Ott, Mel(vin) Thomas

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OTT, Mel(vin) Thomas

(b. 2 March 1909 in Gretna, Louisiana; d. 21 November 1958 in New Orleans, Louisiana), baseball Hall of Famer who, when he retired as a power-hitting right fielder for the New York Giants (1926–1947), held the National League (NL) record for career home runs with 511.

Ott's father, Charles Ott, toiled as an oil refinery worker in the Mississippi River town of Gretna, and was himself a former semiprofessional baseball player; Ott's mother, Catherine Miller Ott, was a homemaker. Ott was the firstborn son; he had an older sister and a younger brother. A precocious athlete, Ott was a three-sport star at McDonoghville-Jefferson (later renamed Gretna) High School, excelling in football, in basketball, and as the star catcher and hitter for the school's baseball team, as well as the local semiprofessional Patterson Grays. The Grays were owned by the wealthy local lumber magnate Harry Williams, a close friend of legendary New York Giants manager John McGraw, and Williams recommended his sixteen-year-old star to McGraw.

Arriving late for his major league tryout in spring 1926, the diminutive Ott—five feet, eight inches, and 165 pounds—greatly impressed McGraw. Ott's unorthodox swing was described by baseball historian Fred Stein as being "preceded by a quick raising and lowering of his front leg just before his upper body moved into the pitch." McGraw said, "I don't give a damn about that crazy kick … that's the best natural swing I've seen in years," and added, "Ott is the most natural hitter I ever saw. His style at the plate is perfect." Ott explained, "I found that when I tossed my right leg up, it threw all my weight on the left leg. In this way I got my full strength into my swing." Fearing that minor league managers would try to correct Ott's unique style, the fire-breathing McGraw refused all requests to send him down to the minors for more seasoning. Even Casey Stengel, then the skipper of the Giants Double-A affiliate, Toledo, was rebuffed. "The kid stays with me!" McGraw gruffly barked.

The sixteen-year-old Ott became McGraw's personal development project, and McGraw practically adopted "Master Melvin" (as the New York sportswriters dubbed the young natural) as a surrogate son. Ott, who never had played an inning of minor league ball, was forbidden to fraternize with "the men" on the club, no cards, no drinking or carousing, and no sitting next to the "rough and tumble" bunch in the dugout. Playing sparingly his initial two seasons, Ott did hit .383 in 35 games as a rookie (mainly as a pinch hitter). McGraw shifted the catcher to right field, aware that his stocky slugger's career would be shortened if he remained behind the plate.

The Giants Polo Ground's short (257 feet) right-field corner was ideal for a left-handed power hitter and soon became known as "Ottville." Ott hit 18 home runs in his third season in 1928, but the "Boy Wonder" exploded during his second full-time season in 1929. He hit 42 home runs and drove in 152. On the last day of the season, he was tied with the Philadelphia Phillies Chuck Klein for the NL home run lead. The Giants played the Phillies in a historic doubleheader that afternoon. Ott's best friend and longtime roommate, pitching great Carl Hubbell, gave up home run number forty-three to Klein in the opener. The Phillies pitching staff issued Ott five intentional walks in the nightcap, number five coming with the bases loaded, thus depriving Ott of the chance to tie Klein for the NL home run title. Ironically, Ott, who led the league in homers six times, hit his greatest number the year he finished second.

Ott possessed a sharp eye for the strike zone and an uncommon discipline at the plate; he walked 113 times in 1929. He earned 90 or more walks in a dozen seasons and led the league in bases on balls 6 times, and his 1,708 free passes (an NL record) were eclipsed by Joe Morgan (then playing for the San Francisco Giants) in 1982. Ott, who would become an All-Star eleven times, was not only an offensive threat. Rated for most of his twenty-two-year career as the premier defensive right fielder, despite a lack of foot speed, Ott possessed a superb right-handed throwing arm, averaging 17 outfield assists per (154-game) season.

