This article was written by Bob Hurte
After the 1974 season, Pittsburgh’s new general manager, Harding Peterson, approached Ed Ott to inform him that the Pirates would like him to become a catcher. Ott refused; he had spent the past three seasons learning how to be an outfielder.
Later that winter he announced to his wife: “You know what, Joanie? I just came up with three reasons why I should try catching.”
“What?” replied Joanne Ott.
“Dave Parker, Al Oliver, and Richie Zisk!”[fn]Ed Ott, telephone interview with author, January 18, 2016.[/fn]
Nathan Edward Ott was born on July 11, 1951, to Howard and Esther Ott in Muncy, Pennsylvania. Howard worked as a grinder at Sprout Waldron Manufacturing Company, while Esther was a seamstress. They had six children, four boys and two girls. Muncy is a historic town in Pennsylvania’s upper Susquehanna Valley.
Ott played Little League and American Legion baseball. He was an all-star third baseman for his Legion team. When he was 13, his father had him play in a couple of semipro leagues against men in their 30s, one in the Muncy area and another an hour east in Wilkes-Barre.
Muncy High School, which is close to Williamsport, the home of the Little League World Series, had basketball, football, and wrestling teams, but no baseball team. Ott was considered one of the best all-around athletes in his high school’s history. (He was the first to be inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame.) Ott, a running back, lettered three years in football, and was selected to the league all-star team all three of his years on the varsity. In one game he scored all of his team’s 32 points. He was also an excellent wrestler in the 165-pound weight class, and was the league champion his junior and senior years.[fn]“Muncy High School Athletic Hall of Fame, Ed Ott – Class of 1970,” muncysd.schoolwires.com.[/fn]
Selected out of high school as a third baseman by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 23rd round of the 1970 amateur draft, the 18-year-old Ott quickly learned that his days as an infielder were over. At the spring camp of Niagara Falls in the Class A (short season) New York-Pennsylvania League, manager Irv Noren told him that he would be in the outfield. Ott informed his skipper that he had never been an outfielder. Noren’s response: You are now. Ott played in 61 games for Niagara Falls, batting .291. That same season the Pirates moved Dave Parker, a catcher in high school to the outfield. Ott credited Tom Saffell, their manager at Monroe (North Carolina) of the Class A Western Carolinas League in 1971, with teaching them how to play the game within the game. Ott batted .292 for Monroe in 1971, then hit .304 for Salem (Virginia) of the Class A Carolina League in 1972. That was followed by a jump to Triple-A Charleston, where he toiled from 1973 to 1975 with brief call-ups to the Pirates in the latter two seasons.
Ott was beginning to feel comfortable in the outfield after his second year at Charleston, then one day Pirates scouting director Harding Peterson told him, “We’d like to set you at catcher.” Ott’s response was, “Absolutely not. I just got done learning how to play the outfield, and now you want me to play catcher?”[fn]Ed Ott interview.[/fn] But after thinking about it during the offseason, and considering the team’s outfield prospects, Ott decided to make the switch. He also reasoned that he had played all of the infield and outfield positions, and might be able to extend his career by being a utility player. “It took me two weeks to figure out that I needed to keep my eyes open when the batter swung,” Ott said.[fn]Ed Ott interview. [/fn]
Peterson wanted Ott to go back to Double-A to learn how to play catcher, but Ott refused to go below Triple A. He had made himself a promise that anytime he went back a level, it was time to get out of baseball. Describing the challenges of catching at each level, Ott said that in Class A it was like being a hockey goaltender because “half of those kids have no idea where their pitches were going.” In Double A, you had to be “part catcher and part goalie.” At least at Triple A, there are ex-major leaguers and pitchers who were close to possessing big-league control. Of the 17 pitchers Ott caught for Charleston, 14 became or at one time were major leaguers. Ott played in 121 games in 1975, and he was behind the plate for all but seven of them. At the plate he hit 10 home runs and drove in 55 runs with a .285 batting average. Behind the plate was more challenging; his fielding average was .974 with 20 errors and 23 passed balls.
Ott made the Pirates roster as third-string catcher at spring training in 1976, though Pittsburgh management wished he had another year at Triple A. He spent most of the season warming up pitchers in the bullpen; he broke his right hand warming up Bob Moose and landed on the disabled list.[fn]“Bucs’ Tekulve Chills HR Bats,” The Sporting News, August 28, 1976: 18.[/fn] On September 23, 1976, Ott started his first game behind the plate. (Both Duffy Dyer and Manny Sanguillen were injured.) He had two hits, including an opposite-field double to drive in the tiebreaking run in the top of the 10th inning against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. He also made a nice tag play at the plate in the bottom of the ninth to prevent the Cubs from scoring the winning run.
Ott started four more games and finished with a .308 batting average. Then, on November 5 Sanguillen was included in an unusual deal that brought the Pirates a new manager, Chuck Tanner. When Pittsburgh signed Tanner from the Oakland Athletics, A’s owner Charlie Finley demanded a front-line player and monetary compensation from the Pirates, which turned out to be Sanguillen and $100,000.
