San Francisco is on the verge of a legal showdown over one of its most beloved and now shuttering institutions. "Lefty" O'Doul's...a baseball memorabilia bar in tourist-heavy Union Square named for legendary batter and city son Lefty O'Doul.
The rambunctious piano and sports bar has catered to tourists and locals for decades, its walls crowded with Marilyn Monroe mementos, spurs and horseshoes honoring San Francisco mounted police, and photos of baseball greats. But now the bar and restaurant's operator and the building's landlord are battling over who will continue the Lefty's tradition, with each side claiming pieces of what makes the bar sing. Wednesday is the establishment's final day after nearly six decades.
Lefty's operator Nick Bovis announced earlier this month that the lease was up in February, but he reassured fans that he would reopen at an undetermined location nearby with the same staff and musical acts....but landlord Jon Handlery countered that Handlery Hotels was the real owner of Lefty's and that he would reopen the bar under new and improved management. He said Bovis was merely an operator.
Bovis quickly stripped the restaurant of mementos. Handlery sued for the contents, and a San Francisco judge granted a temporary restraining order prohibiting the removal of any more items. Meanwhile, Bovis also sued, seeking to block the unauthorized use of the Lefty O'Doul's name, which he had trademarked.
As the legal battle over Lefty's future unfolds, some say it's the end of an era. Doug Pucel, a food broker from Chicago, has visited the bar once a year for about a decade and readily acknowledges the place is a dump. But he also called it wonderful. "You'll see people walking in here in rags, and you'll see people walking in here in tuxedos and gowns," Pucel said. "Every walk of life comes in here."
Regular Matt Shirk, 37, mourned the looming closure of the cafeteria-style restaurant that fed him steadily when he was new to town, broke and sleeping on a friend's couch. That was in 2008. Since then, he's met girlfriends and eaten numerous holiday meals at Lefty's. "I've sat in every single stool and at every single table and booth in this entire place," he said, looking around the bar. "It'll be an ugly legal battle for sure."
Francis "Lefty" O'Doul was born in San Francisco in 1897, a left-handed pitcher and outfielder who would cement his place in history as a colorful man about town, friend to Joe DiMaggio and an ambassador of baseball to Japan. He was a two-time National League batting champion with a .349 batting average who played for a half-dozen major league teams. Locally, he was remembered for managing the San Francisco Seals from 1935 to 1951. He opened his restaurant and cocktail lounge at its current location in 1958. It quickly became a favorite of famous pals as well as local workers attracted by the inexpensive, meaty food served cafeteria, or "hofbrau," style.
The Bovis family took over around 1998, and Nick Bovis trademarked the name. He organized annual Christmas toy drives and baseball outings in honor of the man who had a soft spot for disadvantaged kids...But Sam Singer, a spokesman for the landlord, maintained Bovis hijacked a name he did not own. He also posed a philosophical question: "Even if Mr. Bovis opens up a Lefty O'Doul's somewhere else, if he doesn't have the memorabilia, is it really Lefty O'Doul's?"