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Mel Ott

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New York Giants 1926-47

"I can't name a player who has exerted as strong an influence upon so many games as Mel, and the players I talk to express the same thought."

-Hall of Famer Pie Traynor on Mel Ott

For whatever reason, Mel Ott's name is seldom mentioned today when discussing the game's all time greats. That's a shame. When he retired in 1947, Ott was the National League's all time leader in homeruns and walks. He led the circuit in each category six times, paced the league in on-base-percentage four times, and played in twelve straight All Star games. Yet, Ott's name is nearly forgotten by today's generation of fans.

Melvin Thomas Ott was born in Gretna, LA (a suburb of New Orleans) on March 2, 1909. By age 16, he was playing and starring for the Patterson Braves, a local semi pro team. When team owner, millionaire lumber tycoon, Henry Williams visited New York in 1925, he arranged a meeting with legendary Giants manager John McGraw to discuss his young phenom.

Whatever Williams told him, McGraw bought it. He immediately sent a post card to Ott, telling him to be in New York for a tryout on September 1. When Ott received the message however, he thought it was a friend playing a joke on him and ignored it. Williams returned to town a few days later, and was shocked to see that Ott was still there. He explained to the teenager that the inquiry was legitimate and bought him a train ticket to the Big Apple.

Ott must have wowed McGraw at the tryout, because he not only signed the 5'9" 170 lb. teenager, he put him on the major league roster. McGraw didn't want anyone tampering with his prize prodigy -- he not did allow the teenager to receive coaching from any of the minor league managers, major league coaches, or veteran players -- Ott was his pet.

After spending most of the 1926 and 1927 seasons on the bench, seated next to McGraw, Ott became a regular in 1928 at the age of 19. Still the youngest player in the game, he hit .322 with a .397 on-base-percentage and 18 homeruns that season.

Showing remarkable patience at the plate at such a young age, Ott led the NL in walks in 1929 with 113, while hitting 42 homeruns, driving in 151, and batting .328. Over the next three seasons, he took home his first homerun crown (1932, 38 HR), and led the league in walks and on-base-percentage twice.

In 1933, Ott's statistics dipped a bit (.283, 23 HR), but he still managed to top the 100 RBI milestone for the fifth straight year (the streak would reach 8) and pace the circuit in walks for the third consecutive season. The Giants meanwhile, won the NL pennant. In the team's five game World Series triumph over the Washington Senators, Ott hit .389 with 2 homeruns.

In 1934, Ott led the NL in homeruns (35) and won his only RBI crown (135). After hitting 31 homers in 1935, he led the league in that category the next three seasons (33, 31, 36). Ott's consistently stellar play led the Giants to back-to-back pennants in 1936 and 1937, but the team lost to the cross-town Yankees each year in the Fall Classic.

In 1938, Ott led the league in homeruns (36), runs scored (116), and on-base-percentage (.442). After three more stellar seasons, "Master Melvin" was named player-manager in 1942. The Giants finished third (their best showing with Ott at the helm), and Ott became the first and only player/manager to lead the league in homeruns while also topping the league in runs (118), and walks (109). It was the seventh straight season Ott topped the century mark in walks, and the ninth, and final, time he scored more than 100 runs in a season.

The extra duties put a strain on Ott, as his production and playing time slowly dropped. Because of his easy going and friendly nature, many felt he was not suited for the managers job. Dodgers manager Leo Durocher commented, "Do you know a nicer guy than Mel Ott? Or any other Giants? The nice guys over there are in last place." That quote is the basis of the infamous quip, "nice guys finish last."

After becoming the first National Leaguer to reach the 500 homerun milestone on August 1, 1945, Ott retired as an active player in 1947. He was relieved of his managing duties mid way through the 1948 campaign. Ironically, it was Durocher that replaced him as skipper.

In his career, Ott belted 511 homeruns, smacked out 2,876 hits, scored 1,859 runs (12th all time), and walked 1,708 times (8th all time). In 22 seasons, he hit .304 and reached base at a .414 clip. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1951.

Ott remained in the Giants organization, helping run their farm system with Carl Hubbell, until 1950. After leaving the Giants, he managed the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League and worked as a broadcaster for the Detroit Tigers.

On November 14, 1958 in New Orleans, while driving home with his wife after dinner, Ott's car was hit head-on by a drunken driver. A week later, Mel Ott died in the hospital during surgery. He was just 49 years old.

-David Zingler, July 2004

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