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by Editor, Rick Cabral

 
The Lefebvre Legacy:
The Major League Way

 

In 2008, the country of China played in its first Olympic Games in baseball*. Despite winning only one game in pool play, the Chinese played the Major League way, a style instilled in them by long-time major leaguer, Jim Lefebvre.

The story of how Lefebvre became involved and personally brought China out of the Dark Ages to modern-day baseball begins in Southern California.


Lefebvre
Jim Lefebvre, LA Dodgers

Jim Lefebvre is the quintessential Southern California “Golden Boy.” Born with blonde hair and light blue eyes, he was raised in Inglewood, just south of Los Angeles. He and his two brothers learned the game of baseball from their father Ben, a local high school coach, who guided the Los Angeles Post 715 Junior American Legion program.

His 1951 team, featuring future major leaguers Don Buford, Norm and Larry Sherry, Rene Lachemann and future Hall of Fame manager, George “Sparky” Anderson, won the Legion World Series championship.

Ben Lefebvre is also credited with inventing the batting tee, a device he engineered out of a bathroom plunger, an apple box and a piece of a garden hose. He later sold the Lefebvre Super Tee, now used by all professional teams down to every Little League, to a sporting goods distributor.

A star at Morningside High School, Jim served as the visiting team batboy for the hometown Los Angeles Dodgers in 1961 when they played their final season in the cavernous LA Coliseum. The pros helped broadened his baseball education. After his final prep season, Lefebvre lived the dream when the Dodgers signed the switch-hitting infielder as a free agent.

The Dodgers dispatched the 18-year-0ld to Class “C” Reno, where he hit .327 with 39 home runs and 130 runs batted in. Los Angeles baseball writers tabbed him the Win Clark Award as Southern California’s most outstanding first-year man in pro baseball for 1962. In 1963, he played for Class “A” Salem in the Northwest League, and the following season the Dodgers assigned him to their Pacific Coast League team, Spokane Indians.

First he completed an Army assignment at Ford Ord, then played in 54 Triple-A games, batting .265 at Spokane. The Dodgers invited him as a non-roster player to spring training in 1965. Although he impressed in camp, no one told him where to report next. Los Angeles skipper Walter Alston gave the 22-year-old the good news in the hotel lobby, saying “Just be sure you’re on the (Dodgers’) plane.”

“Everything in sports is timing, and my timing was right,” Jim notes.

Nicknamed “Frenchy” by his teammates, he remembers his first big league game on Opening Day at Shea Stadium against the Mets. Jim was awed by manager Alston’s simple and direct message to the team: “Gentlemen, we’re here to win. And I expect to win. Do the job you’re supposed to do. If not, we’ll find somebody else. Good luck.”

That season, Lefebvre started at second base and got his first hit in the second game, a double, off Pirates’ Joe Gibbon. The light-hitting Dodgers lineup were best known for having one of the finest pitching staffs in baseball with Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Claude Osteen. Lefebvre started strong, fell off in mid-season, but retained his manager’s confidence. Lefebvre had 15 game-winning hits in the second half of the season, establishing a reputation as a clutch hitter.

That ’65 season provided him with a lifetime of memories.

On September 9th in Chavez Ravine, the Chicago Cubs sent rookie pitcher Bob Hendley to the mound against Dodgers ace Sandy Koufax. Through six innings both pitchers hadn’t allowed a hit. Los Angeles scored the game’s only run in the fifth inning when Lou Johnson walked, was sacrificed to second base, bringing Lefebvre to the plate. Johnson broke for third and Lefebvre watched as the catcher’s throw sailed into left field, allowing Johnson to score an unearned run. Johnson got the game’s only hit in the seventh.

In the ninth inning, Alston substituted Dick Tracewski at second base for Lefebvre, as they’d done throughout the season. When Koufax took the mound, Dodger Stadium buzzed with excitement as their ace left-hander attempted to close out a perfect game. He had struck out the side in the eighth and would do so in the ninth. From the bench Frenchy watched Koufax blowing away the Cubs’ hitters, relying solely on his fastball. “He was possessed,” Lefebvre said. “No one could have hit him that night.”