The 1977 season was Ott’s breakout year. He split the catching duties with Dyer. Ott had a solid offensive year and even with his lack of experience, he was respectable behind the plate. Before the season baseball experts considered the Pirates catching to be a weak point. Ott was stronger offensively, Dyer better defensively. Ott’s signature game was the second contest of a twilight-night doubleheader against the New York Mets on August 12 in Pittsburgh. At the start of the day, the Pirates were in third place, 3½ games behind the division-leading Philadelphia Phillies. The Pirates won the first game, and the second game was a see-saw affair for five innings. In the sixth, with one out and a runner on second, Ott was intentionally walked. Mario Mendoza then hit a groundball to shortstop with all the makings of a double play.[fn]Michael Lecolant, “This Day in Mets History: 1977 – Felix Millan’s MLB Career Slammed to the Ground by Pittsburgh’s Ed Ott,” August 12, 1977, risingapple.com.[/fn] But Ott went hard into second base in an effort to take out second baseman Felix Millan, and Millan had to hold the ball. Millan felt Ott came in a little too hard, and threw a right hook at Ott with the ball still clenched in his hand. Ott took exception to this and displayed his wrestling skills by hooking his arm under Millan’s crotch, lifting him up before slamming him on the ground. Both benches cleared, but no additional punches were thrown.
Ott’s response: “What was I supposed to do, stand there and let him hit me again?”[fn]The Sporting News, September 10, 1977: 17.[/fn]
Millan was taken off the field on a stretcher. He had a broken collarbone, and it was the end of his major-league career. Ott was ejected by home-plate umpire Ed Sudol. Dyer took over as the catcher, and singled home the winning run in the bottom of the 12th inning as Pittsburgh swept the twin bill. Ott bruised his right shoulder in the scuffle and missed three games. NL President Chub Feeney fined Ott $250, which the Pirates catcher initially refused to pay.
Most big-league players sided with Ott, feeling it was a good baseball play. Chuck Tanner felt that Millan got what he deserved.[fn]The Sporting News, September 10, 1977: 9.[/fn] Pirates’ coach Jose Pagan, a friend of Millan’s, expressed the Mets second basemen’s sentiments, saying, “Felix asked me to tell Ott that he was sorry because he lost his head for a fraction of a second and there were no hard feelings.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
After the altercation, the Pirates won 27 of their last 44 games, including 11 of the final 12. But the Phillies were also hot and the Pirates never moved out of second place, finishing five games behind Philadelphia.
The Pirates appeared to have a successful partnership of Dyer and Ott behind the plate in place for the 1978 season. But just before Opening Day, the Pirates traded three players to Oakland to bring Sanguillen back. Ott and Dyer were not happy about it. The trade might have been motivated by Dyer starting the season on the disabled list after breaking his thumb on March 17.
The return of Sanguillen did not affect Ott and Dyer’s playing time greatly. While Manny appeared in 85 games, most were at first base; only 18 were behind the plate. Ott had another solid offensive season. While catching in 97 games, he batted .269, hit 9 homers, and drove in 38 runs. Dyer played in 55 games. The Pirates came closer to the Phillies, but again finished second, by only 1½ games.
Ott felt that the Pirates’ 1979 world championship season was his finest major-league season, and the game on August 11 that season the best game of his career. Played at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia before a national TV audience, it was a pivotal game for the Pirates against the Phillies, and went a long way defining the “We Are Family” moniker with an exclamation mark, the game that cemented the team’s character. The Pirates resided in first place, 1½ games ahead of the Montreal Expos. After four innings, Pittsburgh was losing, 8-0. A TV shot of their dugout, showed a dejected group of players. Many of them were embarrassed and staring at their feet.
Ott said, “We were down 8-0, it was me, Garner, Madlock and Bill Robinson, and we were sitting side by side on the bench watching us get our butts kicked.”[fn]Ed Ott interview.[/fn]
This is when Willie Stargell walked over to them. He stood there with a bat on his shoulder. Ott felt that Willie was the heart of the team. He said, “Without your heart beating, you are nothing, you are dead. … He led us by example. There are 8 million people out there watching us on TV. We are not this bad a ballclub. Let’s go out and show them what the Pirates are really made of!”
They looked at one another and together said, “Let’s go!”[fn]Ed Ott interview. [/fn]
In the fifth the Pirates began to chip away at the deficit with a five-run inning. In the seventh they scored four more runs and took the lead, led 9-8. Then with two outs in the eighth, Stargell singled, Milner doubled, and Madlock was walked intentionally, bringing up Ott with the bases loaded.
Since the Phillies’ left-handed relief ace, Tug McGraw, was on the mound, Ott looked back into the dugout thinking that manager Tanner would send up a right-handed pinch-hitter.
