Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Lefty O'Doul Chapter SABR Meeting and 1949 Japan Tour Exhibit Preview

A week ago Saturday, about 50 members and friends from the Lefty O'Doul Chapter of the Society of American Baseball Research met for our quarterly meeting, at a very cool venue--the aviation museum in SFO's international terminal. This wasn't a coincidence...we were there to see an awesome exhibit on the Pacific Coast League, the West Coast's major league from 1903 until westward expansion in 1958.

I wasn't even aware that SFO has a museum; through the years, I've seen any number of impressive exhibits at SFO (particularly in the F concourse connector), but I didn't realize that there was a physical museum, which is modeled on SFO's 1937 passenger waiting room. I don't typically think of airports as destinations...to me, they're portals as I move from A to B. But, the SFO museum is a destination worthy of arriving an hour (or two) early for a flight.

Marlene Vogelsang (chapter chair) led us off, introducing Tim O'Brien and his team from the SFO Museum. Tim spoke about the challenges in pulling together the exhibit--good challenges, from the sound of it, as the biggest issue seemed to be determining just how many lender artifacts they could squeeze in. Mark Macrae then provided an overview of the league, with Bill Swank, Ray Saraceni, and Alan O'Connor sharing knowledge on their own areas of expertise; each was brief, as we were all eager to see the goods themselves.

We then headed out to the exhibit, which is dead center in the middle of the international terminal. Thank god for SABR, as I would've never known that the exhibit was here; in fact, when I flew to Shanghai last month, I absolutely would've shown up an hour early, just to enjoy the PCL exhibit. The museum staff always has a compelling range of artifacts displayed, but an exhibit on baseball is obviously in my sweet spot. The exhibit case itself is quite large, probably 50 feet from end to end. Chock full of material primarily from Macrae, Saraceni, Swank, O'Connor, and Doug McWilliams, I readily understood the difficulty Tim and his team had in choosing which items to include in the exhibit--a wealth of artifacts is pretty uncommon, I was told.

Mark took us through much of the history of the Pacific Coast League, covering players, stadiums, uniforms, and much, much more. My favorite story from Mark concerned old Recreation Park in San Francisco. During Prohibition, SF's finest turned a blind eye towards consumption at the ballpark; as a result, even at otherwise poorly attended dates, the "club level" behind first base was always full, thanks to the bargain of a game ticket and a shot of whiskey for 75 cents.

Bill followed up with an overview of PCL in the Southland, covering the Hollywood and San Diego teams. As you might expect, Hollywood had lots of actors and actresses who followed the team; Bill shared stories on a few of them, while showing numerous photos from a book he authored. Bill was one of a number of SABR members who flew in for the meeting--another great reason to meet at SFO.

Alan wrapped up with an overview of baseball in Sacramento; each answered a steady stream of questions from the group. At the end of their talks, attendees hung around for another half-hour or so to speak with two former PCL players who'd joined us for the day.

As we were winding down, Marlene mentioned that Mark was taking a few folks down to the Society of California Pioneers Museum in the city. I wasn't aware that the SCP was putting on an exhibit commemorating Lefty O'Doul's 1949 baseball goodwill tour of Japan. Even though the museum wasn't open this particular Saturday, they'd agreed to allow SABR members in for a preview, particularly since we had members who'd traveled from as far as Vancouver (Lefty's hometown!) for our meeting.

So, up 101 we went, heading for the SCP Museum at Fourth and Folsom. Despite its ideal location, I'd never visited the museum before; now that I've seen a tiny glimpse, I'll definitely be back. The O'Doul exhibit isn't huge in terms of footprint, but it's unbelievable in terms of what's been saved--a fitting homage to the guy who resurrected the relationship between U.S. and Japanese baseball.

We obviously weren't on the best of terms with Occupied Japan in the late '40s. General Douglas MacArthur thought that a goodwill baseball tour of Japan would be healthy for the country's morale; in short order Lefty was tapped, bringing the San Francisco Seals across the Pacific for a month of baseball.

Starting in 1932, Lefty barnstormed through Japan multiple times before the war, so he was well-regarded by Japanese baseball fans. The 1934 barnstorming team led by Connie Mack was particularly impressive, with luminaries like Ruth, Gehrig, and Foxx joining Lefty on the tour, but it was Lefty who returned time and again to the Land of the Rising Sun--making him the perfect choice to lead the 1949 effort.

MacArthur had suggested the tour, but Japanese industry (including many newspapers) footed the bill. And, as I learned at the exhibit, no expense was spared. Holy cow...the amount of time and effort (and money) that went into the tour is amazing. Ticker tape parades? Check. Huge fêtes in Ginza? Check. Special baseball cards issued just for the tour? Check. Bunting? Check.

(An aside. Man, I love playoff baseball. Gotta be the bunting.)

Just like most kids growing up in the Midwest in the '70s, I had a pretty healthy baseball card collection, but the range of memorabilia in this exhibit is mind-blowing. The museum has reproduced (and thankfully greatly enlarged) a set of menko, baseball cards issued specifically for the 1949 tour. I managed to make it to SCP when the only other person who'd arrived was Ray Saraceni, the lender for the menko set (and many other items on display). Ray's stories about the cards, photos, playbills, and other memorabilia are awesome. Lefty's cousin Tom O'Doul had been at the SABR meeting, but wasn't able to make it over to SCP; walking around the room with Ray and other lenders was great, but I wish we'd also had Tom to add familial color.

All in all, a great day out, even though we saw no baseball on the final weekend of the regular season. If you're in the Bay Area and love baseball, you must get to SFO in the next couple of weeks before the exhibit comes down; call the museum at (650) 821-6700 to make sure the PCL exhibit is still up. You'll find it in the G1 case on the departures level of the international terminal. Tim O'Brien mentioned that due to its popularity, the exhibit might survive a few weeks longer than planned. Then, take the 15-minute (non-rush hour) drive to the city to the Society of California Pioneers museum. They're open from 10-4 Wednesday through Friday, and on the first Saturday of each month. Learn more about visiting SCP here.

Curious to learn more about Lefty O'Doul? Read Tom Hawthorn's excellent article here. Want to learn more about Lefty and his experiences in Japan? Read John Holway's thorough history here. Finally, want to learn more about the 1949 Japan trip? That's easy. As I just said, get to the Society of California Pioneers museum here.

Oh, one more thing. Not a SABR member yet? Why not? Join here.

1 comment:

  1. That was great!! Yes, the SFO exhibit is wonderful. Everyone involved did a fantastic job. The 1949 exhibit is also wonderful. (I did sneak in before the group visit) Also, "Lefty's" home-town is San Francisco. We are proud of this! Again, great job on this post.