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.