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Mudville: May 25, 2024 8:15 am PDT

Catch Lefebvre

Jim Lefebvre won the National League Rookie of the Year.

He played alongside Sandy Koufax.

He has a World Series ring.

He spent four seasons playing for the Lotte Orions of the Japanese Pacific League.

He managed three teams for nearly six seasons in the Major Leagues.

Yet, with all that he accomplished throughout the second half of the 20th century as a professional ballplayer, it was the trip that he took to the other side of the world in the 21st century that seems to have made the biggest impact on the baseball lifer.

Lefebvre, 79, was the manager of the 2008 Chinese Olympic baseball team and it was a position that he never imagined he would want to hold. The experience, however, left an indelible mark on Lefebvre, who was so moved by the experience that he is currently working on making a film that will detail his time in China and the work he put in with that country’s national team.

“I had no idea that, when all was said and done, that this would be the best thing I have ever done,” Lefebvre said. “What started as a three-month deal turned into spending five years working with them. We broke barriers. [Former president Richard] Nixon had ping-pong diplomacy [with China] and we did it through baseball.”

“I asked Koufax, ‘How do you pitch to Willie Mays’ and he said, ‘Hard and in. If you miss one out over the plate, you’re going to be asking for a new ball.’ He also said you don’t beat hitters, you beat lineups.”

Lefebvre likely wouldn’t have had the opportunity to manage in China had it not been for the aforementioned experiences throughout his career. The California native signed with the Dodgers in the years prior to MLB’s First-Year Player Draft and became part of what was a powerful Dodger team between 1959 and 1966. Los Angeles played in four World Series, winning three and Lefebvre was part of that run, using it as the jumping off point for a trip around the world.


Lefebvre was a star baseball player at Morningside High School in Inglewood, Calif., earning All Bay-League honors for three consecutive seasons. He was named the co-winner of the Bay League MVP Award as a senior, sharing the honor with his brother, Tip. He also played for the Dodger Rookies in the summer of ’61, starring in exhibition games against rookie clubs from other teams and semi-pro squads.

“The Angels showed some interest but it was nothing serious and the Washington Senators were the only other team that had interest in me,” Lefebvre said. “I had a pretty good year in high school but it was nothing to write home about. I was just thinking about signing and getting into pro ball.”

He was also a batboy at Dodger Stadium, getting the chance to get to know some of the players against whom he would someday be competing.

“[Future Major Leaguer and manager] Rene Lachemann was the batboy for the Dodgers and my brother was the batboy for the visiting team,” Lefebvre said. “When the season was ending, he went out for the high school football team and Rene called and asked if I’d like to be the bat boy for a month. I filled in for my brother and it was a lot of fun. I got a lot of insight into what goes on with players and the things they do.

“The Milwaukee Braves were in and Hank Aaron was there. He went 0-for-4 one game and after the game he came into the clubhouse and said tomorrow somebody will pay. Sure enough, the next day in his first at-bat he hit one off Don Drysdale right above his shin. That’s payback. Seeing guys like Aaron and Frank Robinson was a great experience.”

Jim Lefebvre of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1967

Los Angeles Dodgers infielder, Jim Lefebvre, May 23, 1967.

Lefebvre took the some of what he learned with him to Reno of the then Class-C California League in 1962, where he began his professional career in fine fashion. He finished second in the league in RBI [130], third in homers [39], fourth in hits [177] and seventh in batting [.327] to earn a place on the All- Cal League team. He was also presented with the Win Clark Memorial Award, emblematic of the top California rookie in baseball.

He hit a pair of homers in the playoffs – both coming in the sixth game of the league championship series. The second homer was a ninth-inning grand slam, giving him six RBIs and tying the series at three games apiece. Reno would lose the following night in the series finale but Lefebvre had established himself.

“The two in the playoffs gave me 41,” said the switch-hitting infielder. “I hit 21 from the left side and 20 from the right side. That’s a lot of production for a second baseman. We were playing up there in the high desert, though.”

Lefebvre’s production continued in 1963 while playing for Salem [Ore.] of the Class-A Northwest League. While he didn’t have the altitude and dry air to help pad his numbers, he still put forth another splendid season, hitting .283 with 17 homers [fifth in the league] and 92 RBIs [second]. He was named to his second consecutive league post-season all-star squad and was also selected as one of the members of the Class-A All-Stars Western squad. There was also an Eastern squad and the teams were selected from players in the 11 Class-A Leagues that were active at the time.

He began 1964 on active military duty but eventually was sent to Triple-A Spokane of the Pacific Coast League. Lefebvre hit .265 with six homers and 31 RBIs – but made his real mark that fall playing in the Arizona Instructional League, where he hit .321 with seven homers and 22 RBIs in 42 games. He hit safely in his first five games, all of which were attended by Dodgers’ manager Walt Alston. One of his hits was a mammoth 370-foot homer.

