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Yankees history: The career of Lefty O’Doul

The Yankees had a young player who would finish top three in MVP voting twice. They just did not use him correctly.

Texas Rangers v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Most things you can find and read about Lefty O’Doul mention his status as a preeminent figure in the baseball history of both Japan and San Francisco.

After his 11-year major league career, in which he made an All-Star team and finished top three in MVP voting twice, O’Doul became manager of his hometown San Francisco Seals. He had a long stint at the Seals’ helm, and was manager of a young Joe DiMaggio while the future Yankee was coming up through the system. Today, a bridge over McCovey Cove is named after O’Doul.

In Japan, he was the first American elected into their baseball hall of fame. He helped spread the sport as a goodwill ambassador before and after World War II and was involved in the founding of NPB. The Yomuri Giants’ name might be a nod to O’Doul’s association with the then-New York Giants, who he played for in the major leagues.

Both of those statuses are far more important than anything he did in his Yankees career. However, if that career had gone differently, who knows what his status in baseball history would be.

O’Doul began his career as a pitcher in his native San Francisco in 1917. He pitched in parts of two seasons with the Seals before catching the eye of the Yankees, who signed him in September 1918.

Despite coming up mostly as a pitcher, O’Doul made his debut as a pinch hitter on April 29, 1919. In fact, he actually didn’t pitch until July 5th, by which time he had already made 12 appearances with the Yankees, all as a pinch hitter.

The following season was much of the same. O’Doul appeared in 13 total games, but only two as a pitcher. He did a lot of pinch hitting, threw batting practice, but for whatever reason, just did not get a lot of playing time.

O’Doul spent all of the 1921 season back in the minor leagues with San Francisco. There he put up a 2.39 ERA in over 300 innings and put himself right back in the frame for a major league spot.

The Yankees brought him back up for the 1922 season, and this time, he was primarily used as a pitcher. Except “primarily” in this case meant just 16 innings. O’Doul pitched well, but was sent to the Red Sox at the end of the season to complete the trade that got the Yankees Joe Dugan.

O’Doul threw 53 innings for the Red Sox in 1923, but struggled and was sent back to the Pacific Coast League. Those would be the last innings O’Doul threw in his major league career.

He spent the next four years in the PCL and pitched just 11 innings in those years. Instead, he spent that time becoming a great hitter. From 1924-27, he hit at least .338 every year, including hitting .392 in 1924.

That got O’Doul back on the major league radar, and he spent the next seven years as a really good major league hitter before becoming a manager and esteemed figure in baseball history.

The Lefty O’Doul trade won’t be remembered like the Babe Ruth deal with the Red Sox. They at least got Dugan, who was a solid player for the 1920s Yankees as they started to dominate baseball. However, the Yankees did spend nearly three years with a really good major league hitter on the roster, and all they did with him was try to make him pitch.