All too forgOtten

Who is the greatest underrated player in baseball history?

Notice I’m not asking, “Who is the most underrated player in history?” A number of familiar names spring to mind in reply to that one: Darrell Evans, Jim Wynn, Gene Tenace, Alan Trammell-and/or-Lou Whitaker. I’m sure you can think of others, too. Fine ballplayers all, no doubt; a sound Hall of Fame case can be made for some of them. But none could be rationally construed as a great ballplayer, in the “all-time great” sense of the term.

My question is: Among the players properly understood as greats—in the Hall of Fame with room to spare, let’s say—which guy doesn’t seem to be accorded these days the awe and respect his accomplishments truly deserve? Who is the greatest player we too often take for granted?

A couple of inner-circle immortals come to my mind as worthy of consideration in this regard.

Cy

The first is none other than Cy Young. Sure, they put Young’s name on the award, and all. But it seems to me that in every current-day discussion of the all-time greatest pitchers, the names Lefty Grove and Roger Clemens and Walter Johnson will always come up, and often so will the likes of Warren Spahn and Greg Maddux and Tom Seaver and Pedro Martinez. That’s all well and good. But Cy Young—the very guy whose name is on the annual award for greatest pitching performance, after all—almost never seems to be considered.

That’s nuts. Young was a phenomenally great pitcher. His stratospheric career numbers—511 wins, 7,355 innings, 749 complete games and so on—seem to be not taken seriously, dismissed as mere relics of primitive conditions, or something. But to do so is to disregard the fact that Young’s career stats towered over those of all competitors even within his era: no one else, under the exact same conditions as Young, put up anything remotely close to the career he did.

Far too often today, the “Cy Young” brand is perceived simply as the award itself, and not connected to the astonishing achievements of the actual ballplayer. He was among the small handful of the most spectacular performers the game has seen, and nowdays we too rarely remember that.

The Man

The second inner-circle great I would nominate in this category would be Stan Musial. Of course, Musial is an eternal institution in and around the city of St. Louis. But on a national basis, he isn’t. And even in St. Louis, it often seems that Musial’s current-day popularity is more a function of his decades-long incorporation into the Cardinals’ organization, and of just what a likeable guy he is, than as a straightforward recognition of his pure accomplishment as a player.

During his active career it wasn’t the case, but over the ensuing decades Musial seems to have become increasingly overshadowed by his contemporary Ted Williams. Partly, that’s because the issue of Williams’ difficult personality and bad relationship with the press—a very big deal at the time—has receded; younger generations have focused more on Williams’ phenomenal on-field performance. That’s all fine, but not to the extent that in the bargain Musial, who was at the time generally understood to be a star of roughly equivalent magnitude to Williams, is allowed to be overlooked.

There’s no doubt that Williams was a better hitter than Musial; indeed in all of history the only two bats that can be seriously compared with Williams’ are those of Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds. But for that very reason, to be the inferior of Ted Williams as a hitter is hardly a flaw.

And Musial was utterly tremendous with the stick. The list of hitters whose career OPS+ was not as great as Musial’s includes the names Honus Wagner, Tris Speaker, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. Indeed, it’s only in proximity to the blinding brilliance of Williams’ hitting that Musial’s fails to stand out as what it was: among the very greatest ever seen. And, of course, in every other regard Musial was a better player than Williams: superior with the glove and on the basepaths, and more durable.

Musial must be understood as much more than just a smiling emblem of the Redbird Nation. He was one of the very few greatest baseball players who ever set foot upon a diamond.

But there’s a third great player who I think is more commonly underrated these days than either Young or Musial.

Master Melvin

His name seems almost never to come up in any discussion these days: I strongly suspect that a high proportion of fans under about 30 have only the dimmest familiarity with Mel Ott. And among the few modern fans who are aware that Ott is a Hall of Famer, and was a longtime star with the New York Giants, I suspect a minority realize just what a tremendous, dominant player he was.

For instance, take this test yourself:

- Do you know that Mel Ott set the National League record for career home runs (surpassing Rogers Hornsby) when he was just 28 years old?

- That Ott held that record for 29 years?

- That no other National Leaguer managed to climb as high as 150 homers short of Ott’s record until 11 years after he hit his final blast?

