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Rocklin author writes book on baseball legend Lefty O’Doul

Book cited in New York Times, champions underrated legacy
By: Graham Womack, Staff Writer
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Lefty O’Doul died at 72 in 1969. He was arguably most popular in the 1930s, when he positioned himself among the finest hitters in baseball history and helped establish the game in Japan.

So why did Rocklin resident Dennis Snelling write a new book about O’Doul?

“Probably his legacy is only now really being felt with the influx of players not only from Japan but the rest of Asia,” Snelling said.

O’Doul’s enduring legacy provided rich fodder for Snelling’s new book, “Lefty O’Doul: Baseball’s Forgotten Ambassador.”

Snelling, 59, has written approximately five other baseball history books and works by day as chief business officer for the Roseville City School District. Asked about his incentive to feature O’Doul, Snelling called him “a really fascinating character I can’t believe no one has tackled.”

O’Doul had a fascinating, highly unique career. Debuting in 1919 as a pitcher with the New York Yankees, O’Doul barely played his first three seasons.

“How he didn’t rot away as a player is kind of a miracle,” Snelling said.

Winding up with the Salt Lake Bees of the Pacific Coast League, O’Doul remade himself into one of the premier hitters in the minor leagues. He resurfaced in the major leagues in 1928, hitting .365 and winning two batting titles over his first five seasons back in the show.

While an active player, O’Doul went on a goodwill tour to Japan following the 1931 season. He would later make approximately 20 trips to the nation, helping establish a professional league for Japan in the mid-1930s.

After last playing in the majors in 1934, O’Doul became a longtime PCL manager and noted hitting instructor, mentoring future standouts like Joe and Dom DiMaggio, as well as Ferris Fain and Gene Woodling.

“He also influenced pitchers,” Snelling said. “He saved Ryne Duren’s career. Larry Jansen gave him a lot of credit for his success. And that’s unusual, to have someone who can reach both hitting and pitching.”

O’Doul finished with a .349 lifetime batting average, fourth-best in baseball history behind Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby and Shoeless Joe Jackson.

Somehow, the Hall of Fame has proved elusive for O’Doul, though a case could be made that he ranks among the top overall contributors in baseball history between his playing, hitting instruction and unofficial ambassadorship to Japan.

“I think the Hall of Fame kind of misses out a little bit on guys who really changed the way the game was played or had an influence on the game,” Snelling said.

To do his work for the book, Snelling had access to more than 300 pages of translated Japanese newspaper articles and drew on many years of PCL research, including interviews with many players from that circuit. He also spoke early in his research for this book to O’Doul’s much-younger, still-living cousin, Tom O’Doul.

The fruits of Snelling’s labor have been well-received in at least one important venue. In an April 2 roundup of 14 new baseball books, the New York Times called Snelling’s work “compelling.”

 

Note: Snelling and the author of this piece are members of the Sacramento chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research.