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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,642

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This is the grave of Mel Ott.

Born in 1909 in Gretna, Lousiana, Ott was a phenomenal athlete as a child and rose quickly in the world of baseball. He was playing semipro ball by the time he was 14. Not everyone believed in him. That’s because he was short. Could a 5’9″ guy really have power that would transfer to more advanced pitching. Even for the 1920s, this was a small athlete. Thus, he wanted to sign with the New Orleans Pelicans, the local minor league team. But the Pelicans thought he was too short and didn’t even give him a real shot. So he ended up getting a job in the lumber mill and playing on the company team. But the owner of the lumber mill was like, this kid is way too good to be playing down here. Somehow, he knew or was able to contact John McGraw while on a visit to New York. He told McGraw that he had this amazing kid and that the Giants should give him a tryout. McGraw was very whatever. I am sure he had guys telling him all the time about this or that local talent. So the timber mill owner bought Ott a ticket to New York. McGraw agreed to watch him workout and let’s just say he was not so concerned about the kid’s height after watching his prodigious power displays in batting practice.

One thing McGraw did do was convert Ott from a catcher to an outfielder. But not only did McGraw sign Ott, he immediately put him on the major league roster. The first couple of years, he was mostly a pinch-hitter and occasional replacement. I mean, in 1926, Ott was 17 years old. He’s playing in the majors at age 17!!! And even there, 60 at-bats produced a .383/393/417 line, which meant he was making contact, if not hitting it out of the park. Then in 1927, he played, getting 163 at bats. He still looked good, but still didn’t show any power, hitting just one homer. But in 1928, he became the Giants’ full-time right fielder. It immediately paid off with a very solid .322/397/524 line, with 18 homers. And he was still only 19.

Then in 1929, Ott started to just go off. He smacked .328/449/635 while also leading the National League with 113 walks. Oh, he also hit 42 homers and drove in 151 runs. This was his age 20 year. That actually would be his all time best season in home runs. But he became an absolute machine. Year after year after year, he would play nearly every day and have almost the same stat line–something like a .320 average with around 30-35 home runs, and well over 100 RBIs, all while either leading the league in walks or being near to it. From 1929 until 1945, Ott played in at least 125 games every year and quite often over 150. So here’s a person who simply never suffered more than being dinged up for 17 straight seasons. He led the league in runs twice. He led the NL in home runs on six different occasions. He only led in RBIs once. But he led in walks 6 times, OBP 4 times, and SLG once. This all means that his OPS+, which is on base plus slugging percentage adjusted for league average that year, led the NL a mere five times. The All-Star game first started in 1933. Ott did not make it that year and it was a slightly down year for him, compared to usual at least. But then he made it every year between 1934 and 1945.

According to Baseball Reference’s WAR stat, Ott’s best year was in 1938, when he recorded a MLB leading 8.9 WAR, a result of a .311/442/583 line with 36 homers and 116 runs, both of which led the league. He also led the NL in WAR in 1932 and 1942. The former he had 8.3 WAR and the latter 7.2, so I guess that was kind of a down year through the league since usually someone exceeds that, or a few people. Of course by then, you started seeing a lot of the best players fighting in World War II, which Ott did not. Ott was also managing the Giants beginning in 1942 and of course playing himself was something he was going to do, though naturally it made sense. Ott also was a fantastic defender with a total gun for an arm and runners very quickly learned not to test it.

Early in 1946, Ott hurt his knee and never recovered. He only had 78 at bats that year and was terrible in them. Then he tried to come back in 1947 and had 4 at bats and realized this was not going to happen at that was it. When he retired, he was the first player in National League history to have hit for more than 500 home runs, with a total of 511. Most of his career, the Giants were decent to excellent and the Giants won the World Series in 1933, while losing it in 1936 and 1937.

There is no question that Ott feasted on the short right field porch at the Polo Grounds. In 1942, each of his 18 home runs were at home. Overall, 63 percent of his homers were hit there. But let’s be fair, no one else in the NL had that kind of power, including at the Polo Grounds. But this did lead to a bit of eyerolling by reporters when people claimed Ott was an all-time great and it did take him three tries to get into the Hall of Fame, which finally happened in 1951. Could one be elected to the HOF before five years had passed back then? I have never heard of something like this before but Ott’s career suggests it? I must be missing something.

In 1948, Ott was fired as manager. Leo Durocher replaced him. He was still under contract with the Giants and so he worked on the team’s minor league system and in fact became the manager of the Oakland Oaks in the Pacific Coast League for the 1951 and 1952 seasons. In 1956, the Detroit Tigers hired Ott as their color guy in the booth, both for radio and, increasingly television.

In 1958, Ott was in a car accident and he died a week later, at the age of 49.

Mel Ott is buried in Metairie Cemetery, New Orleans, Louisiana.

If you would like this series to visit other right fielders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. According to Baseball Reference’s JAWS stat, Ott is the 4th greatest right fielder of all time. That makes sense. We’ve covered Babe Ruth, who naturally is 1st. Hank Aaron, in 2nd place, is in Atlanta, and Stan Musial, in 3rd place is in Creve Coeur, Missouri. Incidentally, Mookie Betts has risen all the way to 8th already and he really is one of the all-time great players, right there with Bonds and Trout and Ohtani and Griffey and a few others as the best of my lifetime. And for the record, 8th puts him between Al Kaline and Reggie Jackson. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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