In October 1930 Ott married New Orleans native Mildred ("Mickey") Wattigny; the couple had two daughters. In the thrilling 1933 World Series against the AL pennant–winning Washington Senators, Ott provided dramatic game-winning heroics. With the Giants leading three games to one and the score tied 3–3 in the top of the tenth inning, Ott hit a long drive toward the center field bleachers at the old Griffith Stadium. The Senators outfielder Fred Schulte made a valiant effort to snare the long ball, but it bounced off his glove, disappearing over the fence to give Ott his only World Series victory.

Ott's finest single season came in 1936 when as the heart of the team he belted 33 homers, hit for a .328 average, drove in 135 runs, scored 120, and walked 111 times. The easygoing Ott, a fan favorite, was also the consummate team player. He obligingly switched position to third base during both the 1937 and 1938 seasons for the good of the club.

In 1942 Bill Terry was promoted by Giants owner Horace Stoneham to the general manager's office, and Ott became field manager. Ott's record at the helm was mediocre. During his six and one-half year tenure he compiled a 464–530 record, a winning percentage of only .467. In contrast to the combative McGraw, Ott was quiet and deliberative. In an out-of-character performance in 1946, he was the first major league manager ejected from both games of a doubleheader for vociferously arguing an umpire's calls. Ott, who retired from active playing in 1947 due to chronic leg problems, was probably able to extend his career due to the lack of quality major league talent available during the later years of World War II.

During this historic postwar year of 1947, a well-known American expression was coined regarding Ott and his genial manner. With the Giants mired in the NL cellar, rival manager Leo "the Lip" Durocher of the Brooklyn Dodgers mused prior to a game, "Do you know a nicer guy than Mel Ott? Or any of the other Giants? Yet those guys are in last place." His words became mangled in the press and evolved into the sharply tinged quip, "Nice guys finish last." In an ironic twist of fate, Ott was relieved of his managerial duties the following season, and the intensely disliked, but more aggressive, Durocher took over in July 1948.

Ott remained employed by the Giants, running their farm system along with Carl Hubbell until 1950. In 1951 he began a two-year stint managing the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League, leaving them to join the Mutual Broadcasting System as a baseball announcer. This was followed by several years as the radio voice of the Detroit Tigers in the late 1950s.

In 1951, at the relatively young age of forty-two, Ott was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. His career numbers are staggering, considering his lack of size and his years playing in the pre-expansion 154-game seasons: a .533 career slugging percentage, a .304 lifetime batting average, driving in more than 100 runs 9 times, leading the Giants in homers 18 times, and batting over .300 eleven times. He played 2,730 games and stroked 2,876 hits. As the first National Leaguer to hit 500 home runs, Ott retired with 511 (then third all-time to Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx). Baseball historians debate the validity of Ott's 511 home runs, noting the inordinate number (311) he blasted in the friendly confines of the Polo Grounds with its short right field porch. Away from the Coogan's Bluff stadium, Ott was a much less prolific slugger, connecting for only 187. At his retirement he also held NL career records (all subsequently broken) for runs batted in (1,860), runs scored (1,859), and walks (1,708).

Ott's untimely death at age forty-nine came after his car was hit in a head-on collision with a car driven by a drunk driver. He is buried in Metairie Cemetery in Metairie, Louisiana. Rival manger Leo Durocher said of Ott, "I never knew a player who was so universally loved. Why even when he was playing against the Dodgers at Ebbets Field he would be cheered … and there are no more rabid fans than in Brooklyn."

Fred Stein, Mel Ott: The Little Giant of Baseball (1999), is an in-depth, well-researched full-length biography containing a number of personal recollections by Ott's contemporaries, detailed career statistics, and an excellent list of related books, articles, periodicals, and newspapers. A short chapter in Donald Honig, The Power Hitters (1989), places Ott in perspective and includes biographical detail. Henry F. Graff, Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 6: 1956-1960 (1980), contains a detailed and insightful biography of Ott. An excellent account of the baseball glory years of the 1930s with several Ott stories is Peter Williams, When the Giants Were Giants: Bill Terry and the Golden Age of New York Baseball (1994). Liz Scott, "Giant Steps: Gretna's Mel Ott," New Orleans (July 1988), includes local flavor on Ott's childhood, family life, and popularity. An obituary is in the New York Times (22 Nov. 1958).

Jeffrey S. Rosen