When he finally retired from baseball after 22 years in 1948, Mel Ott had hit more home runs than anyone other than Babe Ruth.
Ott wasn’t a typical home run hitter, even for his era. He stood only 5’9 and weighed slightly more than 170 pounds. But few men had better eyesight and few baseball players could turn on a fastball like Master Melvin. Playing his entire career in the horseshoe-shaped Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan near the Harlem River, home of the Giants, Ott took advantage of the short right field line. His pretty swing lofted 322 home runs into the stands at the Polo Grounds (and another as an inside-the-parker HR). In 1942 at the age of 33 he led the league with 30 homers, but hit only seven on the road. In 1930-31, a younger Ott hit 54 homers, 41 of them at the Polo Grounds. In 1944-45 he hit 47 homers with 39 of them at home in front of the Giant fans.
But while it may be tempting to write Ott off as a “homer” who benefited from a friendly ballpark, that’s not the case. He hit .311 on the road for his career (14 points higher than his Polo Grounds mark) with a .408 OBP and .510 SLG, both impressive figures, especially for that era. In the 1930s and 1940s tehre were still few sluggers in baseball. Each team basically had one or maybe two guys who could reach the seats regularly. In 1941, the last season before baseball was stripped of most of its stars in WWII, only four NL batters topped the .500 mark in SLG, and Ott was sixth at .495.
Mel Ott loved the Baker Bowl
For all his success at the Polo Grounds, Mel Ott was an even bigger terror in another ballpark. The Baker Bowl in Philadelphia was a joke of a ballpark, built with ridiculous dimensions: 280 down the right field line and 300(!) in right-center. It’s where good hitters like Chuck Klein and Lefty O’Doul looked legendary, and mediocre hitters like Johnny Moore looked good.
Ott played 119 games at the Baker Bowl, giving him 557 plate appearances, about one season of action. He had 191 hits, 37 doubles, four triples, 40 homers, 161 RBIs, and 139 runs scored. That’s a combined 300 runs and RBIs in 119 games. His slash line was a 415/508/774. If I had been the general manager of the Phillies in the 1930s I would have traded my entire team for Mel Ott just to see how many homers he could have hit there.
John McGraw and teenage ballplayers
The manager of the New York Giants for more than three decades, John McGraw was one of the most important and influential figures in baseball in the first half of the 20th century. One of his best traits was his willingness to adapt. In the early 20th century he was one of the first to recruit college players, Christy Mathewson being his famous star. He sought light-skinned black and hispanic players and had some success getting them under contract. He had a great asset on his team in John “Chief” Meyers, a native american who was rock solid behind the plate for McGraw on three pennant-winning teams in the deadball era. Then, McGraw turned his attention to young players, having his scouts look for talented high school athletes. That led to him developing and starting more teenage position players than probably anyone in MLB history. He did this with Fred Lindstrom, Travis Jackson, and later Mel Ott.
Facts About Mel Ott
Ott is the only man to ever lead his league in home runs while also serving as manager, which he did in 1942. He paced the National League in homers six times, but his career high of 42 in 1929 failed to lead the league. On the final day of that season, Philadelphia pitchers walked him intentionally five times to prevent him from tying their teammate Chuck Klein for the home run title.
On six occasions Ott led the league in walks, a record for the senior circuit. His career walk total was the highest in the NL until broken by Joe Morgan. Twelve times he walked at least 90 times in a season, showing his patience at an early age – walking 113 times at the age of twenty.
Ott was a teenager when he became a regular for the Giants and John McGraw in 1928, hitting 18 home runs. Before he was thirty years old he had 1,939 hits, 342 home runs, 1,306 RBI, 1,035 walks, a .315 average, and a .557 slugging percentage. In his thirties his average tapered to .289 with a .489 slugging mark.
Ott was a solid right fielder who moved to third base in 1937-1938 to help the team. The Giants won three pennants with Ott in the lineup, and garnered a World Series title in 1933. In that Series, Ott homered in the first inning of Game One and in the final (10th) inning of Game Five – giving the Giants the victory. He led all regulars with a .389 average, seven hits, and four RBI. In his three World Series, Ott hit four home runs and batted .295.
Ott was known for his odd batting style, which included a leg kick. He took great advantage of his home ballpark, slugging nearly two-thirds of his longballs in the Polo Grounds. Manager John McGraw refused to allow his coaches or any minor league manager (including Casey Stengel) to change Ott’s batting style.
As a player/manager and manager, Ott posted a .467 percentage in six seasons. His easy-going style prompted Dodger manager Leo Durocher to comment, “Nice guys finish last.” Ironically, it was Durocher who replaced Ott as Giants’ manager in 1948.
Tragically, on November 14, 1958, Ott and his wife were seriously injured in a head-on automobile collision. During life-saving surgery, Ott died at the age of 49.