The Nice Guy

Mel Ott

I tried a little trick with some friends of mine both locally and online. I handed (or sent) them a list of all the men who had 500 plus home runs in Major League history. But instead of writing down the names, I provided only the initials and asked them to fill in the names without resorting to a baseball encyclopedia or the internet. Well, everybody got BR as Babe Ruth and HA as Hank Aaron (although a couple missed BB as Barry Bonds). Most of the rest were hit and miss with more modern players doing better than the old guys. There was one set of initials that absolutely no one got, not a single guy: MO. Everyone forgot Mel Ott, making him,at least among my crowd, the most obscure power hitter ever.

They told Ott he was too short to play. Well, he fooled them all. He learned to pull the ball, draw a lot of  walks, and played right field almost flawlessly. Oh, and by the way, when he retired he held the National League record for home runs and was third on the all-time list. Not bad for a short guy, right?

Ott was a catcher by trade when he arrived in New York at age 19. John McGraw moved him to the outfield because he thought Ott would have a longer career. He pinch hit most of 1927, hitting .239 (.282 overall). In 1928 he became the Giants regular right fielder and the next year set a career high with 42 home runs. Ott won numerous home run titles, but his highest total was good for only second. There’s a reason for that. He played in Philadelphia on the last day of the season. Phillies right fielder Chuck Klein had 43 home runs going into the game. The Phils walked Ott each time to ensure that Klein won the homer title. As neither team was going anywhere, I’ve never been quite sure what I think of that.  The 1929 season was also unique for Ott in that he had more home runs that strikeouts (42 to 38). He won five home run titles during the 1930s. His lowest total was 23 in 1933, his highest 38 in 1932. He had a strange batting stance that included a high leg kick with swinging. It’s supposed to have helped him generate power. Here’s a posed shot of it:

Ott swinging away

For the decade of the 1930s he was terrific, joining Carl Hubbell as the driving force on the Giants.  He scored a lot of runs, knocked in a lot of runs, and had seven years of 100 walks. In 1933, the Giants won the NL pennant. It was Ott’s weakest season in the decade, but he made up for it by clubbing .389 in the World Series. His tenth inning home run in game five clinched the Series for New York. The Giants also took pennants in 1936 and 1937, but dropped both World Series’ to the Yankees. Ott did all right in the ’36 Series, but had a down Series in 1937.

His first really sub par season in years occurred in 1940. He bounced back in 1941. In 1942 the Giants made him their manager. He responded by leading the NL in home runs one final time. His first season hitting below .250 was 1943. It was also his lowest home run total since 1927. In the war depleted ranks of 1945, he had one final good season. He hit .300 one last time and picked up his 500th home run, passing Lou Gehrig in the process. In 1946 he concentrated on managing and his average plummeted to .074. In 1947 he went 0 for 4 and retired as an active players. He managed the Giants without much success through 1948 and made the Hall of Fame in 1951. In 1958 he died in a car wreck. It was about him that Leo Durocher is supposed to have said, “Nice guys finish last.”

For his career Ott had 2876 hits, 488 doubles, 72 triples, 511 home runs, scored 1859 runs with 1861 RBIs (another amazingly close number), and walked 1708 times to only 896 strikeouts.  He hit.304, slugged .533, had an on base percentage of .410, and an OPS of 943 (OPS + of 155). All good numbers. All certainly Hall of Fame worthy.

But despite all the superlatives you can recount about Ott’s career, there’s always one complaint raised over and over. He got an unfair advantage because he played in the Polo Grounds. During his career Ott hit 63% of his home runs (323 of 511) at home. By contrast, Babe Ruth hit 49% of his at home, Mickey Mantle hit 50% at home, and Willie Mays got 51% of his at home (and for part of Mays’ career, the Polo Grounds was home). It was 258 feet down the right field line at the Polo Grounds, so the argument goes that the left-handed hitting Ott got a lot of cheap home runs and therefore isn’t really as great as he appears.

Oh? Let’s see if I have this right. Ott regularly drives in 100 runs a year, scores 100 runs a year, and has 140-190 hits a year. Of those he regularly deposits nineteen of them over the wall at the Polo Grounds (That’s 63% of his average home run total from 1929 through 1942, his productive years.) and isn’t really a geat player. What did I miss? There are a bunch of runs scored and RBI’s that don’t have a thing to do with 258 feet fences. For his career, excluding 1926, 1946, and 1947 when he played less than 40 games, Ott averaged 150 hits, of which nineteen flew over the fence in New York. He scored 97 runs, nineteen of which came from a ball that he hit over the fence in New York. He knocked in 98 runners a year, an indeterminate number of which were on base when a ball flew over the fence in New York. He walked 89 times a season, none of which came from a ball flying over a fence in New York, thus putting himself on base a lot and giving his team a chance to score runs whether or not they put a ball over the fence in New York. Frankly, I don’t think the Polo Grounds had a lot to do with Ott’s status as a great player. As a power hitter, yes; as a great player, no.

