This article was written by Fred Stein
Mel Ott’s life is a classic rags-to-riches story of a naive, unheralded, teenager from a small Southern town who rose to great heights in New York, the country’s largest and most forbidding city at the time. His baseball career could not happen today; no team could carry an inexperienced 17-year-old on a major league roster as an apprentice instead of sending him out for minor-league seasoning. It is also highly unlikely that such a diamond in the rough would be paid a minimal bonus and salary and, in today’s season-by-season money grab, that such a superstar would remain with his original team for 22 years.
Melvin Thomas Ott was born March 2, 1909, in Gretna, Louisiana, a New Orleans suburb. He was one of three children born to Charles and Carrie Ott, a hard-working couple of Dutch descent. Mel’s father, a laborer in a cottonseed oil plant, and two of his uncles played on a semi-pro team, and young Melvin learned the game as a small boy. Despite his short, stocky build, Mel was a gifted athlete in all sports. As early as grammar school, he knew more about baseball than his playmates, so he became the natural leader in pickup games and later in high school. He was a fine, dependable catcher and, from the start, he had the ability to hit the ball harder and longer than the other boys, regardless of size.
Mel’s high school team played two games a week. On other days he excelled as the lefthand-hitting catcher for a semi-pro team. It was a local custom to pass the hat when a player’s home run figured in a victory. Mel Ott was earning money with his bat at the age of 14.
He was turned down as “too small” by the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association, so 16-year-old Mel joined a lumber company’s semi-pro team in Patterson, Louisiana, about 90 miles from New Orleans. He was an immediate sensation. A few months later the owner of the company, millionaire Harry Williams, stopped in New York on his way to Europe and recommended that Giants manager John McGraw give the youngster a tryout. Mel did not take seriously Williams’s postcard instructing him to report to McGraw. An annoyed Williams, on his return home in August, bought the teenager a train ticket to New York.
The frightened youngster reported to McGraw for a tryout in early September 1925, impressing onlookers mightily on his first turn at practice. Giants’ second baseman Frankie Frisch recalled: “Mel stepped into the first few pitches and smashed them solidly through the infield. Then he hit several deep into the outfield, and finally he parked a number of fastballs and curves high against the advertising signs on the right field wall.” Later, with the sturdy little fellow out of earshot, an enthusiastic McGraw told a writer, “That kid is remarkable. He’s like a golfer; his body moves [including the distinctive cocked right leg action just before the pitch], but he keeps his head still with his eyes fixed on the ball. He’s got the most natural swing I’ve seen in years.” Then McGraw added, prophetically, “This lad is going to be one of the greatest lefthand hitters the National League has seen.”
After the young Louisianan’s eye-opening hitting, McGraw kept him with the Giants, but out of the public eye. McGraw gave Mel a $400 bonus and a contract in January 1926. During spring training, McGraw told the still-growing 5-foot-7-inch, 150-pounder that he was too small to be a catcher, so he would be tutored as an outfielder. Every batting technique, every outfielding trick, and every fine point were provided by McGraw himself, star right fielder Ross “Pep” Youngs, left fielder Emil “Irish” Meusel and coach Roger Bresnahan. Bernie Wefers, a respected track coach, schooled the young man in running properly to avoid charley horses and knotted leg muscles to which the still-growing Ott was susceptible.
McGraw forbade Mel from fraternizing with the older players on the theory that the case-hardened veterans would “corrupt” the green teenager. Nevertheless, Mel’s teammates liked the quiet youngster from the start and were sure that it was only a matter of time until he became a solid major league player. McGraw had decided to keep his young prodigy rather than farm him out to be ruined by a minor league manager. And so Mel was brought along slowly, spending the next two years as a part-time player and, when he was not in the game, sitting uncomfortably on the bench listening to the profane McGraw’s intimidating lectures. After Ross Youngs died at 30 from a kidney disease in October 1927, Ott took over as the Giants’ regular right fielder at 19 in 1928.
1929 was Mel’s breakthrough season. He had career highs in doubles, home runs, RBIs, runs scored and slugging percentage. His 42 homers and 151 RBIs are the most ever for players who were 20 or younger when the season began. Mel proved that he was a great hitter on the road as well at the Polo Grounds; he set still-existing National League away-from-home records for runs scored (79) and RBI (87). Moreover, he hit more home runs on the road (22) than he hit in the Polo Grounds with its short, 257-foot right field line.