- That it took three more years after that before any other National Leaguer got within 100 of Ott?

Come on, be honest: I’ll bet you weren’t aware of any of that. Hey, I didn’t know any of these precise particulars until I just looked them up. No mention of any of this ever takes place in the current-day baseball media, or between any history-inclined fans I’ve ever been around.

The park

The rare occasions when Ott is discussed these days, it tends to be in the context of dismissing his home run figures as a park-effects fluke. It seems that no current-day mention of Ott’s 511 career homers is unaccompanied by the eyebrows-raised addendum that he hit 323 of them—63%—at home in the Polo Grounds, with its ultra-cozy 257-foot right field foul pole.

This extra fact is meant, it would appear, to illustrate that Ott wasn’t really all that fearsome a power hitter. However, while it’s obviously true that Ott took extraordinary advantage of the conditions presented by his home ballpark—which is, of course, a good thing—here’s what the simple presentation of Ott’s home-road home run split almost always fails to incorporate:

- Subtracting 323 homers from Ott’s total reveals that he hit 188 on the road.

- If we assume that those 188 homers are a better indicator of Ott’s “true” home run talent, then doubling that would give him a “neutralized” career home run total of 376. (This is overcompensating, because Ott’s opponents got to play one-seventh of their road games in the homer-friendly Polo Grounds, but let’s go ahead and do it anyway.)

- That adjusted total of 376 career home runs would still have been the National League record, from the early 1940s (when Ott would have passed Chuck Klein’s mark of 300) until 1957 (when it would have been surpassed by Stan the Man).

Thus, even if we completely remove the Polo Grounds boost from Ott’s record, he still stands as the utterly dominant National League home run hitter of his era.

The league

But! I hear you saying: Am I playing a game of selective end points here, in comparing Ott only with other National League sluggers? Why ignore the fact that in Ott’s day he was surpassed as a home run producer by American Leaguer Jimmie Foxx, and of course was far behind the AL’s Babe Ruth? Is there a good reason to focus the consideration of Ott’s home run total as a National League phenomenon?

Well, yes, as a matter of fact, there is. As we explored here and here, from 1931 through 1941—in other words, precisely through the very heart of Ott’s career—the National and American Leagues displayed extremely different home run and run production environments. This phenomenon was the most dramatic difference between the leagues in the history of the sport (more impactful than the designated hitter has ever been), and was almost certainly a function of very differently resilient baseballs being used by the two leagues.

And the National League—Ott’s league—was the one deploying the deader ball, and thus it was the league in which it was significantly more difficult to hit home runs. Just how significantly, you ask? Well, over the 11 seasons from 1931-41, the American League displayed a higher rate of homers per game than the National every year, by differences as great as 41%, and at an average rate of 21%.

That’s highly significant. If we take Ott’s actual year-by-year home run figures for those seasons and adjust them by these league-different rates—in other words, estimate how many homers Ott would have hit with an American League ball—he gains 70 home runs (and enjoys a peak season of 51 homers in 1938). Adding 70 dingers to Ott’s career total would give him 581, leaving Foxx in the dust, and revealing Ott as clearly the second-greatest home run slugger of his era, behind only Ruth. His No. 2 status on the all-time list wouldn’t have been eclipsed until 1969, by Willie Mays.

The well-rounded game

And Ott was far more than a mere home run slugger. Despite his obvious power, he was a contact hitter, rarely striking out; in only three seasons was he within the league’s top 10 in whiffs. This consistent contact helped Ott place in the top 10 in batting average five times, and over his career hit .304 in a league that hit .280.

Moreover, Ott demonstrated exceptional strike zone judgment. Of course he was feared for his power, but even factoring in that consideration, Ott drew walks at a tremendous rate. In the 16 consecutive seasons from 1929 through 1944, Ott led the National League in walks five times, and was never lower than third in the league. In major league history, only one hitter—Barry Bonds—has posted more top-three finishes in walks.

This combination of hitting for a good average with great power and extraordinary patience made Ott a tremendous offensive force. He played 18 full seasons, and was in the top 10 in OPS+ 18 times. His career OPS+ of 155 is just four points behind that of Stan Musial—who, as we mentioned above, could hit a little bit—and puts Ott in a dead heat with Joe DiMaggio and Hank Aaron, a couple of guys we do still hear a whole lot about these days, and quite properly so.