Even if it did help his power numbers, he’s not the only one. You don’t hear people complain about Wade Boggs’ inflated hit totals because he knew how to use Fenway Park, do you? A lot of people will tell you that the two greatest seasons any player ever had were Ruth’s 1920 and 1921 years. In 1920 Ruth had 29 home runs at home, 24 on the road (54% at home). In 1921 he hit 32 at home and 27 on the road (again 54%). Want to guess where he played his home games? You got it, the Polo Grounds with its 258 foot fence that aided left-handed hitters like Ruth and Ott. According to Green Cathedrals it was actually 256 feet in 1920-1921. I wonder how many home runs just barely cleared that 256 feet? (and how they got an extra two feet in 1929) OK, I know 63% is a lot more than 54%, but you just don’t hear anyone complain that Ruth got an extra benefit from the Polo Grounds. I’m not arguing that Ott didn’t get a lot of help by playing his home games in the Polo Grounds, he obviously did when it comes to power numbers. But that fact alone doesn’t take away from his greatness any more than it would take away from either Boggs or Ruth.

Mel Ott was one of the finest players of the 1930s. He was third in both home runs and RBIs for the decade and was a part of three pennant winners. And for all that he’s managed to become utterly obscure. Isn’t that a great shame?

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5 Responses to “The Nice Guy”

  1. Vinnie Says:

    What what we can’t measure are the balls that were hit to center and right center that would have been home runs in other parks but were only outs, or maybe extra base hits. And for each “cheap” home run he hit at home, how many line drives that would have fallen for singles were caught due to the right fielder playing in so close?
    The Phils and Giants played a double header the last day of the 29 season. Both Ott and Klein were tied for the home run lead, but also for the league seasonal record at the time. In the 5th, Klein hit the record breaker off of Carl Hubbell. The box score shows Ott as 0 for 3 with a walk in the game. Where it came in the game, I have no record. In the second game, it shows the Giants winning 12-4. Ott, strangely batting in the fifth spot in the order, had a hit surrounded by the five walks. The four Philly pitchers that day walked ten batters in addition to giving up 16 hits. Whether these were “intentional” unintentional walks may rest in the mind of us conspiratorialists. Ott did have an excellent batting eye and the homerun record might not have seemed as big a deal considering it was nothing next to the achievements of the Babe.

  2. verdun2 Says:

    You’re right about the hits to center. It was forever to deep center in the Polo Grounds’ horseshoe shape. One of the reasons Mays had the great catch in the ’54 World Series was because the game was in the Polo Grounds.
    v

  3. vinnie Says:

    Apparently Joe DiMaggio made an equally lengthy sprint to the deepest part of the park by the stairs in front of the main scoreboard(some claiming a good 480 ft)making an over the shoulder catch to turn a bomb by Hank Lieber into a game ending out, in I think it was the 37 or 38 series. Had there been television, or a video recording of it, we might have a different view of the “greatest catch ever”, than we do now.
    One of Willie’s great gifts was his ability to make almost the most routine plays look spectacular, right down to the hat flying off, “will he catch it?”, basket catch, usually made just at or below belt level. After all, it never hurts to add a little extra mustard to the hot dog.

  4. Vinnie Says:

    With an apology for some of the mistakes in an earlier post. Here’s a description I located for the game and how the event took place.

    The hitter’s name was Hank Leiber, and he wasn’t sure what to do. Can you blame him? He had completely crushed a baseball and here he was standing stonelike on second base, hands on hips, gaze fixed to the far reaches of the deepest center field on earth, wondering how the game could possibly be over.

    Leiber was the New York Giants’ cleanup hitter, a thickly muscled Arizonan who was renowned for standing on top of the plate, a custom that would get him seriously hurt a year later, when he was beaned by Bob Feller. In the ninth inning of the second game of the 1936 World Series, Leiber hit a baseball farther probably than he had ever hit one, almost 500 feet, beyond the Eddie Grant monument near the base of the clubhouse stairs in the Polo Grounds, a horseshoe-shaped park with an outfield so big it should’ve had its own mayor.

    The New York Yankees had scored a Series-record 18 runs in the game, and with a 14-run lead, deep suspense was not in the late-afternoon mix. When the ball left Leiber’s bat, the only question was whether he would get a triple or a home run. And then the Yankees’ rookie center fielder, the fisherman’s son, began his chase, same as always, not so much running as flowing, flowing fast, long-legged and broad-shouldered, seemingly moving without any strain whatever.
    As he neared the monument, a shrine to a Giant player who died in World War I, DiMaggio extended his glove just in time for Leiber’s ball to settle into it, his momentum carrying him toward the staircase that went up to the clubhouse. He climbed a couple of steps, as graceful as a ballroom dancer, and then stopped and stood at attention, remembering that the public-address announcer had asked everyone to remain in their places until President Roosevelt, who was on hand for the game, had left the park.

  5. The Baseball Idiot Says:

    Considering all the great players who played in the Polo Grounds, Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and others who might have had their stats padded, and the guys who played in D.C. and Forbes Field and Old Comiskey who lost a lot, isn’t it time we stopped worrying about park effects for Hall of Fame consideration?

    Larry Walker might or not be, but he deserves a better look.

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