The Philadelphia Phillies have a record holder who had a relatively short career on the back of his baseball card, but who had a big influence on the game.
In March of 1897, Francis Joseph O’Doul was born in San Francisco, California. Lefty O’Doul would make his big league debut on April 29th, 1919, striking out as a pinch-hitter for the New York Yankees in a game at the Polo Grounds against Connie Mack‘s Philadelphia Athletics.
In those early years of his career, O’Doul was viewed as more of a pitcher, though he did see some time in the outfield with both the Yankees in 1919, 1920, and 1922 and with the Red Sox in 1923.
Unable to crack a big league lineup, O’Doul became property of the New York Giants and was sent to the minor leagues in 1924 to convert to the outfield on a full-time basis. Over the next few years he developed into a solid power hitter, but would not get a call to the big leagues again until 1928, when he was 31 years of age.
In that 1928 season, O’Doul hit for a .319/.372/.463 slash line with eight homers, 46 RBI, and 67 runs scored in just 390 plate appearances. That Giants team, featuring Hall of Famers Carl Hubbell, Bill Terry, and Mel Ott finished in 2nd place in the National League, just two games behind the pennant-winning Saint Louis Cardinals.
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Following the season, New York dealt O’Doul to the Phillies in exchange for a lefty swinging outfielder named Freddy Leach, who was a couple of years younger and a bit more proven as a big leaguer at that point.
With the less talented Phils, O’Doul immediately became a full-time starting outfielder from the beginning of the season for the very first time. He responded by exploding for a historic season, one that has kept him in the National League record books to this day.
In the 1929 season with the Phillies, O’Doul hit for a .398/.465/.622 slash line with 32 home runs, 122 RBI, and 152 runs scored, finishing 2nd in the NL MVP voting.
He teamed with fellow lefty hitters Chuck Klein and Don Hurst to pepper the Baker Bowl band box with hits, and drive balls over its short porch in right field. Thanks largely to the exploits of that hitting trio, the Phillies rose from a 43-109 last place finish in 1928 to a competitive 71-82 season in 1929 in which the club finished in 5th place.
More specifically to the record books, O’Doul delivered a still NL-record 254 hits. That record would be tied the following season by Terry, and Klein would fall just four hits shy of it during that same 1930 season.
Among his big games in that record-setting 1929 campaign were a pair of five-hit games. On June 19th in the first game of a doubleheader at Baker Bowl against the Giants, O’Doul went 5-6. Then on July 9th, again at home, O’Doul delivered a 5-5 performance against the Saint Louis Cardinals.
He had eight 4-hit games during the season, six of those coming at Baker Bowl. And on 24 occasions, O’Doul recorded a 3-hit game during the 1929 season. He went hitless just 24 times, and finished the season on a 15-game hitting streak.
No National Leaguer has even approached the record of 254 hits since O’Doul set and Terry equaled that mark. The most hits by an NL player in the last eight decades has been the 231 recorded by Matty Alou with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1969 season.
That record by O’Doul is, of course, also the Philadelphia Phillies franchise record for hits in a season. In fact, 181 of those hits were singles, which is also a Phils’ franchise record.
O’Doul followed up that record-setting 1929 by hitting for a .383/.453/.604 slash line with 22 homers, 97 RBI, 122 runs, and another 202 hits with the Phillies in 1930.
But the team slumped back to a last place finish, and with O’Doul due to turn 34 years old during the 1931 season, the Phillies looked to cash in on him while they could. In October of 1930, the Phils dealt him as the key piece in a 5-player trade to the Brooklyn Robins (now the Dodgers), where he would spend a little more than one season before begin dealt back to the Giants, where he finished his career at age 37 in 1934.
Due to starting his career as a pitcher, then being stuck in the minors for a few years, O’Doul had a relatively brief career window as an impactful hitter. But as a regular for the better part of the six seasons between 1928-33, O’Doul was one of the game’s best hitters.
Following his playing career, O’Doul became a manager with the PCL’s San Francisco Seals. With his hometown team, he became one of the best managers in the minors, and has been given credit for helping develop the young Joe DiMaggio.
Just before and after World War II, O’Doul became baseball’s official ambassador to Japan, and has been given a great deal of credit in helping develop the game in that country, which is now considered by many to be on nearly a competitive par with the game in America.
O’Doul has been inducted into both his native San Francisco Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, and the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. There is a bridge over McCovey Cove near AT&T Park, current home of the San Francisco Giants, named in his honor.