SAN FRANCISCO - When it comes to picking a spot to watch the World Series, San Francisco has bigger sports bars and louder sports bars. Sports bars with more wide-screen, high-definition TVs and with more recent memorabilia with signatures from Giants stars.
But for a baseball fan with a sense of the past - which is what true baseball fandom is all about - there's no better place for a baseball fan to visit than a small, old bar off Union Square.
Lefty O'Doul's is named after the local boy turned baseball star in the days when Major League Baseball extended no further west than St. Louis. Once considered the greatest player on the West Coast, he has been largely forgotten by all but the most hardcore baseball buffs. A trip to his namesake bar is a good way to remember O'Doul, as long as you don't have so many pints of Anchor Steam beer or O'Doul's signature Bloody Marys that you can't remember your own name, much less his.
O'Doul had been out of the majors for more than two decades when he opened the bar across the street from the side entrance to the St. Francis Hotel. It was an exciting year, 1958, and San Francisco was becoming a major-league town. The Dodgers were moving from Brooklyn to Los Angeles and their cross-town rivals, the Giants, had decamped from the Polo Grounds in Manhattan for San Francisco. O'Doul was just the guy to give his hometown a major-league watering hole.
O'Doul was baseball royalty. He was a local star who hit .349 in a career that ended in 1934. He has the highest batting average of any player who qualifies for the Hall of Fame but has not been elected. O'Doul has since been eclipsed by the likes of Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Will Clark, Matt Williams, Barry Bonds and Buster Posey in the hearts of Giants fans. But at the time, O'Doul was the greatest player San Francisco had known, other than "Joltin Joe" DiMaggio.
O'Doul began his career as a pitcher for his hometown San Francisco Seals, part of the Pacific Coast League, which had a status somewhere between the minor and major leagues.
After pitching with mixed success as a reliever for the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, his throwing arm started to ache. He returned to the Pacific Coast League and over five years (1923-27) developed into one of the most feared power hitting outfielders on the West Coast.
In 1928, he returned to the majors with the New York Giants. The Giants traded him to the Philadelphia Phillies, where in 1929 O'Doul set a National League record with 254 hits, batting .398 with 32 home runs, 122 runs batted in and 152 runs scored. It made O'Doul a star far beyond the Golden Gate (the bay opening - the bridge was still a few years away).
O'Doul would win another batting title with the Brooklyn Robins, the forerunner of the Dodgers, and play again with the Giants in their World Series championship year of 1933. He went on to manage the San Francisco Seals from 1937 to 1951. One of his players was the son of a San Francisco fisherman, Joe DiMaggio. O'Doul said his greatest accomplishment with DiMaggio was not to mess around with the future "Yankee Clipper" and his swing.
"I was just smart enough to leave him alone," O'Doul said after DiMaggio eclipsed him as San Francisco's greatest home-grown star.
O'Doul went on to help develop baseball in Japan and opened his bar when San Francisco welcomed the Giants in 1958. O'Doul's bar has seen its fortune rise and fall along with the Giants. It was around during the heyday of the Giants in the 1960s when Mays and McCovey smashed home runs at the park named after Candlestick Point. O'Doul died in 1969, just before the dark days of the mid-1970s, when the Bay Area's attention focused on the mustachioed Oakland Athletics across the bay and Giants attendance barely topped the million mark. Fans who lasted nine innings on cold, windy nights received a "Croix de Candlestick" pin to honor their sacrifice. It has also been here during the Giants resurgence at Pac Bell/ SBC/ AT&T Park, both during and after the Barry Bonds era.
In 2007, someone stole the left arm of the mannequin with Lefty's jersey on it, unsuccessfully chased across Union Square by a O'Doul's bartender named Stengel - yes, a relative of Hall-of-Famer Casey Stengel. The thieves sent the bar pictures of the arm during its travels around the country and finally mailed the arm back to the bar in 2010.
There's a Lefty O'Doul bridge near the ballpark, but the real memorial to the man is the bar. It's as old-fashioned as O'Doul's flannel baseball uniforms. There's a bar area where fans can order an Anchor Steam or something a little stronger before making the walk over to the ballpark. The tables fill up fast on game days, and for those who want something other than overpriced garlic fries inside the stadium, there's a hot plate counter serving excellent corned beef sandwiches and mashed potatoes. There are pictures of O'Doul-era ballplayers on the walls, though the most famous shot is a blow-up of a Defense Department work card with a famous blonde's face. The name on the card is "Norma Jean DiMaggio" - the legal name of DiMaggio's then-wife, Marilyn Monroe, who needed the card to make overseas visits to build the morale of American troops in Korea.
In 2007, someone stole the left arm of the mannequin with Lefty's jersey on it, unsuccessfully chased across Union Square by a O'Doul's bartender Paul Stengel, the nephew of Hall-of-Famer Casey Stengel. The thieves sent O'Doul's photos of the arm during its travels around the country and finally mailed the AWOL appendage back to the bar in 2010.
The baseball season may be over, but O'Doul's is a great spot on a foggy off-season afternoon for a pick-me-up and a little "hot stove league" talk about whether the Giants can do it all again.
IF YOU GO:
Lefty O'Doul's is at 333 Geary St., 415-982-8900.
Gary A. Warner: email@example.com