By In 100 Greatest, Baseball

No. 34: Mel Ott

Mel Ott is the smallest man in the 500 home run club. At 5-foot-9, 170 pounds he was roughly the same size as Davey Lopes and Bucky Dent and Don Zimmer (in his playing days). He is one of the great outliers in baseball history.

Here is the home run chart for players 5-foot-9 who weighed 175 pounds or less:

1. Mel Ott, 511

2. Earl Averill, 238

3. Davey Lopes, 155

4. Tommy Harper, 146

5. Ripper Collins, 135

I’m about to give you a Mel Ott home run statistic that will blow your mind, but before we get into that let’s say that Mel Ott was a spectacular baseball player as well as a legendary nice guy. I mean that “legendary” part literally; Mel Ott is THE archetype of baseball niceness. He was the nice guy that Leo Durocher was referring to when he offered up his legendary “Nice guys finish last” line. He watched Ott, then manager of the Giants, lead his team on the field.

“Take a look at that No. 4 there,” Durocher said referring to Ott. “A nicer guy never drew breath than that man there.” Then, after calling out the names of the Giants players who followed Ott, Durocher would remember saying: “Take a look at them. All nice guys. They’ll finish last. Nice guys. Finish last.”

Writer Arthur Daley’s contribution: “Ottie had charisma long before that overworked word emerged from the dictionary for everyday use.”

One more: The bar owner Toots Shor was supposedly talking with Sir Alexander Fleming, the Nobel Prize winner who discovered penicillin when Mel Ott walked through the door. “‘Scuse me,” Shor supposedly said as he rushed off. “Somebody important just walked in.”

Ott’s genial nature belied athletic genius. He was not a home run hitter. He was, instead, a complete and self-made hitter. Ott grew up in in a small Louisiana town called Gretna, just on the other side of the river from New Orleans. His father worked long hours in a cottonseed oil plant; Ott always said his family didn’t have much other than church, sports and each other. Ott learned baseball from two uncles who played on a local semipro team.

Ott was not the first to left his front leg high in the air in order to time pitches — the flamingo batting style dates back to the 19th century. But in that little town, through his trial and error, Ott did invent his very own batting style. The first time Giants manager John McGraw saw a 16-year-old Ott, he said, “That’s a natural hitter.”  Ott was in the big leagues at 17. He was a star by 19.

Ott never won an MVP Award though he was probably the league’s best player five or six times during his career. He hit with power, of course, led the league in walks six times and had a tremendous right field arm. He led the National League in WAR five times, finished top four every year from 1929-39, and his 107.8 career WAR is 16th in baseball history, squeezed between Nap Lajoie and Mickey Mantle. When it comes to Mel Ott’s overall play, I would say he’s been underrated by history.

But, yes, much of Ott’s legacy is tied to the home run. He was the first National Leaguer to reach 500 homers. He led the league in homers six times. And as a home run hitter, well, as Bill James has written: It’s likely no one hit more cheap home runs than Mel Ott.

The Polo Grounds (where Ott played 1,367 games) was a U-shaped ballpark situated on Coogan’s Bluff between Harlem and Washington Heights. It is probably remembered best now for its deep, deep centerfield wall. The left-center gap was 450 feet, the right-center gap was 449, and it was an insane 483 feet to straightaway center. That’s why film footage of Willie Mays’ most famous catch is so visually confusing. Cleveland’s Vic Wertz hit the ball 425 feet or so (some estimate it closer to 440) and when Mays caught it, he was, at least, four steps from the warning track, maybe more.

The deep centerfield was the focal point of the Polo Grounds, but hitters aimed down the lines. Because the outfield walls went straight out to centerfield before rounding into the U, the left and right field lines were comically close to the plate. A ball hit down the left-field line (like Bobby Thomson’s “The Giants win the pennant” homer) needed to travel 279 feet to be home runs. Balls hit down the right-field line needed to go just 258 feet.

Left-handed hitters obviously hit a lot of homers at the Polo Grounds. When Johnny Mize was 34, and it seemed unlikely he would ever be a great player again. But using the Polo Grounds wall, he hit 51 home runs (29 at home) to lead the league. The next year he hit 25 of his league-leading 40 homers at the Polo Grounds.

