New York 500 Club: Mel Ott
As Alex Rodriguez chases 600 home runs -- and beyond -- ESPNNewYork.com looks back at the seven sluggers in the 500 Home Run Club most associated with the Big Apple, either because they played their prime years with New York teams or hit No. 500 in a local uniform.
Mel Ott was a Major League Baseball player who played his entire 22-year career for the New York Giants. Despite standing just 5-feet, 9-inches tall and weighing 170 pounds, Ott was one of baseball's great power hitters during the first half of the 20th century. Utilizing an orthodox baseball swing which involved a high leg kick "Master Melvin" exposed the short right field fence at the Polo Grounds on his way to 511 career home runs. Ott was the first National League player to reach the 500 home run milestone and when he retired only Jimmie Foxx and Babe Ruth had hit more home runs than Ott.
During his tenure with the club he helped them reach the World Series three times, and in the 1933 World Series his 10th inning home run during Game 5 was the series clincher. In his career he was named an All-Star 12 times, led the league in home runs six times, and retired with a lifetime batting average of .304. At the time of his retirement he had set the National League record for runs scored (1,859), RBI (1,860), total bases (5,041), and walks (1,708).
Melvin Thomas Ott was born March 2, 1909 in Gretna, Louisiana. He was one of three children born to Carrie and Charles Ott. Charles was a laborer at the Southern Cottonseed Oil Company, but had been a semi-professional pitcher and passed his love of the game onto his son. Despite being a stocky build Mel was a talented all-around athlete. At McDonough-Jefferson High School he was a standout on the basketball team and played halfback and center for an independent Gretna football team. In addition to being the high school's catcher and leading hitter Mel played for a semi professional team. At the age of 14 years old he was already being paid to be a ballplayer. In March of 1925, Mel went to a tryout for the New Orleans Pelicans (a farm team for the Cleveland Indians). While Mel impressed, he wasn't signed due to his young age.
Soon after Ott joined another semi professional team named the Paterson Grays. The club was run by a very successful lumberman, Harry Williams, who also happened to be good friends with New York Giants manager John McGraw. After a few months of sensational play for the Grays, Williams recommended him to McGraw for a tryout.
New York Giants (1926-1947)
In September of 1925 Ott thoroughly impressed McGraw with his swing despite not even being fully matured. Standing at a mere 5'7" and weighing around 150 lbs his highly unusual motion involving a high leg kick generated tremendous power. Plus, because Ott was a left-handed hitter his swing would be an asset directed at the 257 foot right field fence at the Polo Grounds. Ott said of his swing: "I found when I tossed my right leg up, it threw all of my weight on my left leg. In this way I got my full weight into my swing." Fearing that his unusual mechanics would be tampered with by coaches in the minor leagues, McGraw decided to hold on to the youngster as an apprentice and refused to have him play another game outside of the big league club. McGraw also decided to move Ott to the outfield from catcher due to his small frame and in an effort to save his stocky legs from unnecessary punishment.
For the next two seasons Ott served as a part-time player, spending the majority of his time next to John McGraw on the bench. In 1926 he hit .383 in 60 at bats, and in 1927 he hit his first home run (off of Hal Carson) and had a .282 batting average in 163 at bats.
In 1928 Ott appeared in 124 games and hit 18 home runs, 77 RBI, with a .322 batting average. The following season Ott ascended to one of the most dominant players in the league. That year he belted career highs in home runs (42) and RBI (151) while hitting .328. He also displayed a sensational batting eye by leading the league in walks with 113 to go along with only 38 strikeouts. Ott's fielding was also impressive as he participated in 12 double plays and had 26 assists from the outfield position. In 1930 Ott had a .349 batting average and led the league with a .458 OBP.
While Ott's performance was impressive the Giants had failed to make the World Series once since 1924, and their dynamic manager was struggling with his health. Early in the 1932 season Bill Terry assumed the role as manager from McGraw. Ott led the league with 38 home runs that season but the Giants missed out on the post-season again.