Lefebvre was also excelling at second base.

“A fellow who can get rid of the double-play ball the way he does deserves a thorough trial at second base,” Dodgers vice president Fresco Thompson told The Sporting News on Nov. 14, 1964.

Lefty Phillips, who was managing the Dodgers affiliate in the Arizona League, told The Sporting News three weeks later that Lefebvre is “A bear-down hustler all the way; he’d be out ‘til dark practicing if somebody would stay working with him.”

10/3/1965-Hollywood, California- Ed Sullivan salutes the National League Pennant winning Los Angeles Dodgers and manager Walt Alston on ``The Ed Sullivan Show`` on the CBS Television Network. The Dodgers played the last game of the season earlier in the day and then went to the studio for the taped show. Shown left to right are: Don Drysdale, Willie Davis, Walt Alston, Ed Sullivan, Lou Johnson, Jim Lefebvre and Ron Parranoski.


That approach and a strong spring training in 1965 – he was a non-roster invitee – helped convince the Dodgers that he was ready for the big leagues. They named Frenchy, which is what he was called, as the team’s starting second baseman, allowing him to join first baseman Wes Parker, shortstop Maury Wills and third baseman Jim Gilliam in forming the first all switch-hitting infield in Major League history.

Lefebvre’s big efforts in the minors set the tone for what he would do once he reached the Major Leagues. He appeared in 157 games, had career highs in plate appearances [631], at-bats [544] and walks [71]. He hit .250 with 12 homers and 69 RBIs while doing some heavy lifting down the stretch as the Dodgers went on a 13-game winning streak to overtake San Francisco and MVP Willie Mays. He had 10 RBIs and hit .333 during the streak, which included several game-winning hits.

His effort was enough to earn him National League Rookie of the Year. Lefebvre finished with 14 first-place votes to Joe Morgan’s four. He even got a few votes for MVP in helping the Dodgers to a World Series victory over Minnesota. Lefebvre appeared in three World Series games, going 4-for-10 while scoring a pair of runs, before a heel injury kept him on the bench for the final four games.

Still, the year couldn’t have gone any better for Lefebvre, who took in every bit of information he could gather.

“When you go in there in Spring Training and then win the World Series, words make it hard to explain,” Lefebvre said. “We might have a good club and we talked about it in Spring Training. We all worked real hard and I was part of the all switch-hitting infield. I was just thrilled to death to be there. It was a lot of fun.

“I had no clue about Rookie of the Year. I was surprised. The only other guy was Joe Morgan and he hit close to .280 but his club [Houston] didn’t do anything. I ended up with some game-winning hits and won a World Series. I just learned so much being around those guys. I asked Koufax, ‘How do you pitch to Willie Mays’ and he said, ‘Hard and in. If you miss one out over the plate, you’re going to be asking for a new ball.’  He also said you don’t beat hitters, you beat lineups. So I used that when I managed in the Majors. Those are the kinds of things that rubbed off on you.”

HOLLYWOOD, Dec. 2 – WHAT SOME BALL PLAYERS DO IN THE WINTER—You’d never recognize them in this get-up, but Jim Lefevbre, left, and Al Ferrara of the Los Angeles Dodgers are making like head-hunters for an episode in the television series, “Gilligan’s Island.” The two ball players are working occasionally as actors during the off season. Actress Tina Louise, portraying an actress stranded on the island, is the object of their attention. (AP Wirephoto) 1966

Koufax played one more season with the Dodgers and helped get them back to the World Series but they were no match for the Orioles, who won in a sweep. Lefebvre followed up his award-winning freshman season with a career year in ’66. He had career highs in average [.274], homers [24], RBI [74] and hits [149] to earn a place on the All-Star team and pick up some more MVP votes.

Lefebvre went 2-for-12 in the World Series, though, and he couldn’t have known it then, but it was the end of an era in Los Angeles. Koufax was forced into retirement and the Dodgers finished eighth, seventh and fourth in the ensuing three seasons. They wouldn’t make the playoffs or get back to the World Series until 1974 by which time Lefebvre was long gone, having departed for Japan.

“The writing was on the wall,” explained Lefebvre. “Even Walter O’Malley came out and talked about it. After the World Series, we went on a goodwill tour of Japan and Koufax and Drysdale and Gilliam and all those guys decided not to go. We were over there and the news came out that Koufax had retired. It was all that cortisone, it almost killed him. He became a guinea pig for cortisone.”

Injuries to his legs and shoulder limited Lefebvre in 1967. Though he appeared in 136 games, he had only eight homers and 50 RBIs. He was enjoying life in Hollywood, though, having landed bit parts on television shows like Batman and Gilligan’s Island alongside teammate Al Ferrara. He played one of the Riddler’s henchmen in Batman and a cannibal on Gilligan’s Island. He would later pick up some sitcom work in the 70s.