Hank Thompson hit 82 or his 129 career homers at the Polo Grounds. Stan Musial hit 49 homers at the Polo Grounds in his career, far and away the most he hit in any ballpark outside his own.

Nobody, though, took better advantage of the Polo Grounds than Mel Ott. He was the purest of pull hitters and in his career, he hit 323 of his 511 home runs at the Polo Grounds. That’s 63.2%, the second highest total of anybody with more than 300 home runs.

Here are the five highest percentages of homers hit at home:

1. Chuck Klein, 190 of 300, 63.3%

2. Mel Ott, 323 or 511, 63.2%

3. Ron Santo, 216 of 342, 63.2%

4. Hank Greenberg, 205 of 331, 61.9%

5. Todd Helton, 227 of 369, 61.5%

In case you are curious, the lowest percentage of home runs hit at home belongs to Joe Adcock, who hit just 137 of his 336 home runs at home (40.8%). That’s because he played the bulk of his career in massive County Stadium. Adcock, with a bit more luck (and perhaps a manager who believed in him), easily could have hit 500 homers in his career. Joe DiMaggio is second on that list, hitting just 148 of his 361 homers at Yankee Stadium. More on him down the road.

Back to Mel Ott … I still haven’t gotten to that jaw-dropping statistic. Ott took advantage of the Polo Grounds because he was a pull hitter and because he was a smart hitter. He realized early on that there was no point in trying to hit the ball to the gaps at the Polo Grounds. Ott was a different hitter on the road — in many ways, he was a BETTER hitter on the road. Ott hit 14 points higher on the road (.311 to .297), with 117 more singles, 123 more doubles, and 30 more triples. At home, he pulled the ball out of the park. That’s what the park asked him to do.

All that said,  Ott didn’t really have a crazy home run split for most of his career. Through 1940, he hit 388 home runs and 223 (57.5%) were at home. That’s a high percentage, no question, but it’s in line with some of other greats like Billy Williams, Ralph Kiner, Yogi Berra, Al Kaline and so on. Frank Robinson hit 55% of his homers at home. So did Jim Thome. Jimmie Foxx  hit 56% of his at home. Larry Walker hit 56% of his homers at home.

But going into the 1941 season, something changed with Mel Ott. He turned 32 that March and my guess is that he realized his bat speed was slowing down and his body was wearing down. After 1941, his batting average dropped, his power numbers dwindled. It’s a common story. Players talk about making adjustments when they get older. But those adjustments are tough to pull off.

What Mel Ott did, best I can tell, is this: He altered his hitting to fully take advantage of the Polo Grounds. And he didn’t even worry about what he did on the road.

Just look at the numbers:

In 1941, Ott hit .347/.490/.636 at home with 19 home runs.

That same year, he hit .236/.325/.382 on the road with 8 home runs.

He’d never had a split like that before. In 1942, of course, America was at war (Ott was too old to serve), and the talent in baseball was significantly down. Ott basically repeated the pattern. He slugged 643 at home. He slugged.347 on the road. That year, he hit 23 homers at home, 7 on the road.

Then came 1943 — but before I get to 1943, let me give you the punchline. From 1941 to 1946, Mel Ott hit 123 home runs to put himself over the 500-homer mark. And do you know how many of those 123 he hit at home? One hundred. Yeah. For those final years, he hit 81% of his homers at home. The last four years, he hit 58 homers at home and eight (yes EIGHT) on the road.

The crescendo was 1943. Baseball was obviously a mess in 1943. Just about all the good players were overseas, attendance was down to nothing (he Giants averaged fewer than 5,000 people per game) and lots of people were wondering why they were even playing baseball. The equipment was also subpar; there were always rumors about the baseballs being soft and inferior, and the power numbers around baseball were in freefall (baseball’s .344 slugging percentage in 1943 is the second-lowest since Deadball, behind only 1968’s year of the pitcher).

Ott was pretty much finished. He hit just .234. But even in full decline, he managed to hit 18 home runs which, believe it or not, was good enough for second in the National League.

He hit ALL EIGHTEEN at the Polo Grounds.

I’ll repeat that: In 1943, Mel Ott hit all 18 of his homers at home.

As mentioned earlier, none of this should be read as disparaging of Ott. He adapted marvelously to his environment. If Ott had played his career at Fenway Park, I have no doubt at all that he would have adjusted his swing to take advantage of the park. If he had played his career at Ebbetts Field, he would have probably added 10 points to his career batting average, maybe more, even if his home run total fell off a bit.