Not even the Cubs’ future Hall of Famers Billy Williams and Ernie Banks, who between them struck out five times. Koufax fanned 14 batters, a record that stood until June 13th of this year when Giants’ right-hander Matt Cain matched the mark for strikeouts in a perfect game.

“It was one of the real thrills of my career.” Lefebvre remembers.

The second memory occurred one month later when Los Angeles, behind Koufax’ artful 3-hit shutout, won Game 7 of the 1965 World Series against the Minnesota Twins. Lefebvre batted .400 in the series.

To cap off the magical season, he was voted the National League Rookie of the Year award, besting Joe Morgan of the Houston Astros who took second place.

The following season, Lefebvre improved his average to .274 and doubled his home run total to 24, earning a spot on the National League All-Star team in just his second year. The Dodgers again won the National League in 1966, but were swept in the World Series by the Baltimore Orioles in what would be Koufax’ last season in baseball.

It would also be the last time Lefebvre played in the Fall Classic.

In 1967, he found himself on a different stage, as Lefebvre landed roles in two television series. On Gilligan’s Island, he played a hermit, and on Batman, he was the Riddler’s henchman.

In 1972 after eight seasons in Los Angeles he retired with a lifetime .251 batting average.

“I knew I was never going to be a Hall of Famer,” Lefebvre said, “but I was very proud to be considered one of the real clutch players in the major leagues. That was my game.”

 



In 1973, at age 31 Lefebvre began the next chapter of his baseball career by playing in Japan with the Lotte Orions. When he deplaned at the airport, fellow gaijin (and former MLB player) George Altman provided a cursory orientation about Japanese baseball and culture on the way to a press conference to introduce the newest American. The Japanese press, Altman warned, believed that Lefebvre had pronounced he would win the Japanese Triple-Crown in his first year.

“I never said that.”

Didn’t matter, Altman told him. “They believe it.” No doubt the work of his manager, Masaichi Kaneda, according to Robert Whiting, who wrote about Lefebvre and other gaijin in his books^ on Japanese baseball.

Lefebvre quickly told the Japanese press, “I’m a winning player. I’m not here to win a Triple Crown, I’m here to win a championship.” He backed it up by getting 17 game-winning hits in the second half of his first year. Lefebvre played four seasons at first base for the Orions, and had his share of run-ins with manager Kaneda, a former left-handed pitcher, who posted the most wins (400) and strikeouts (4490) in Japanese baseball history.

The Japanese loved American equipment and one spring Lefebvre loaded a suitcase with Rawlings gloves for his teammates. He told his manager about the purchase after getting permission to report five days late for training camp. Around this time, American players were notorious for showing up late for spring training in Japan, no doubt to avoid the regimented training which Frenchy thought was “absolutely ridiculous.” So Lefebvre made sure he received his manager’s permission to arrive late.

When he showed up at his hotel, Lefebvre learned from the media that Kaneda had announced he would fine his American player $1000 for each day of missing camp. Jim stormed through the hotel lobby straight to his manager’s room. He found Kaneda in a surprisingly affable mood. The manager laughed off the situation, explaining he was making a show for the media and not to worry. There would be no fine, he said behind closed doors. He was especially pleased that “Jimmy” had brought a new supply of gloves.

The next day, however, Lefebvre learned from the press that his fine would help offset the team’s training table expenses. He didn’t mind since it actually didn’t come out of his pocket, but sometime later other teams borrowed the practice of fining foreign players for reporting late, and Lefebvre earned an undeserved black eye from his compatriots.

Another incident with the manager was settled by overseas intervention. While the Orions were on defense one night Lefebvre looked up to see a substitute approaching from the dugout. Manager Kaneda was pulling him in the middle of an inning for what Lefebvre says was an unknown infraction. When he reached the dugout steps he fired his glove against the back wall, creating an uproar among his teammates for this unimaginable act in Japan. Kaneda fined the American $50,000 for disrespect and insubordination. Lefebvre refused to pay and was willing to walk out. He called and asked a favor of Dodgers’ owner Peter O’Malley, who personally phoned Kaneda to advise him to reverse his decision. The manager complied and Lefebvre was allowed to rejoin the team.



