Billy O'Dell

By Graham Womack

May 10, 2010

Two-time All-Star pitcher Billy O’Dell played with more than a dozen Hall of Famers in thirteen seasons in the big leagues, from Brooks Robinson and Willie Mays to Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente. In fact, the list of stellar teammates reads like the foundation of an all-time greats team.

But for all the future Hall of Famers that O’Dell played with, he believes at least one former teammate has been left out of Cooperstown. That would be Harvey Kuenn, who O’Dell played with on the San Francisco Giants for four years, including their pennant-winning 1962 season.

Kuenn compiled 2,092 hits and a .303 lifetime average, and had he sustained the pace from the first half of his career, he likely would have made Cooperstown in a walk years ago. Kuenn was American League Rookie of the Year in 1953, led the circuit in hits four out of his first seven full seasons, and was an All-Star each of those years.

Like two other men O’Dell played with, Maury Wills and Joe Torre, Kuenn was on the Base Ball Writers Association of America ballot for the Hall of Fame for the maximum 15 years but was not enshrined. Kuenn peaked in 1988 – the same year he died at 57 – with 39.3% of the vote, and is now eligible for selection by the Veterans Committee. O’Dell said Kuenn belongs in Cooperstown.

“Not only is he a Hall of Famer baseball player, but he was a Hall of Famer as a gentleman,” O’Dell said in a phone interview from his Newberry, South Carolina home. “Harvey was a nice guy. If you know Harvey, you like him. And he deserves everything he gets, and was probably one of the best line drive hitters I’ve ever seen.”

O’Dell never appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot himself, though he went 105-100 with a 3.29 ERA in a career that ran from 1954 to 1967. Primarily a fastball pitcher, O'Dell was MVP of the 1958 All-Star Game, and in '58 recorded a record of 14-11, with a 2.97 ERA.

He was an All-Star again in 1959, going 10-12, with a 2.93 ERA. Interestingly, though O'Dell alternated between relieving and starting, he pitched just four fewer innings in 1958 than Tim Lincecum did in 2009.

Following the 1959 season, the Giants acquired O'Dell and pitcher Billy Loes from Baltimore in a trade for Gold Glove outfielder Jackie Brandt and two others. O'Dell had a cumulative losing record his first two seasons in San Francisco, but went 19-14 with a 3.53 ERA for the Giants in 1962, one of two years he pitched primarily as a starter.

That year, O’Dell combined with Juan Marichal, Billy Pierce and 24-game winner Jack Sanford to go 77-38 and help the Giants to their first World Series in San Francisco. The Giants made up a late-season deficit to defeat the Los Angeles Dodgers in a thrilling three-game playoff, though the fierce chase may have contributed to the World Series loss to the New York Yankees.

"We were sort of a wore-out ball club during the World Series," O'Dell said. "We didn't have a whole lot of pitching, and our pitching was tired and hurt, and everybody was wore out. It was just a great season…You can't imagine what happened, and for us to go ahead and win that thing after [being] six games behind in [the] third week in September was almost unbelievable."

O'Dell pitched in three games in the 1962 World Series, starting Game One and taking the loss. He got a hit that day, but also surrendered nine, along with five earned runs and three walks. He pitched twice more in the series in relief, earning a save in Game Four, and recording a scoreless final two innings in Game Seven.

The Giants lost the final game 1-0 famously, when Bobby Richardson snared a Willie McCovery line drive in the bottom of the ninth that would’ve scored Willie Mays and Matty Alou from second and third. Sitting in the dugout, O'Dell said, he didn't have a chance to celebrate, if only for a second, when McCovey hit his screamer.

"You can imagine, he hit it so quick and so hard, it wasn't time to think," O'Dell said. "It was just bam-bam, and he was out."

O’Dell went 14-10 the following year, and was 10-6 with a 2.18 ERA with the Milwaukee Braves in 1965. However, as he told Mike Mandel for SF Giants: An Oral History, published in 1979, he started feeling short of energy the following year and was subsequently diagnosed with Addison’s disease, a rare condition where a person’s adrenal glands stop functioning. 

He was hospitalized four or five times a year, and after a doctor advised him to stop working, O'Dell quit his public relations job for Newberry Mills.

O’Dell told me, “I went ahead and retired, and I’ve been retired since that time. I’m in pretty good shape now. I can do about what I want to and everything, and still do a little hunting and fishing. Stuff like that.”

He said he doesn’t watch much baseball anymore, though he's aware of Bobby Cox and former teammate Joe Torre, makes it to Atlanta occasionally, and attends special events.

“A couple of years ago, they had the 50th anniversary of baseball in San Francisco, and my wife and I flew out for that,” O’Dell said. “We go occasionally. But when you get to be 78 years old, plane traveling gets to be a chore sometimes.”

O’Dell and his wife live in Newberry, South Carolina, near where he was born, have five children and eight grandchildren, and will celebrate their 57th wedding anniversary on September 5, 2010.

Graham Womack is a writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. To read more of his work or see his thoughts on other great players not in the Hall of Fame, visit http://baseballpastandpresent.com/2009/05/14/the-10-best-baseball-players-not-in-the-hall-of-fame/


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