But he was a Giant. One of the reasons that doing a list like this is fun is that we can’t possibly know who was better in a neutral environment; baseball isn’t played in a laboratory. How would Babe Ruth play in 2016? How would Bryce Harper be in 1954? We can only guess. What we know is this: You play the cards you are dealt. Mel Ott played his cards beautifully.

87 Responses to No. 34: Mel Ott

  1. Jon Kopplin says:

    I love these.

  2. SDG says:

    He was Vin Scully’s favorite player growing up. That makes me like him. It’s funny how some big stars of their day end up immortals and some end up forgotten.

    • Vin’s boyhood hero was Mel Ott, in a town that also had Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio. Then again, people forget that Vin Scully grew up a Giants fan.

      • Chris H says:

        Despite being a fan of baseball and baseball history, I was only vaguely aware of Ott until hearing Vin talk about him. I believe “I idolized him,” was the phrase he used. That made me take notice. A lovely piece as always.

  3. rich zwei says:

    my dad’s favorite player when he was a kid. thanks for this.

  4. Johnny B says:

    Mel Ott – the best 6 letters in baseball.

  5. murr2825 says:

    I used to call my niece Mel Ott because her credit score was 511 (I still consigned for her and you can guess how that turned out.)

    I agree with Jon up there. I love these, too.

  6. murr2825 says:

    (Ahem) that is supposed to be “co-signed”, not consigned, stupid spellcheck.

  7. A good and fair article on Mel Ott, and a great picture at the top of the post where you can see the essence of Ott’s batting style. This is a man who is trying to pull the ball in the air. His front side is closed, but he’s getting ready to uncoil, choking up (!) to help get the bat head out front, using his famous leg lift to help with the pivot and generate an uppercut. Not a guy you want to pitch inside.

    • Johnny Allen says:

      Mr. Ott taught me how to hit , just like him, when I was 7. On my walk to Metairie playground he stopped me once to show me a few things about hitting. His station wagon wasn’t home one day ,but I kept going back to his house to find him. Way later on, I was taking some of the flowers from the Ott’s flower plant in front of their house and Mrs. Ott came out with a plate of cookies and offered me one. She told me he wasn’t around anymore. That’s it. He was a real nice guy.

  8. Paul says:

    Regardless of his actual achievements crossword puzzle writers would have made him immortal.

  9. NevadaMark says:

    Ott hit his 511th and last homer on opening day in 1946 off Oscar Judd of the Phillies. And yes, it was at Polo Grounds.

  10. Tom says:

    “As mentioned earlier, none of this should be read as disparaging of Ott.”

    And yet the majority of this tripe WAS disparaging. It’s also ironic (hypocritical?) to say that Ott is “underrated” while spending so many words telling everyone how “cheap” his home runs were.

    • Dennis says:

      tripe? you should be kissing Joe’s feet for this free content
      what a loser you are

    • Bpdelia says:

      He’s on a list as one of the best players of all time. Would you have had him higher? I might have had him around 25 be because there were plenty of other parks in history that had quirky aspects that could be influential. The Baker bowl etc.

      This was more to explain why he’s this low compared to his war total.

      Seems pretty fair as Ott might have one of the biggest gaps between WAR ranking and list ranking. If Joe didn’t go through all this people would be saying “why is he top 20 in WAR but so low on the list”.

      Pretty fair reasoning to me.

    • mark says:

      When I got to Joe’s sentence about how none of what he wrote was meant to be disparaging, I wondered why he wrote it. I didn’t read any of it as disparaging. It was a gracious and arguably unnecessary clarification/apology. Shoulder/chip: brush it off.

    • sbmcmanus says:

      Only in the glorious world of internet comments sections can a person be accused of dumping on a player in an article which defines him as the 34th greatest player of all time. Good grief.

    • Patrick Bohn says:

      Nothing says disparaging like “I believe you are the 34th-best player to ever play Major League Baseball”

    • buddaley says:

      I think you are missing the point of Joe’s article. He is pointing out how smart a hitter Ott was. Here is the operative quotation:

      “Ott’s genial nature belied athletic genius. He was not a home run hitter. He was, instead, a complete and self-made hitter.”