After four years in the Japanese League, Lefebvre worked out a deal with the Orion club. He wished to retire from playing and begin his coaching career. They hired him on the condition that he find a replacement gaijin player.

Lefebvre returned to the States and began his search. One promising Triple-A prospect with the Oakland Athletics led to a negotiation with A’s owner, Charles O. Finley, who told Lefebvre to “bring your saddlebags because he’s going to cost you millions of dollars.”

Lefebvre later learned about Leron Lee (Grant High), who had recently been released by Jim’s former club, the Dodgers, after serving a sentence in the Mexican League (See Spotlight—Leron Lee). He heard that at 28, Lee was done in organized ball, but that “he could still hit.” Lefebvre offered Lee a deal that would pay $50,000 with a financial-laden contract that could pay out at $125,000 if he met the team’s performance goals.

As Altman had done for him, Lefebvre laid down the gaijin guidelines and found in Lee a willing pupil. “I really wanted to coach him and help him understand what Japanese baseball really is all about.” As coach, Lefebvre proudly watched Leron post numbers in 1977 that nearly claimed the Triple Crown title in Japan. In one year, Lee established himself as a star, and Lefebvre returned to America.

The following season the Dodgers appointed him manager of their Rookie League team, thus beginning a new chapter in his career.



In the early 1980s, the San Francisco Giants hired Frank Robinson to manage their team. The organization also appointed Lefebvre to spearhead an overhaul of their minor league system. There he had full control, from hiring coaches to writing the blueprint for how to evaluate and train talent. It led to his managing the Giants Triple-A franchise Phoenix Firebirds in 1985-1986.

In 1986, Lefebvre and his father published the book, “The Making of a Hitter.” In it Jim and his dad Ben Lefebvre revealed their approach to hitting, featuring some of the game’s greatest hitters in illustrative photos showcasing the five stages of hitting. The cover featured his model student, Leron Lee in a Lotte Orions uniform, posed in the perfect hitting position. 


Jim Lefebvre managed the Mariners to their first winning season in 1991.

From 1989-1991, he managed the Seattle Mariners, including the first father-son duo to play on the same team at the same time, rookie Ken Griffey Junior and his father Ken Griffey. In Jim’s last season, the Mariners finished with an 83-72 mark, their first winning season but only good for fifth place in the AL West.

In 1992, Lefebvre took on a two-year reclamation project to manage the Chicago Cubs. Matt Walbeck (Sacramento High) was promoted to the big club late in 1993. “(Lefebvre) was a great guy to play for with tons of enthusiasm and really good at communicating,” Walbeck says about the manager. “He was also outstanding at teaching hitting fundamentals.”

One example was prospect Sammy Sosa, who was failing by flailing at curves in the dirt. Lefebvre helped Sosa to better recognize and eventually lay off of the breaking ball. “Great curve ball hitters do not hit great curve balls,” Lefebvre lectured. “They hit mistake pitches. As soon as (Sosa) laid off those tough pitches, he took off.” Those Cubs teams included future Hall of Famers Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson and Greg Maddux, plus current Yankees manager, Joe Girardi. Lefebvre led the Cubs to two fourth-place finishes in the NL East division.

He had other coaching positions with the Oakland Athletics, Milwaukee Brewers (he was interim manager for 49 games in 1999), and Cincinnati Reds.



In 2004, Lefebvre received a call from Sandy Alderson, who worked in the commissioner’s office as the executive vice president for baseball operations. The Chinese Director of Sports Ministry asked Major League Baseball to dispatch someone to help prepare them for the 2008 Olympics. Since Beijing would serve as host city for the Summer Games, the Chinese would automatically qualify, but they recognized their program was not nearly ready for Olympic competition. Alderson talked Lefebvre into taking the job.

Originally, Lefebvre was to spend three months evaluating and preparing the Chinese to compete in the 2004 Asian qualifying round, “even though everyone knew they were never going to make it against Japan, Korea, Taiwan,” he says. That three-month commitment turned into a five-year love affair between the Chinese and the Southern Californian.

