Meeting Lefty O'Doul
by Bill Burns
Life is a series of memories and links to memories. Christmas and Easter bring back special sights and smells and feelings of holidays long past. St. Patrick's Day in March brings back memories of Irish songs sung around the piano with the family and of being proud of our heritage. But mosty March 17th brings back the sweet leathery memories of a baseball and mitt, the smells of moist earth and freshly-mown spring grass.
You see, my Dad loved baseball, and he gave that love to me. He had caught semi-pro for the Owl Drug Company in San Francisco during the 1930's. "The pitchers got $10 and the catchers got $5," he would tell me. "Even though the catchers did most of the work and took all the lumps." We'd listen together to the major league's "game of the night" on radio as we sat on the living room rug sharing cheese and crackers while he sipped from a bottle of Acme beer. He'd rub my buzz cut and call me "burrhead" after Ferris Fain who was one of his favorites.
He told me he knew Lefty O'Doul, the manager of my San Francisco Seals Baseball Team. I was eight and listened to all the games I could on my radio or the crystal set I made in Cub Scouts. I often fell asleep listening to the heavenly drone of the announcer's voice as he called the play by play. Baseball on radio is still ecstasy today, and I still envision that I'm watching from a catcher's squat as Dad had taught me.
I remember it was cold that March night and mom made me wear a sweater and a jacket. She stuck mittens in the jacket pockets as I made a face. Mittens and baseball...ugh! "You know how cold that wind is in the City," she said, as I ran to the car. We were going to see the Seals play a pre-season game at Seals Stadium, and they were gonna play the Pittsburgh Pirates and Ralph Kiner. It was the Call-Bulletin's "Father and Son's Night" that occurred every spring, and for a newspaper coupon and one dollar, my Dad was taking me to see a professional ballgame. Each year it was either Pittsburgh or Cleveland or some other major league team that would travel out to San Francisco to play the Pacific Coast League SF Seals managed by Lefty O'Doul.
I have two vivid memories of that night. One was my first taste of hot clam juice, and the other was the thrill of shaking hands with Lefty O'Doul. You see...mom was right again, and it was a frightfully windy and cold evening in the City. My dad, driving our '34 Olds sedan, decided to stop on the way for fortification at the Old Clam House. While my dad sipped something stronger, he offered me my first sip of hot clam juice. It was ok...not great...but I really appreciated its warmth. We continued then to Seals Stadium at 16th and Bryant Streets.
I remember little of the game except that at some point during a lull in the action, my dad asked if I'd like to meet Lefty O'Doul. Are you kidding? Suddenly given the chance to meet the great hero of San Francisco and the Seals, I couldn't control my excitement as I beamed a "yes...sure." So together my dad and I headed toward the field from our seats on the 3rd base side of the diamond. We got to the railing that separates the fans from the field and he lifted me over, took my hand as we walked into the dugout, and sat down on the bench with me between him and the great O'Doul. Without hesitation dad said, "Lefty, I'd like you to meet my son, Bill." I extended my right hand as I had been taught to do and firmly gripped the much larger, weathered hand of this baseball idol. "Glad to meet you" Lefty replied, smiling and turning his gaze back toward the action on the field of play.
The next thing I recall was the ump behind the 3rd base bag calling time and turning toward us and motioning for us to get out of the dugout. I was too excited to be shocked or embarrassed, and I guess my dad was in a similar state. He lifted me back over the railing and into the stands. I have no memory of being ejected from the park, and I'm pretty sure that didn't happen. My dad and I never discussed the incident except for reporting it to my ever-scowling mother upon our return home that night.
I still remember that Lefty O'Doul had kind eyes like my dad's, with lots of wrinkles at the corners when he smiled. I remember that just once I got to meet him, shake his hand, and sit next to him for a very long minute in the Seals dugout. I can't remember anything about the great Ralph Kiner except that he had made the trip and played in Seals Stadium.
Nothing can erase that memory...that moment. I treasure it as much as I treasure my dad's gifts of a love for baseball and a love of life. He taught me to dare to enjoy, to feel, to take risks, to be a little crazy and to never look back. Even though he's now gone, I still thank him daily for these great gifts...and for giving me the chance to meet in person the great Lefty O'Doul.