      Joe goes on to state that Ott was the best player in the league numerous times, that he was an all-around great player. He pulled in the Polo Grounds because it was made for that style. Lots of others played there but did not pile up the achievements that Ott did. I think the implication is that had he played in a different home park he would have tailored his game to fit its peculiarities and excelled.

  11. drpaulsem says:

    These essays are the highlights of my day!

  12. Mel Ott is one of 6 players (the other 5 are Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Stan Musial, Chipper Jones, and Frank Thomas) to have a career slash line of at least .300/.400/.500 in a career of at least 10,000 PA. If you ask people to try and name all 6 and give them enough guesses, people will usually come up with other 5, but no one ever guesses Mel Ott.

    • I had to look up Barry Bonds stats to compare to this slash line. He just misses on BA: .298/.44/.607.

    • Cooper Nielson says:

      It would’ve taken me a while, but I think I would have guessed Mel Ott way before Chipper Jones, though I’m sure I must have seen that factoid a few years ago when Jones was retiring. Totally forgot about it.

      That’s a fun question. But I think you missed one. Tris Speaker hit .345/.428/.500 in 11,995 PA. (I double-checked and his SLG was .50034, so it wasn’t rounded up.)

      Barry Bonds and Mickey Mantle got close (both ended with .298 AVG). Ted Williams, Manny Ramirez, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx got the slash stats but missed by a few hundred PA. Edgar Martinez and Larry Walker also got the slash stats, but missed the PA by quite a ways. Hank Greenberg by even more.

    • Zack says:

      Don’t forget Tris Speaker.

    • I absolutely forgot Tris Speaker. Good catch, and my apologies.

    • Marshall says:

      I would have though Ted Williams would be on that list, but sure enough he falls 212 PA short. However, if you add 212 PA/outs to his batting line, he ends up with something like .335/.471/.617.

      • Marshall, Manny Ramirez is similarly close and also has good enough numbers that he’d still be above the .300/.400/.500 lines if he stepped to the plate and took 3 straight strikes enough times to get to the (admittedly arbitrary) 10,000 PA minimum.

      • Marc Schneider says:

        Obviously, Williams missed because he spent five years in the military (WW II and Korea).

    • Pat says:

      There are seven: You left off Tris Speaker.

      Chipper Jones’ joining the club makes it a bit unbalanced, but before he joined the club in 2011 (he was short on PAs before), you could make the quiz a bit easier with a bit of a clue: The first two played the same position (CF) at the same time; the next two were right fielders in the same city about ten years apart, and the last two were first basemen (bear with me!) a generation apart… but one of them played most of his career in one of the outfield positions (Musial still played more games at first than any of the three individually) while the other played most of his games at DH.

    • Pat says:

      Shoot, stepped on Zack’s line, too. What t.f. am I doin’ here?

  13. Cuban X Senators says:

    What I always wondered about the Polo Grounds and haven’t heard anyone speak of is how the U-shape changed OF play. Pinching in the corner OFers as it must have, must have meant nothing rolled into the gap; OFers could probably whisper to each other. Essentially they each would have had to cove far more ground back and front than side to side.

    And I don’t mean anything I’m about to say to disparage the greatest catch ever (hat tip to Joe), but essentially a CF in the Polo Grounds only ever had to get a jump at the crack of the bat in one direction – straight back.

  14. Geoff says:

    FYI re: the Poz100 contest. I sent out an update after the Ripken article was posted, but I got 3-4 bouncebacks (not surprising after a year!). If you’re among those no longer getting those emails (or just want the updates), feel free to shoot me a note at poz100contest(at)gmail. Happy to add you.

  15. Scott says:

    We tend to overrate great player in New York. For example, Christy Mathewson becomes the equal of Walter Johnson (he wasn’t), and Joe DiMaggio becomes the “Greatest Living Ballplayer” (he wasn’t in the top five). It isn’t that these players weren’t great, it’s that they weren’t as great as their contemporaries.
    But somehow, Mel Ott is forgotten, falling behind his teammate Carl Hubbell in fame. But he was probably the best player in the National League in the 1930s, and the Giants were competitive nearly every year. Perhaps it’s because he’s out of place in team history, neither part of the McGraw-Mathewson era or the Willie Mays teams of the 50s and 60s

  16. BobDD says:

    During 1936 and 37 two different players manned 3B with OPS+ at 50 and 51. So starting the second half of 1937 Mel Ott started playing 3B for the next year and a half, and continued a handful of games there for the remainder of his career – 256 games all-told. It’s not that he played 3B very well, just that he was willing to strengthen the Giants lineup that way.