Going in, Lefebvre knew it would be an uphill climb. For starters, China had yet to develop feeder programs such as Little League or High School baseball like their Asian neighbors.

The first week on the job, Lefebvre intentionally kept his mouth shut and eyes open. At nightly dinner meetings with the Chinese coaches, he listened and formed a trust. Finally, when he addressed the team he immediately attempted to change the militaristic, regimented style imposed on them throughout their lives. “You’re going to start acting like champions. When I talk to you, put your hats on and look me right in the eye. Champions look you in the eye!” Lefebvre exhorted his new recruits. “And have fun, because it’s a journey. And we’re going to play the major league way.”

Asked if the language barrier proved burdensome, Lefebvre countered that it actually became an asset. “Baseball is a game of feel. It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear. When you’re teaching baseball, it’s about ‘feel.’”

Lefebvre showed them how to play like major leaguers. One way was to devise drills that emphasized the speed of the game played at the highest level by the world’s elite players. He brought the team to train at the Seattle Mariners spring training facility in Arizona and watched as his players were overjoyed to play on professional fields and train with top-shelf equipment.

One day a Sports Ministry official praised Lefebvre because the team had hit 29 home runs in practice. Back home, with rag-tag baseballs and cavernous playing fields, their home run tally was normally in single digits. Lefebvre saw the joy in their improvement.

They competed at the 2004 Olympics qualifying round, and Lefebvre thought his mission was over. But China was pleased with Lefebvre’s leadership and asked MLB to extend his stay through 2008. They did and Jim continued in the job.

At the first World Baseball Classic in 2006 China dropped all three games in pool play, losing to Japan, Korea and Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) by combined scores of 40-6.

Their goal, however, simply was not to embarrass themselves at the 2008 Olympics.

That summer the host nation China went 1-6 in the tournament but that one victory against Chinese Taipei was historic. With China leading 3-2, Taiwan tied the game in the top of the ninth. Three innings later, Chinese Taipei scored four times to take the lead. China, following Lefebvre's never-say-die motto, scored five runs to win the game and defeat their bitter geopolitical rival. Our players were so happy, we won that game. They were thrilled to death,” Lefebvre recalls.

Their other highlight was an 11-inning 1-0 loss to South Korea. On back-to-back days, however, China lost to world powers Cuba (17-1) and Japan (10-0), demonstrating how far their program still had to go.

When Lefebvre prepared to depart, the team met him and embraced Lefebvre, producing a profound and emotional moment for both player and coach. “These guys, who had grown up with that stoic appearance all their lives were very emotional. As was I.” Lefebvre cites a famous quotation that speaks to the emotion he felt that day: “There are hundreds of languages in the world. But a smile speaks them all.”

He says Hollywood is interested in developing this cross-cultural feel-good story into a movie project. 

Lefebvre-Locke_China
U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke (center, front row) held a baseball-themed reception for Chinese dignataries and business leaders. Also invited was Jim Lefebvre (back row 2nd from right), former head coach for China's National team. Photo courtesy of MLB International.


Lefebvre remains on retainer as an advisor to China, which runs two baseball academies in conjunction with Major League Baseball-International. He projects that in a few years, the Chinese will begin making their mark in organized ball.

Meantime, he’s working on updating and rewriting the book on hitting he and his father produced more than 25 years ago.

The “Golden Boy” from Southern California recognizes he’s led a charmed existence. He’s more than happy to continue sharing the Lefebvre Legacy.
 

 



* 2008 also marked the last year the Olympics would feature baseball (and softball) as competitive sports, although there is a movement underway to reinstate them in future games.

^ Robert Whiting, The Chrysanthemum and the Bat: The Game Japanese Play (Dodd, Mead, N.Y. 1977), and You Gotta Have Wa (1989 Macmillan, 1990, 2009 Vintage Departures).

Uploaded 08/27/12
Updated 08/31/12

All contents © Rick Cabral 2012

 

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