“Back in the old days, you didn’t have jobs in the off-season,” Lefebvre said. “When I came up in ’65 it was, ‘Would you like to do a cameo on Gilligan’s Island and Batman?’ I thought it would be a lot of fun. I had no intentions of becoming an actor. They [the cast and crew] were baseball fans and we had fun. Al Ferrara did it, too. They were really nice people and big baseball fans.”

Los Angeles Dodgers' Jim Lefebvre (5) at bat during game vs Atlanta Braves at Dodger Stadium. Los Angeles, CA 7/10/1966 (Photo by Neil Leifer /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images/Getty Images)


Injuries limited Lefebvre to 84 and 95 games, respectively, in 1968 and ’69. While he saw some more playing time in 1970 and ’71, it was clear the Dodgers, who were steadily improving, were headed in a different direction. Lefebvre was 30 years old in 1972 and had career lows across the board, including appearing in only 70 games.

“I did want to stay with the Dodgers, but after ’66 when Koufax retired they started making changes and started going with youth. I got pushed into a utility spot playing second, third and first. I always put up big numbers when the game was on the line, but I never had a big batting average. They kept me around to stabilize the young kids.

“Then I had a chance to go to Japan. I went to Peter O’Malley and I explained that I was not going to be in an All-Star Game or make the Hall-of-Fame and that I had an opportunity to go to Japan. I told him that it would be a good place to finish my career.”

Lefebvre signed to play with Lotte of the Japanese Pacific League, for whom he would play over the course of the next four seasons. He had his moments, helping Lotte to a Nippon Series title to become only the second player ever to win a series crown in Japan and the U.S. [Johnny Logan, Braves 1957, Nankai, 1964].

Overall, though, his time overseas did not live up to the hype presented by his manager Masaichi Kaneda, who predicted a Triple Crown for his newest signee. Lefebvre hit .265 with 29 homers and 63 RBIs his first year in Japan but never played in more than 90 games a year over the final three seasons. Clashes with the manager and unfulfilled expectations contributed to 1976 being his final year as an active player though he did coach for a year with Lotte after his playing career ended.

He returned to the U.S. in 1978 and began a decade-long run as minor-league manager, major league coach and player development guru before landing his first big-league managerial job in 1989 with Seattle. He managed the Mariners for three seasons and they improved every year going from 73 to 77 to 83 wins in 1991, which marked the first time in franchise history that the club had finished above .500. He was fired after the third season.

The Cubs hired him as skipper the following year and he helped that club improve as well, winning 78 games his first year and 84 in his second before being shown the door once again.

“When you go to a place like Seattle, it was their 14th season and they didn’t have one year that they played above .500,” Lefebvre said. “They were so bad over the history of the franchise that they were almost drafting the number one guy every year. It was my goal to get them over the .500 hump and we did that in our third year and after that, I got fired. We got a lot better in Chicago, too.”

He also managed the Brewers for 49 games in 1999 after Phil Garner was fired in August. He did some work in Europe and then for the Reds before his life would change.

(L to R) Deanna Lund as Anna Gram, John Astin as The Riddler, Jim Lefebvre as Across, Ken Scott as Down in 2 episodes of ``Batman`` in 1967.


The communist government outlawed baseball in China back around the time Lefebvre was breaking in with the Dodgers. As it happens so often, political stances change, particularly when there is the potential to make money, and over time the Chinese government became more amenable to the idea of baseball being played.

Major League Baseball also saw an opportunity in China, much like the NBA did, and despite a laundry list of human rights violations and an oppressive government, responded to Chinese leaders when they asked for help in getting a baseball program started. MLB paid for training and travel as well as the salaries of all staff members who went overseas.

Lefebvre got involved in 2003 after initially having no interest in the project.

“Major League Baseball said look at what we are trying to do,” Lefebvre said. “Look what happened to basketball because of Yao Ming; there are 300 million kids playing basketball. When I took over the project on behalf of MLB, it was a three-month program and I went over and presented to the Chinese Olympic coach how to play the MLB way.

“When they became a host country [for 2008] they got an automatic slot in every event. They knew they were going to get hammered by teams like the U.S, Cuba and Japan, they just didn’t want to get embarrassed. They wanted me to go over there and teach them the right way.”

Lefebvre returned to China after his initial trip and managed Chinese teams in the Baseball World Cup, the Asian Championships and the Asian Games as well as in the World Baseball Classic. And, he was there in 2008 as China’s manager when they upset Taiwan in the Olympics to pick up their only victory of the games.

He spent five years there and was so moved by the experience that he is currently looking for scriptwriters who will help get a film project about the experience off the ground. He wants people to know about how sports can break down barriers and bring people together even though they are diametrically opposed. Lefebvre is also hopeful that he can get Kevin Costner involved.

“This was a tremendous experience to learn all about the mysteries of China,” Lefebvre said. “They made me feel so much respect it was unbelievable.”

It proved to be the perfect bookend to a career that started nearly five decades earlier.

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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