  17. Great stuff, and an earlier commenter made the point about The Vin. But an extra note: when John McGraw saw Ott and his batting style, he kept him with the Giants to keep someone from messing with him. It worked.

  18. Cliff Blau says:

    Richie Ashburn hit 15 of his 29 career home runs at the Polo Grounds, and it was his home field only one season.

  19. Kuz says:

    I looked up Graig Nettles after reading this. Baseball reference has him at 6′ and 180 lbs.

    He seemed smaller than that to me.

  20. NevadaMark says:

    Thompson’s homer in the 51 playoff game was not cheap-it was to left center, not down the left field line. Dusty Rhodes game winning home in the first game of the 54 World Series WAS cheap, barely clearing the fence near the right field line, less than 300 feet away.

    • NevadaMark says:

      Just reviewed the film of the 51 game and I retract part of my statement. The ball was not hit down the line but it was much closer to the line than I had remembered. It still looked like a pretty good shot.

      • Marc Schneider says:

        I always wondered about that. It looked to me like he hit a line drive so that it might well have gone out anyway. It certainly was not a pop fly like Rhodes’ home run.

  21. invitro says:

    Well I had Ott #35 and Ripken #34, so I’m now in first place in the contest. In case you wanted to know which players were coming up, here they are:
    #33. Tom Seaver
    #32. Johnny Bench
    #31. Lefty Grove
    #30. George Brett
    #29. Jimmie Foxx
    O is for Ott
    Of the restless right foot.
    When he leaned on the pellet,
    The pellet stayed put.

    • AndyL says:

      Congrats Invitro. I had Ott #47, which dropped me out of first. My next picks are Jackie Robinson, Clemente, Berra, Brett and Bench.

      • invitro says:

        Thank you. It was hard to catch you. It looks like you’re in trouble with those next three picks, though.

    • terrific job so far! I think you’ve got Bench and Grove ranked too low. Cant believe we haven’t seen Brett yet, I’ve got him at 44 (even with the KC bonus).

  22. pjr1427 says:

    A record! Those 323 home runs at the Polo Grounds are still the all-time record for one batter in any one ballpark.

    Another record! Add in 25 home runs at Ebbets Field, and Ott hit 348 home runs in New York City. That’s still the all-time record for one batter in any one city; it’s four more than Babe Ruth hit in the same city.

  23. Cuban X Senators says:

    Q: Which of his home parks did the Bambino have his best HR/AB ratio?

    A: the Polo Grounds

  24. Richard says:

    “How would Babe Ruth play in 2016? How would Bryce Harper be in 1954? We can only guess.”

    Bill Jenkinson’s done the research on Ruth’s career in “The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs: Recrowning Baseball’s Greatest Slugger”. He posits that for Ruth’s 1921 season, if it had been played under modern rules and conditions (including a 162 game season), he’d have slugged over 100 baseballs into the outfield bleachers.

    • Geoff says:

      I haven’t read the book, but the idea that if you transported 1921 Ruth to 2016 he’d hit 100+ home runs is completely absurd. I believe he would be among the worst players in baseball, and would SHATTER the all-time strikeout record. The quality of pitching today is just vastly superior to anything Ruth could ever have imagined.

      • invitro says:

        He said if Ruth had played under modern rules and conditions, not against modern pitchers.

        • Geoff says:

          Seems like an odd distinction, as I would think “modern conditions” includes modern pitchers, but okay. I hope he then acknowledges that Harper would hit 180 HR under those same conditions.

          • Marc Schneider says:

            Well, it would be like saying what if Johnny Unitas or Sonny Jurgensen playing under today’s rules. Not playing against that same players. Unitas is dead and Jurgensen is in his 80s. They probably wouldn’t do too well.