“All I saw Tanner do was clap his hands and shout at me, ‘Go get ’em!’”[fn]John McCollister, Tales From the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates: Remembering the “Fam-a-lee” (Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing, 2005), 10. [/fn]
Ott obliged his manager. He smacked a hanging curveball long and deep to left field. Left fielder Greg Luzinski helplessly watched the ball disappear over the wall. It was the only grand slam of Ott’s career, and it gave the Pirates a five-run lead.
The Pirates went on to win, 14-11. Ott was 4-for-5 with two runs scored and five RBIs. At the end of the regular season, the Pirates claimed the NL East Division by two games over the Expos. Ott started all three National League Championship Series games and was 3-for-13 as Pittsburgh swept the Cincinnati Reds. In the World Series, against the Baltimore Orioles, Ott scored the winning run in the ninth inning of Game Two, reaching on an infield hit and eventually coming home on a hit by Sanguillen. The Pirates came back from a three-games-to-one deficit and won the World Series. Ott went 4-for-12 and drove in three runs.
Ott and Steve Nicosia handled the bulk of the catching duties in 1979. Ott had 103 starts and Nicosia 55. Their performance was solid both defensively and offensively. Ott batted .273 and made four errors, while Nicosia batted .288 with three errors.
“I expect our catching to get better, because Ed Ott and Steve Nicosia improved so much last year,” said Tanner in March 1980. “Ott didn’t start catching until a few years ago, and Nicosia was a rookie last year.”[fn]“Pirate Attitude Is Key – Tanner,” The Sporting News, March 8, 1980: 22.[/fn]
The two catchers were content with the platoon plan. They tried to make each other better. “We try to help each other,” said Ott. “It’s tough enough in this game without having problems with teammates.”[fn]“Ott, Nicosia Accept Platoon Plan,” The Sporting News, July 19, 1980: 28.[/fn]
Ott had another solid season in 1980, batting .260, hitting 8 homers, and driving in 41 runs, but Nicosia’s batting statistics fell dramatically to .216, one homer, and 22 RBIs.
At spring training in 1981, the Pirates were in an unusual position; they had four quality catchers. Besides the established duo of Ott and Nicosia, there were two young farmhands, Tony Peña and Junior Ortiz. Nicosia was going into his second year, and Ott would be able to become a free agent after the 1981 season.
The Pirates needed a power hitter, and on April 1 they traded Ott and pitcher Mickey Mahler to the California Angels for left-handed-hitting first baseman Jason Thompson. Ott played in 75 games for the Angels, hitting two homers and batting .217 during the strike-shortened season. It turned out to be Ott’s last season. He battled arm problems. The game against the Texas Rangers on October 2 was his last major-league appearance. Ott underwent rotator cuff surgery and sat out the 1982 season. He appeared briefly as a first baseman in the Angels minor-league organization in 1983 and 1984 before retiring as a player.
Ott managed Pirates farm teams in 1985-86, managed in the independent minor leagues for three seasons, and was a coach for the Houston Astros under former Pirates teammate Art Howe from 1989 to 1993. As a manager, he expected a level of effort and hustle from his players. A prime example occurred in 1985 while he managed the Prince William (Virginia) Pirates of the Class A Carolina League. One day his 20-year-old center fielder attempted a diving catch and missed. He got up and nonchalantly jogged to get the ball. Ott realized that he needed to nip this in the bud and went out to the pitching mound. When the umpire informed him that he did not have anyone in the bullpen, he replied that he was replacing his center fielder. He pulled the player and together they walked back to the dugout.
The young player was Barry Bonds.
Said Ott, “He wasn’t happy, but said when they got in the dugout, ‘Mr. Ott, that will never happen again.’”[fn]Rich Emert, “Ott Is an Ambassador to Coaching in Minors,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, August 25, 2005. [/fn]
Ott received phone calls from Pirates management about the incident; Bonds was a blue-chip prospect. But while he and Bonds never became close friends, they established a mutual respect.
Ott finally retired from baseball after the 2014 season. As of 2016 he lived in Forrest, Virginia, and spent his time fishing while his wife trained horses. During his first year of retirement, he admitted, “I had the shortest grass in all of Virginia!”[fn]Ed Ott interview.[/fn]
Last revised: August 1, 2016
This biography appears in “When Pops Led the Family: The 1979 Pitttsburgh Pirates” (SABR, 2016), edited by Bill Nowlin and Gregory H. Wolf.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted the following:
Donovan, Dan. “Whew, It’s Over! Bucs Are Champs,” in Peterson, Richard, ed., The Pirates Reader (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003), 263-264.
Finoli, David, and Bill Ranier. The Pittsburgh Pirates Encyclopedia (Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing, 2003).
“Bucs Claim Two More Amidst Ott-Millan Bout,” Indiana (Pennsylvania) Evening Gazette, August 13, 1977.
“World Series Champion Ed Ott Returns to Jackals Coaching Staff,” Jackals Media Service, February 9, 2001.