Moreover, while no DiMaggio, Ott was a highly-regarded defensive outfielder. He was primarily a right fielder, but demonstrated enough range to handle 128 games in center field. In his first four full seasons, Ott led NL outfielders in assists twice and double plays twice, while afterward leading in each category only one more time. Additionally, he was agile and soft-handed enough to handle 256 games at third base, and even six at second base.

While clearly defensive assessments and comparisons are a far less exact science than for offense, it seems fair to conclude that Ott was a good-but-not-great fielder. He was interestingly comparable to Hank Aaron in that regard: a right fielder who could cover center when required, and who didn’t embarrass himself when asked to play the infield. Their fielding Win Shares are quite similar, with Ott earning .020 WS per defensive appearance, and Aaron .022. Aaron was a Gold Glove winner three times, and it seems likely that if that award had been around in Ott’s day, he might have bagged a few himself.

Ott was extremely durable, missing just 4% of his team’s games over the 14 seasons from 1929 though 1942. And, for good measure, he was universally liked and respected as a kind and decent fellow, even being named manager of the Giants at age 33. (It must be said, however, that the managerial assignment never seemed a good fit for the deeply introverted Ott—it was he to whom the definitely-not-a-nice-guy Leo Durocher was referring to when famously describing the mid-1940s Giants as “nice guys” who “finish last.”)

Why?

So, in Ott we have:

- A home run hitter of all-time elite status
- A superb all-around run-producer, in the all-time top 25 in OPS+
- A solid, versatile defender
- A durable, reliable contributor
- A player with more career Win Shares than Frank Robinson, Joe Morgan, Rogers Hornsby, Lou Gehrig or Mike Schmidt

All in all, it seems odd that a player of this kind of extraordinary accomplishment is as thoroughly overlooked as Mel Ott seems to be today. It’s all the more puzzling in that this was a guy who spent his entire career in New York, even more then than now the baseball media center of the universe. What has caused Ott to fade from the spotlight the way he has?

I surmise several things:

- He was in New York, but with the wrong team. The Giants in Ott’s era were a strong ball club, winning three pennants. But they couldn’t hold a candle to the Yankees, who were far more dominant; it’s telling that in two of Ott’s World Series appearances, the Giants were drubbed by the Yankees. Even in his day, Ott never gained anything close to the New York notoriety of Ruth or Gehrig, and in the decades since, recollections of the “Golden Era” of New York baseball reliably overlook the Ott-Carl Hubbell-Bill Terry Giants.

- His quiet, bland personality. Ott wasn’t just non-controversial, he was non-quotable. Reporters never went to him to formulate the lead for their story. He never developed an off-the-field persona, an image. Not just Ruth, but other colorful stars from the era such as Dizzy Dean, Paul Waner and Luke Appling gained fame equal to or greater than Ott’s, despite distinctly less accomplishment.

- Misreading of his statistics, in several ways. His 511 homers are rarely appreciated today as the amazing achievement they were, because of general ignorance about the 1930s difference in home run environments between the leagues. His 511 homers are also often discounted as a mere park effect by observers who fail to understand that even without the park effect he was still a hugely dominant home run hitter. And finally, like nearly all underrated players (witness Darrell Evans, Jim Wynn, etc.), Ott featured diverse, all-around talent, and most especially one of his major strengths was in the still-too-often-overlooked walk column.

- His early demise. After being let go as Giants manager in mid-1948 (and being replaced by, of all people, Durocher, guaranteeing immediate overshadowing), Ott quietly retired from baseball and returned to his home state of Louisiana—no marrying the likes of Marilyn Monroe for him. He briefly resurfaced as a radio broadcaster for the Detroit Tigers in 1956-58. But in the fall of 1958, at the age of 49, the car in which Ott was driving with his wife was struck head-on by a drunk driver. Ott died during emergency surgery. Ott was thus not around the baseball scene as the television age advanced, to be featured in “where are they now” interviews, appearing in old-timers games, and so on, continually recalled by contemporaries and introduced to younger fans.

Thus a very great player is largely overlooked today.

References & Resources
Many thanks to alert reader Dan Coomer!

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