            Anyway, not to be facetious, I think your assumption that a player from the 1920s could not possibly play today is dubious. Baseball is a game of hand/eye coordination; as far as I’m aware, humans have not evolved in those respects since the 1920s. You are assuming, in effect, that Ruth could not possibly have adjusted to the pitching today. I don’t see any particular reason to assume that any more than to assume that Albert Einstein wouldn’t be much of a physicist today because today’s physicists are much smarter. (Obviously, though, I agree that Ruth would not hit 104 home runs today.)

            I once saw a comparison that some scientist made between Usain Bolt and Jesse Owens. Bolt’s time in the 100 are obviously much faster than Owens but, according to this scientist, if you adjust for different conditions (such as the equipment they use to start the race from), the actual difference in time is very small. The point is, I don’t think you can simply assume that athletic skills are that much better today. What has changed is that the pool of talent is much larger today in most sports and that training and nutrition are better.

          • invitro says:

            Well, it seems to me that while the research needed to project for modern conditions is hard enough, the research needed to project for modern pitchers is probably impossible. At least, I’m not aware of any such research. This is the way research works, folks: a little at a time. If you want to do a serious study that attempts to project Ruth’s performance against modern pitchers, we’d love to see it.

        • Patrick Bohn says:

          “He said if Ruth had played under modern rules and conditions, not against modern pitchers.”

          Which thus makes it completely meaningless (even in the realm of this discussion, which is and of itself, meaningless). Adjusting for everything else but ignoring a huge factor like the quality of the pitchers he’d be facing in the modern game seems like a pretty obvious attempt to make Ruth’s numbers look as good as possible, because it doesn’t really account for the thing that would suppress his numbers

          • invitro says:

            Patrick, your comment is the definition of ignorance. The guy just did some interesting research. Calling it “meaningless” just shows you to be a boob, and the “as good as possible” stuff shows you to not be capable of basic understanding.
            Apologies for the harsh words, but I have come to the conclusion that anti-scientific and anti-logical comments are to be decried with strong language, even if it’s on some Internet blog.

          • Patrick Bohn says:


            Recognizing that there’s an issue in attempting to answer how Ruth would do under modern conditions while excluding an essential (if not *the* essential) aspect of those conditions—the skill level of the players who would be pitching to Ruth—is hardly anti-intellectual or anti-scientific. While perhaps my “meaningless” statement was too harsh, I believe the underlying criticism of the research is valid. (You of course, are free to disagree, as opinions vary on the Internet.) And just because the research is interesting—which it is—doesn’t make it immune to criticism.

            (And although you don’t need to apologize for your comments, it’s strange that the person defending against “anti-intellectualism” is the one who’s calling other people names like a child)

          • Marc Schneider says:

            I don’t see why it’s meaningless. He’s not trying to say that Ruth would be as good in 2016 as in 1927. He’s simply projecting how many home runs would he have hit if he had played under the same PHYSICAL conditions (ballparks, etc.) in 1927. The question of the quality of the competition is entirely different. It’s like saying how many home runs would Hank Aaron have hit if he had played his entire career in Atlanta rather than most of it in Milwaukee, i.e, in a ballpark more conducive to home runs or how many TD passes would Peyton Manning have thrown if he had played under 1970s rules. It’s got nothing to do with whether he (or Ruth) would have done as well facing current competition. Just because he’s not asking the question you want him to doesn’t make it meaningless. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t think Babe Ruth would have hit 104 home runs playing in 2016.

          • You’d also have to adjust for modern video analysis, modern hitting techniques and modern training methods. Ruth was a physical beast and an athlete even after he got fat. If he stayed fit, using modern techniques, there’s no telling what may happen. My guess is that he’d still be incredible.

          • Geoff says:

            Again, I think this comes down to whether we’re talking about Ruth being born in 1990 or 1921 Babe Ruth being magically transported to 2016. If it’s the former, I suspect he’d be among the best players in the game; if it’s the latter, I think he’d be a homeless man’s Adam Dunn.

      • Kuz says:

        Yeah, and Abe Lincoln would be among the worst Presidents if he served today.

        • Geoff says:

          Funny…I imagine you’re being sarcastic, but that’s a good point. If 1860 Lincoln was magically transported to today, he probably *would* be a disaster as President. He’d have no understanding of the current political environment, international relations would be vastly more complex than anything he ever had to deal with, he’d have no understanding of the modern military, etc.

          • Kuz says:

            And Skakespeare wouldn’t be that good a writer today.