In addition to his emergence as a great hitter, Ott gained recognition as a premier right fielder. Expertly playing caroms off the tricky right field wall at the Polo Grounds, he had an impressive 26 outfield assists. He never again attained so many, because baserunners learned to advance very cautiously on balls hit to the rifle-armed Ott.
The 1929 season had been a triumph. He had fulfilled the promise of his few years of on-the-job training, years when almost every other player his age would have been learning his trade in the minor leagues. Mel had shown that he was, and would likely continue to be, all that Harry Williams had predicted, all that McGraw had worked for, and all that his family and hometown fans had hoped for. He was the brightest young star in the big leagues.
Ott played at the same high level during the 1930 through 1932 seasons, but the club could not produce another pennant for the physically and emotionally exhausted John McGraw. First baseman Bill Terry replaced McGraw as the Giants’ manager on June 3, 1932. But the club was unable to climb out of the second division despite powerful hitting by Terry and Ott, who tied Chuck Klein with a league-leading 38 home runs and also led the league in bases on balls. Terry made a number of trades, but the Giants were not considered a serious pennant contender in 1933, according to a pre-season Associated Press poll.
The National League used a deadened baseball in 1933 and pitchers dominated. Several Giants pitchers — lefthanded screwball specialist Carl Hubbell, sinkerballing Hal Schumacher, knuckleballer Freddie Fitzsimmons and fastballer Roy Parmelee — delivered excellent seasons. In a low-scoring year, the Giants won the pennant by virtue of a magnificent performance by Hubbell — a league-leading 23 wins, 10 shutouts, and an 1.66 ERA — Terry’s .322 average, and Ott, who led the National League in walks and ranked third in homers and RBI. The Giants defeated the Washington Senators in a five-game World Series. National League MVP Hubbell won two games without a loss and Ott led the Giants’ offense. He hit .389, went 4-for-4 in Hubbell’s first-game victory, and hit the Series- clinching home run in the tenth inning of the final game.
The Giants remained competitive during the next two seasons but were unable to repeat, despite stellar seasons by Ott and Hubbell. Both men carried the team as the Giants won pennants in 1936 and 1937, only to lose both World Series to overpowering Yankees teams. With the Giants struggling well into the 1937 season, Terry moved Ott to third base to provide more offensive strength. Most experts at the time considered the move the key to the Giants’ pennant win. Mel played effectively at the bag and rebounded from an early season hitting slump to spark the offense, tying Joe Medwick for the home run title. Ott’s roommate and close friend Hubbell, who had won his last 16 decisions in 1936, extended his winning streak to 24 and led the league with 22 wins.
Ott had one of his best years in 1938, leading the league in runs and home runs, and playing either third base or right field as Terry needed him. But the other Giants stars — Hubbell, Schumacher, Gus Mancuso, Joe Moore, Dick Bartell — showed their age and the Giants finished well off the pace. This losing pattern worsened through the next three seasons and Polo Grounds attendance fell.
Following the 1941 campaign, amid increasing concerns about the war in Europe and tension with Japan, Giants President Horace Stoneham and Bill Terry considered their next move during the winter League meetings in Jacksonville, Florida. Ott, the Giants’ field captain since 1939, traveled from his home near New Orleans to Jacksonville to meet with the Giants hierarchy on December 2. As he entered the Giants’ suite, his admirer Stoneham greeted him with a smile and an offer: “Hiya, manager. I have a new job for you, at more money.” It took several minutes for Stoneham and Terry to convince Mel that he was indeed the Giants’ new field boss. But the jubilation faded five days later when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
Mel Ott’s first managerial year was a success. His club was no match for the Cardinals and the Brooklyn Dodgers, but the Giants managed a third-place finish, led by the powerful hitting of newly acquired first baseman Johnny Mize and playing manager Ott. Mel, in his seventeenth season, overcame the burdens of managing to lead the league in home runs, runs and walks, a continuing testimony to the respect pitchers accorded him.
The impact of World War II, relatively light in 1942, changed major league baseball dramatically during the next three seasons. Each team lost a number of established players and the Giants, one of the hardest-hit teams, finished in last place. The strain of directing his inept club took its toll on Ott. In 1943 he suffered through his worst season, hitting a meager .234 and missing several games because of a stomach ailment brought on by his managerial frustrations. As the 1943 season ended, Horace Stoneham reaffirmed his faith in Mel by giving him a three-year player-manager contract.
