On March 2, 1909, Mel Ott was born. He would go on to hit more than 500 home runs in a 22-year, Hall of Fame career. But that’s not what drew Richard’s interest to him.
With the obvious caveat that I’ve not been at this especially long, Mel Ott is far and away the best player I’ve ever profiled. That may seem like damning with faint praise, but it figures to remain true for quite a while. Ott was a fine player, arguably one of the top 25 of all-time, and almost unquestionably one of the top 50.
Over a 22-year career spent entirely with the Giants, Ott put together an accomplished resume. He was a 12- time All-Star, making the team every year from 1934 through 1945. He led the league in adjusted OPS+ five times, and is still in the top 25 all-time in raw OPS. Ott led the league in home runs six times, placing in the top ten 18 times.
All those home runs added up, and by the time he retired Ott had 511, the first National League player to top that level. At the time of his retirement, Ott was third all-time in home runs, behind only Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx.
Of course, there is no doubt of Ott’s greatness, and you don’t really need me to tell you; you only need look on his Baseball-Reference page, which is helpfully linked. So being that I like to provide a service, I won’t tell you Ott’s career, but rather present—in no particular order—five facts about the man that cannot be discerned merely from looking at his collection of statistics:
1. He had a really bad nickname: According to Baseball-Reference, among other sources, Ott was known as “Master Melvin.” That’s a lousy nickname. I’m having a hard time deciding if it sounds more nerdy or geeky, but either way it’s hard to imagine a modern slugger having a nickname that inspires that sort of debate.
The nickname isn’t Ott’s fault. He made his debut as a 17-year-old in 1926. At the time, the fashion was to refer to young men as Master (the only example of this I can think of is that Alfred, the butler, always refers to Batman’s alter-ego as “Master Wayne”) so when the teenager debuted, the nickname was only natural. It is just unfortunate that Master Melvin has not survived the ages so well.
2. He was the best player to go directly to the major leagues: The minors as we know them are a fairly recent invention, so coming up with a list of players who went straight to major league baseball is not as straightforward as it seems. Nonetheless, doing the best job we can, Ott is a runaway choice. Incredibly, Ott went straight from his high school team to the Giants.
Only a handful of Hall of Famers have made the straight leap past the minors. Notable names from that list include Sandy Koufax, Ernie Banks, Robin Yount and Dave Winfield. Those are all great players—Koufax has the best peak, and Yount has two MVP Awards—but none has Ott’s total career. Given the nature of the minor league system today, it would seem Ott will hold this title for the foreseeable future.
3. He is the best player to never win an MVP award: This one comes with a caveat. Awards for the best player have been given in one form or another for many years, but even so players like Honus Wagner were never honored.
Simply considering the Baseball Writers Association of America Award, Ott is the best player without an award. He finished as high as third (in 1942) and accumulated more total votes than guys like Roy Campanella (three MVPs) or Mickey Cochrane (two MVPs). Despite all that, he never won the award and remains the best player without one.
4. His home run total benefited from his home park more than any other player: Before we get into that, let me make clear that Ott isn’t an overrated player; the Polo Grounds weren’t the 1930s version of Coors Field, and he would be an all-time great playing anywhere else. That said, as a left-handed power hitter, Ott benefited from the Polo Grounds’ unique shape. In fact, for all the talk of the short porch at Yankee Stadium, the Giants had New York’s real short right field.
According to Bill James, Ott hit more than 60% of his home runs at home, one of the highest percentages on record. It is likely that had Ott played for nearly any other team he would not be a member of the 500 home run club, and I would have no fifth fact.
5. He is in a unique group among those with 500 homers. (Actually, it’s more of a trivia answer than a unique group, but what can you do?)
Of the 22 members of the club (four players have a chance to hit their 500th home run this year, a story I’m surprised I’ve not heard more about), Ott is one of only four with four or fewer letters in his last name. A little bit of thinking can usually conjure up the remaining names, but just in case you are truly stumped the remaining trio is Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Jimmie Foxx.
Those are perhaps not the five most germane facts about Mel Ott’s career; indeed, besides the bit about going straight to the major leagues none of them draws any mention on his Hall of Fame plaque. But those facts can found nearly anywhere. These, I hope, have served to give a little bit better sense of the man.