          • Marc Schneider says:

            When you make counterfactuals like that, I think you have to implicitly assume that the person (whether a ballplayer or politician) would be able to adjust to or learn about the new conditions. Otherwise, the answer is obvious. If 1860 Abraham Lincoln were transported into the White House today, he would obviously have no idea what to do. He wouldn’t even know how to use the telephone. As J Hench noted, the idea is that you are trying to answer is how the qualities of the person (either intellectual as with Lincoln or athletic as with Ruth) would translate to today. Would Lincoln’s qualities work in today’s political environment. I think Lincoln could probably be taught about ISIS; it’s not as if fanatics didn’t exist in the 19th century. The same with Ruth; it’s not as if he would be learning a completely new game. The pitchers might be better so he wouldn’t hit as many home runs, but that doesn’t mean he would strike out every time.

          • Which reminds me, when Clinton took over as President, he found that the White House still had an old fashioned wired switchboard. At the time, he was a younger President taking over from much older Presidents George HW Bush and Reagan before that, who apparently thought that was just fine. Clinton was astounded at the low level of technology at the time.

    • Patrick Bohn says:

      That total is pure wishcasting and downplays the drastic increase in the talent level in the league today

    • PhilM says:

      OK, I actually own and read this book, which apparently not many commenters have. The premise is that if all the ballparks had today’s shorter configurations, if Ruth played a 162-game schedule, and he still hit the ball as far and as often as he actually did that year, 104 of his hits would have gone over the fences. It’s a bit far-fetched, but a fun exercise: it points up exactly how different the game can be (and has been) from era to era. I don’t put too much stock in the number, but I certainly enjoyed the book.

      • J Hench says:

        My favorite method of handling these sorts of counterfactuals is by following the logic used by Steve Treder in his series for the Hardball Times, where he hypothesized how players would perform had they been born in, say, 1968, but otherwise had all the characteristics that made them . . .them. So then we don’t need to see, “oh, but the talent level is much higher today” because the environmental factors which help make the talent level higher today would also be present for the contemporary Babe Ruth or Honus Wagner or Walter Johnson or. .. you get the idea.

        Given the high priority placed on pitching these days, I doubt Ruth ever gets turned into a hitter, for instance. But perhaps he has Tommy John surgery when he’s 21 and switches after his breaking pitches don’t come back as sharply.

        • casey bell says:

          The primary reason why today’s average MLB ball player is more skilled than the average MLB player of Ruth’s day is because teams draw from a much larger pool of potential players. Modern training, nutrition, coaching,
          competive travelling youth teams, etc play
          a part as well, but all those factors are secondary to the impact of having at least 10 times as many potential ballplayers due to the
          inclusion of blacks, venezuelans, Dominicans,Koreans, Japanese, Mexicans, Columbians, etc, not to mention the greater number of whites due to population growth.

          Imagine you have two boxes of ping pong balls, one with 100 balls, the other with 700
          balls. Each ball has either the word “elite” or
          “average” written on it. The balls labeled “elite” represent All Star level players, the balls labeled “average” represent replacement level players.

          You are informed that 10% of the balls in the
          small box are marked ‘elite’, bt only 6% of the balls in the large box are labeled “elite”. You are given the choice of selecting 20 balls from the small box or 20 from the large box. And you are allowed to inspect each ball and reject as many as you want to until you’ve got 20 balls..

          Which box would you choose to draw from?

          Clearly you’d want to pick from the larger box because even though the percentage of ‘elite”s is much lower it would still be possible for you to end up with a set of 20 “elite”s because there were more than 20 elites in the big box (6% x 700 = 42)

          If you’d chosen from the smaller box you’d never wind up with more than ten “elite”s because there would only be ten elites available (10% x 100 =10).

          If Ruth played today he would probably be not much more than an Adam Dunn or Mark Reynolds type player, simply because the overall level of talent in the majors would be so much higher due to being drawn from a far larger pool of potential players.

          • Geoff says:

            You’re obviously correct in saying that the expanded talent pool is a huge contributing factor to the higher level of play in today’s game (though it’s not at all clear to me that this a bigger contributor than the other factors you mention), but your assessment of what Ruth would be today (i.e., Dunn/Reynolds) actually runs counter to your argument. Even though the talent pool is much larger, you would still expect Ruth (in terms of raw ability) to be at the very top of it. Maybe he wouldn’t be clearly the best player in the pool, but he would still be in the top 1% of MLB players (or higher), so you would expect him to be in the Trout/Harper class.

