

Author: Dennis Snelling

Published By: University of Nebraska Press

Reviewed by Melissa Minners

                This time of year, when baseball season is here, I enjoy reading books about the sport.  Prior to seeing this book offered on Netgalley, I had heard about Lefty O'Doul – he used to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers after all – but I really didn’t know all that much about him.  I certainly didn’t know what he did for baseball in Japan.  I couldn’t wait to check out Lefty O'Doul: Baseball's Forgotten Ambassador by Dennis Snelling.

                The book begins with Lefty O’Doul’s goodwill trip to Japan in 1949.  This would be the first trip made by American baseball players to Japan since before World War II.  It was meant as a goodwill gesture to try to mend fences between the Japanese and Americans after the war.  O’Doul knew just how important this trip would be and he wanted it to be a success.  Throughout the book, each chapter begins with a segment of that 1949 tour.

                The rest of each chapter discusses O’Doul’s life, from his humble beginnings in the fields of Butchertown until his stroke and eventual death in 1969 at the age of 72.  We begin with Lefty’s early years and his career with the Pacific Coast League, a league that served as a bit of competition for the American Baseball League in the early 1900s.  Lefty began as a pitcher, but was so much more.  He could swing a bat like nobody’s business and he had incredible speed on the base paths.  As it turned out, Lefty was a better hitter and runner than he was a pitcher. 

                Unfortunately, Lefty also had a bit of a stubborn streak to him as well.  Despite what everyone told him about dropping the idea of being a pitcher and sticking to hitting, Lefty O’Doul would have none of it.  When he was called upon to play for the New York Yankees, Lefty’s arm was not up to the task.  He was unsuccessful in the major leagues, eventually developing a sore arm.  By 1928, Lefty had to give in and re-invent himself as an outfielder.  He was no great fielder, but boy could he hit.  His return to the big leagues began with the New York Giants, but he was promptly traded to the Philadelphia Phillies, and had one of the best offensive years in baseball history.  O’Doul would eventually play for the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants again before returning to the Pacific Coast League, this time as a manager.

                During his managing years, O’Doul had moderate success, but his most valuable moments came as an instructor.  O’Doul would become a coach to both hitters and pitchers alike, helping out baseball greats like Joe DiMaggio, Dom DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Willie McCovey and more.  As manager of the Seals, O’Doul would mentor countless players who could go on to have excellent careers in the Pacific Coast League, many becoming players in the American Major Leagues. 

                But perhaps O’Doul’s greatest contribution to baseball was the work he did to secure baseball as a favorite sport in Japan.  Serving as an American ambassador to baseball, O’Doul often traveled to Japan to play against teams all across the country.  But not trip was more important than the trip he made after World War II in 1949 that helped to mend the wounds the war created between Americans and Japanese.  Seeing the potential in Japanese ballplayers, O’Doul continued to make trips overseas to mentor players.  He also touted them here in the States, hoping that American baseball team owners would see the worth in hiring Japanese players.  It would take years, but Lefty O’Doul would eventually prove what he was talking about and we would soon be rallying behind Japanese stars like Hideo Nomo, Hideki Matsui and more.

                Author Dennis Snelling makes the reader fall in love with the larger than life character that was Lefty O’Doul.  We root for his successes and mourn his failures, railing at him when he stubbornly sticks to pitching and cheering when he realizes his true potential as a batter.  One can tell that the story of Lefty O’Doul is important to Snelling and he tells it in loving detail.

                If you were to ask modern sports fans who Lefty O’Doul was, most would not know.  A shame really, when you consider O’Doul’s contributions to baseball as a player, manager, mentor and an unlikely ambassador who helped make baseball even greater in Japan, paving the way for Japanese players to achieve greatness in the United States.                 


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