Ott’s club improved over the next two years, finishing just short of the first division in both seasons. Mel regained some of his old form, although his best playing days clearly were behind him. In 1944, the popular little guy ranked second in home runs and third in slugging percentage. In 1945, his twentieth season, he hit his 500th home run on August 1 and was hitting well over .320 as late as Labor Day before finishing at .308 and tied for fourth in the league in home runs. After the season, Horace Stoneham again rewarded him with a multi-year contract and both men looked forward to better seasons now that the war was over.
Unfortunately for Stoneham and Ott, the first post-World War II season was a disaster from the start. During spring training, Ott and his coaches struggled to select a team from the large number of returning servicemen in camp. And then, just before the season opened, Mel was beaned in batting practice by one of his young, strong-armed pitchers. On Opening Day he hit his final homer, the 511th of his career. The next day, Mel dove for a fly ball, injured his knee, and played infrequently and ineffectively for the rest of the season, hitting a miniscule .074. The Giants suffered a serious blow when their star righthanded reliever, Ace Adams, jumped to the Mexican League. By June the club was mired in last place and stayed there.
When Ott retired as a player, he had 511 career home runs, over 200 more than any other National Leaguer, and a total exceeded only by Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx. Mel held National League career records in runs batted in, runs scored and bases on balls, all of them later surpassed. He also was considered the best National League right fielder for most of his career.
But Ott would be remembered for more than his playing skills. He was one of the most popular men ever to play the game. In 1938, when he shifted between right field and third base, a cereal company ran a contest to determine the most popular major league player at each position. Mel received the most votes for both positions. And despite the Giants’ awful season in 1943, Mel’s popularity with the fans remained undiminished. Sport Magazine named him Sports Father of the Year. In a nationwide vote by war bond buyers in 1944, he was selected as the most popular sports hero of all time, beating out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Christy Mathewson, Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey.
Mel’s 1947 club improved dramatically, finishing in fourth place on the strength of a record-breaking 221 homers, none, ironically, by the retired Ott. There was considerable discussion as to whether the widely loved and admired Ott should stay on as manager. Stoneham decided to retain Mel in 1948, but the story was the same during the first half of that season: decent hitting, barely adequate team speed, and woeful pitching. On July 16, 1948, with the Giants in fourth place and playing uninspired .500 ball, Ott stepped down to be replaced by Manager Leo Durocher of the arch-rival Dodgers. To the consternation of Giants fans, their long-time idol was replaced by a man they heartily despised.
Still under contract to the Giants through the 1950 season, Mel assisted his old friend Carl Hubbell in running the Giants’ farm system. Mel left the Giants to manage the Pacific Coast League Oakland Oaks in 1951-2, but without notable success. He was out of baseball the next two years but he missed it badly. Mel happily joined the Mutual Network’s “Game of the Day” team in 1955, recreating games on radio. He moved to a broadcasting job more to his liking in 1956, announcing Detroit Tigers games on radio and television with Van Patrick. Mel was a natural for the job with his keen knowledge of the game and his warm, friendly, down-to-earth style and soft-spoken Southern accent. He had moved into a new baseball career successfully.
Mel returned home to Metairie, Louisiana, after the 1958 season. The Otts were building a cottage in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, a few hours from Metairie. They were heading home on November 14 after inspecting the progress of construction and stopped for dinner to wait out a dense fog. The fog was still heavy when Mel continued the trip, piloting his station wagon slowly. Suddenly the Otts’ car was hit head-on by a car whose driver lost track of the middle of the road. Both Mel and his wife Mildred were seriously injured. Mel died a week later, on November 21.
He was survived by Mildred and their daughters Barbara and Lyn.
A number of baseball figures, writers and fans told of their high regard for Ott as a man as well a player. The sportswriting stylist Arnold Hano summed up their thoughts: “When he died, he held fourteen baseball records, a little man with a bashful smile and a silken swing, baseball’s legendary nice guy. His death was the worst that could have happened to baseball, but his playing career had been the best.”
This biography is adapted from the author’s Mel Ott, The Little Giant of Baseball (McFarland, 1999). The sources for the book are listed on pages 223-225.
In addition to many newspaper and magazine articles and books, the author interviewed the following people:
Leo Durocher in Washington, D.C.
Roy Hughes (former Indians infielder) in Arlington, Virginia
Hank Leiber in Phoenix, Arizona
Gus Mancuso by telephone
Cliff Melton by telephone
Mildred (Mrs. Mel) Ott by telephone
Lyn Ott Loria (Ott’s older daughter) by mail
Hal Schumacher in Cooperstown, New York
Warren Spahn, in Washington, D.C.
Bill Terry, in Washington D.C.
Bobby Thomson by telephone
Burgess Whitehead in Charlotte, North Carolina