            Personally, I think that if 1920 Babe Ruth showed up today he wouldn’t even be close to the player Mark Reynolds is, and that he’d almost certainly (at least initially) be the worst player in baseball. However, I also believe that had Ruth been born exactly 100 years later, he would have just had his first legal drink and would currently be coming off his rookie season or sitting near the top of top 100 prospect lists. Humans haven’t notably changed genetically over the last century, so I don’t see any reason that he wouldn’t benefit from modern training/coaching/diet etc., and would still possess a level of talent on the very far right end of the curve.

          • Kuz says:

            And Neil Armstrong would be a mediocre astronaut today.

          • Kuz says:

            More thoughts on how Babe Ruth would fare in today’s game. Statistical analysis is a very powerful tool. Much of the discourse on this site concerns the description of populations and comparing the behavior of populations with individuals. Certain individuals (people or data observations) are literally “off the charts”, beyond six-sigma. Babe Ruth is such an individual.
            I think the comments below describe this well.

            Steroids, Home Runs and the Law of Genius
            Arthur De Vany
            Professor Emeritus
            Department of Economics
            Institute for Mathematical Behavioral Sciences University of California, Irvine
            It took more than 80 years and more than 100,000 player-years of baseball for 5 home run hitters of the caliber of Ruth, Maris, McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds to appear. We have been lucky enough to witness three of them in the past few years. To diminish their accomplishments on the basis of speculations and rumors about steroids, as members of Congress and the media have done, has the facts and the science wrong and is profoundly ignorant of the statistical laws of human accomplishment. McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds are home run geniuses, not ordinary hitters on steroids; they are the Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven of home runs.
            Will another player of the prowess of Babe Ruth, Roger Maris, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa or Barry Bonds ever appear again? Even greater performances are possible because the law of home runs has a long Paretian upper tail with positive and non-vanishing probability mass. But, the chances are small. The law of home runs says that the probability that Babe Ruth’s record of 60 home runs would be broken is 0.0109. Given more than 100,000 tries in nearly 80 years, it was almost sure to fall. Barry Bonds’ record of 73 will be harder to break. According to the law of home runs, the probability that his record will be broken is 0.007206.

  25. Pat says:

    Another bit of trivia for Mel Ott is the hitters who have hit at least forty home runs in a season while striking out fewer than forty times. Seven times it’s been done! By two Yankees, two Giants, and three other guys who have a striking commonality….

    The Yankees are Gehrig and DiMaggio (’34 and ’37). The two Giants are Ott and Mize (’29 and ’48). The last three guys? Three Cincinnati Reds named Ted Kluszewski, Ted Kluszewski, and Ted Kluszewski.

  26. chh3 says:

    Seen any film of Walter Johnson?

    He threw as fast as anybody’s ever thrown. He would kill it today.

  27. Pete S says:

    There is evidence from pictures that Christy Mathewson used the down and drive

  28. Geoff says:

    I hadn’t seen that…thanks for posting. The best video I’ve seen of Johnson pitching is from the 1924 WS. He’s not quite at the height of his powers, but he was still among the best pitchers in the game and won the AL MVP that year:

    Look at the pitches he throws at 2:12 and 2:41. These are game pitches in a WORLD SERIES game and he looks like he’s throwing BP. What’s striking to me about the video you posted is just how bad everyone looks. Vance is at least using his lower half and generating real leverage in his delivery, but Cobb and Ruth look *terrible*. You could literally watch, say, Ichiro and Harper take BP for a week and neither of them would ever be that off balance or pull their heads of the ball the way Ruth does on one swing. Heck, you wouldn’t see Wily Mo Peña take that bad a swing. Seeing that makes me wonder if those guys could beat an A-ball team today. I’m skeptical.

  29. Randy says:

    “Sir Alexander Fleming, the Nobel Prize winner who discovered penicillin when Mel Ott walked through the door”

    That was one heck of a eureka moment!

  30. If your criteria went up from 5′ 9″ to 5’10, 175 lbs, you’d pull in Willie Mays. So when you talk about short sluggers, it’s not like there’s just one.

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