With the National League implementing a less livelier ball Ott struggled in 1933 during Bill Terry's first full season as manager batting only .283 with 23 home runs, and 103 RBI (Ott still ranked third in the league in RBI and home runs). The Giants, however, took over the league lead in June and never looked back thanks in large part to Carl Hubbell who won 23 games with a 1.66 ERA as the league's MVP. With a 91-61 record the Giants finished five games over the Pirates to face the Washington Senators in the World Series. In Game 1, Ott went 4-for-4 with a home run and three RBI as the Giants won 4-2. The teams split the next two games and the Giants won Game 4 in extra innings 2-1. Game 5 headed into extra innings with the score tied 3-3. With two outs in the top of the 10th, Ott took a ball off of a 2-2 count and launched it over the centerfield wall to give the Giants a 4-3 lead and ultimately a World Series championship. For the series, Ott batted .389 with two home runs, four RBI and had a .500 OBP.
From 1933 to 1937 the Giants eclipsed 91 wins in every season. In 1934 Ott was voted to his first All-Star team by leading the league with 35 home runs and 135 RBI. In 1936 and 1937 the Giants captured the pennant thanks in large part to Hubbell and Ott but ended up getting overpowered by the New York Yankees in the World Series in both seasons. Ott for the most part was the sole source of offensive production on those clubs. In 1936 Ott led the team with 33 home runs
and 135 RBI. No other player bested nine home runs or 67 RBI. As a team they only accumulated 97 home runs.
In 1938 Ott led the league in home runs for the third consecutive season with 36 and was best in the National League with a .442 OBP. He also played the majority of his time in the field at third base. The Giants, however, had no one else who drove in over 65 RBI and with an aging Hubbell the Giants wouldn't see the post-season for the rest of Ott's career. Over the next three seasons the Giants deteriorated even further - failing to eclipse 77 wins in a single year.
After the 1941 season the Giants made Ott manager of the club. With the United States involvement in World War II escalating Ott did an admirable job in his first season. He managed the club to an 85-67 record and also led the league for the last time in home runs with 30 and was tops in runs (118) and walks (109). During the year he also set a National League record by driving in his 1,583rd run. In the following year the war movement took an even greater toll on his roster and consequently his own play. The team won only 55 games in 1943 (their lowest total since 1902) and Ott hit only .234 with 18 home runs and 47 RBI. Though despite his play his popularity was evident by the fact that he was named for the 10th straight time to the All-Star team.
In 1944 Ott rebounded with 26 home runs, 82 RBI, a .288 average and was named for the 11th straight time to the All-Star game. His 26 home runs were good for second in the National League, but his club overall only won 67 games. 1945 was Ott's last productive year as a player. During the season he hit .308, 21 home runs and 79 RBI as the Giants won 78 games. On August 1, 1945 Ott hit his 500th career home run off of Johnny Hutchings.
Over the next two seasons Ott served mostly as a pinch hitter collecting only 82 more at bats in his career. In 1947 his club won 81 games but after a 37-38 start to the 1948 season he was controversially replaced by former Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher. The move was controversial because of the Dodgers/Giants rivalry and because Durocher infamously said about Mel Ott that, "nice guys finish last."
Ott retired with 511 home runs which was over 200 more than any other National League player at the time. Only Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx had produced more. He also held the National League record for runs scored (1,859), RBI (1,860), total bases (5,041), and walks (1,708).
After he left his post as manager of the Giants, Ott stayed on in the Giants front office. His jersey number 4 was retired by the team in 1949 and remained retired when the Giants moved to San Francisco. After his stint with the Giants he went on to manage Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League before quitting baseball a couple of years later. In 1956 he joined the broadcast booth for the Detroit Tigers where he was a success due to his vast knowledge of the game and his gentlemanly Southern manner.
In 1951 he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame with 87.2% of the vote. At the time no player since the original Hall of Fame class in 1936 had been voted in with a higher percentage of the ballot.
After the 1958 season the Otts were in the process of building a home in Bay St. Louis. On November 14, after checking in on the progress of the construction Ott and his wife Mildred stopped at a highway restaurant to wait out a dense fog. Soon after leaving the restaurant they collided head on with another car on U.S. Highway 90. The resulting crash killed the driver of the other car and seriously injured the Otts. Mel suffered kidney damage, multiple fractures, broken ribs, a broken arm and head injuries. One week later he was pronounced dead. He was survived by Mildred and their daughters Barbara and Lyn.