Written by The Business Journal Staff
(AP) — San Francisco is girding for a legal showdown over one of its most beloved and now shuttering institutions: 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 on Geary Street by the cling-clanging of cable cars.
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?”
Bovis said the restaurant and bar is more than the building.
He said he collected some of the memorabilia, and he’s confident he can recreate the magic that allows tourists from Japan and the Midwest to wind up next to someone who lives up the street.
“This is where the local meets the traveler,” Bovis said. “That part of it was really cool.”
Last week, laborers in safety vests and tourists with shopping bags spilled inside for an early lunch. Regulars wandered in and sat on barstools with baseball bats for legs.
Some stopped to snap photos with a one-armed mannequin that became famous when its left arm was kidnapped and missing for more than three years before it was returned by mail. Accompanying photos showed it had been in Iowa. The arm is now encased and on display.
Lefty’s also is known for another attraction, one who draws regular visitors from around the world: a former police officer from Ireland who plays the keyboard on weekends for festive and rowdy sing-alongs.
On a recent Saturday night, Frank O’Connor called out to Joe from New York, a group of girls from Livermore, and Dian and Don, a couple who got engaged under his piano four years ago.
The crowd got louder, friendlier and drunker as the evening wore on. O’Connor played “Piano Man” and “Brown-Eyed Girl,” among other favorites. A young woman who was new to Lefty’s and had marched for women’s rights that morning swayed happily next to a coffee shop owner who has been a Saturday fixture for years.
“I’m going to miss a lot of the tourists that come in for the first time,” said manager and 15-year employee John Fair. “It’s going to be sad. It’s going to be sad to leave this place.”