One fateful day in the mid-1960s Daniel Woodhead III, freshly graduated from Harvard Business School, wandered into Lefty O'Doul's bar and restaurant in downtown San Francisco. Woodhead had moved west from his home in Winnetka, Ill., at the urging of a friend who advised him that the city was abundantly populated with young women of transcendent beauty and sophistication. But as he stood in the doorway of O'Doul's, he saw only elderly men, one of whom was undoubtedly O'Doul himself, gathered at the bar talking baseball. Woodhead departed, blissfully innocent of a future that would join him to O'Doul in a quest so dogged as to make the Arthurian search for the Holy Grail seem little more than an Easter egg hunt.
Woodhead knew little then of O'Doul's brief stardom in the big leagues, his popularity in his home town as manager for 17 years of the Pacific Coast League's Seals or his notable contributions to Japanese baseball with touring American teams and as a key organizer of that country's professional leagues. But over the years, as he learned more about O'Doul, who remained a beloved figure in the Bay Area, it began to dawn on Woodhead that O'Doul had been slighted by the game he loved. Here was a player with a .349 career average who in a five-year stretch from 1928 through '32 hit .319, .398, .383, .336 and .368, and won two National League batting titles. The '29 season alone was a whopper. Besides the .398 average, O'Doul, then with the Philadelphia Phillies, banged out what remains an NL--record 254 hits, among them 32 homers and 35 doubles.
And yet O'Doul, who died in 1969 at age 72, had not been elected to the game's Hall of Fame, and to Woodhead this was a travesty. A self-confessed "loose cannon," Woodhead vowed to do something about it. Although his education at Wesleyan and Harvard had been in economics and his career in banking, Woodhead had always considered himself a writer. So beginning in the late '80s he took up his pen and began corresponding with everyone even remotely connected to O'Doul's life, a group that included Joe DiMaggio, who played for O'Doul as a minor leaguer with the Seals, and Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway, who had welcomed O'Doul to Japan when Ridgway was Far East commander there in the early '50s.
The responses to his letters further convinced Woodhead that O'Doul belonged in Cooperstown, and the crusade widened. Woodhead's final output was enormous: hundreds of letters, documents and statistical compilations, all dispatched to the Hall's Veterans Committee.
Still, O'Doul was repeatedly passed over, the prevailing view being that his career--970 games--was too short, even though with 11 years of major league service, he met the Hall's 10-year eligibility requirement. He'd begun as a pitcher whose arm had become so worn and sore that, as one writer commented, it "hung from his shoulder like a wet rope." After four miserable seasons in which he appeared in just 34 games with the Yankees and the Red Sox, O'Doul switched to the outfield in 1924 and slugged his way back to the bigs with the Giants four years later, at age 31.
Woodhead was so appalled by a decade of rejections from Veterans Committees that he nearly abandoned his own personal motto, Vincit qui patitur (He conquers who perseveres). The bitterest blow came in 2002 when O'Doul was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame.
But Woodhead gained new inspiration and was once more roused to action when O'Doul was honored at a local banquet last June. The Veterans Committee had been restructured and expanded in 2001, so now there was a new group of 84 electors to deal with. To each member Woodhead quickly mailed an O'Doul information packet.
Lo and behold, from a starting list of 200 nominees, O'Doul made the cut to the final 27. Still a long shot, he'll need to be named on 75% of the ballots, which go out early next month and are tabulated in February.
Woodhead, now 70, is cautiously optimistic. "This is an injustice that must be corrected," he says. Even if it isn't, it's unlikely Woodhead will give up the ghost. O'Doul's, that is.
In Good Company