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A Giant Among All-Stars

So there they are, your 2007 Major League Baseball All-Stars, gallivanting about in black and orange, orange and black. Every batting practice, home run contest and celebrity softball participant is resplendent in Giant colors. Gary Carter even managed to assimilate in a cap that says SF, for the team with which he’s so closely identified.

The San Francisco Giants are your gracious hosts for the 2007 All-Star Game. They celebrate themselves as well as the game this week. Well, they celebrate the part of themselves they can lay their hands on. They celebrate Bonds. They celebrate McCovey. They celebrate Mays.

I’ll be shocked if anybody in San Francisco utters these two Giant words: Mel Ott.

Who?

Sounds vaguely familiar…

I think I heard his name mentioned the last time somebody hit his 500somethingth home run.

Oh, I know!

And with that, the slugger passes Eddie Murray. Next up on the list: Mel Ott at 511.

Mel Ott hit 511 home runs.

Repeat: Mel Ott hit 511 home runs. Long before anybody had ever heard of the clear or the cream, long before anybody expanded and depleted pitching staffs, long before television became a way of life. Mel Ott hit 511 home runs back when hitting 511 home runs was an almost unmatched feat and without anybody setting a VCR to record a single one of them. But he hit ’em. He hit ’em and hit a load of ’em right around here.

And yet, have you, especially if you’re younger than 50, ever heard of Mel Ott beyond the most cursory of statistical mentions? Do you know who this man was and what he accomplished and where he accomplished it?

I’m guessing no.

I’m not blaming you. You can only seek out so much baseball. The rest is to be absorbed by osmosis, and for osmosis to occur, the baseball’s got to be out there somewhere. Mel Ott’s substantial slice of it isn’t anymore. Mel Ott has been lost to the mists of time. Mel Ott may be the greatest ballplayer to play in the greatest city in the world to have all but vanished from public consciousness.

It’s tough to remain an active immortal when your team has left you behind. That, of course, is what the New York Giants did to Mel Ott the second they became the San Francisco Giants. They left behind John McGraw and Christy Mathewson and Carl Hubbell and Bill Terry and hundreds of others, too. A few have managed to have the pilot lights on legends relit [1] in recent years. Ott, though, has fallen through the cracks and pretty much straight down the memory hole, he and every one of his 511 home runs.

Which were huge in their time. Mel Ott was a star. He was an All-Star rightfielder/third baseman for a dozen consecutive years, from 1934 to 1945. He was the face of the New York National League franchise for two decades, beginning with when he was a teenager. Between Mathewson and Mays, he was, even at 5 feet 9 inches, the Giant among Giants.

Ott’s entire 22-season career has essentially been reduced to a rest stop on the home run highway. He’s where boppers collect themselves ever so briefly before preparing to pass Eddie Matthews and Ernie Banks just one dinger up the pike. Then it’s off to McCovey and Ted Williams at 521 and so on.

Mel Ott gets left in the dust. He’s a marker. Merely the signpost up ahead when he deserves to be an entire road unto himself — or at least have one in New York bear his name. Such an action is not unprecedented and the honor would surely be appropriate.

You may still refer to the West Side Highway in Manhattan as the West Side Highway (or the “bleeping West Side Highway” at rush hour), but a good chunk of it is officially the Joe DiMaggio Highway since 1999. A hardy band of fans of those departed New York Giants, the team that was identified with Manhattan for decades every bit as much as the Clipper’s club was tied to the Bronx, has petitioned two mayors and various municipal muckety-mucks to name at least part of Harlem River Drive [2] after Mel Ott. (The Ottway has a nice ring, no?) It would be geographically spot on, given that it winds right past where its namesake player made his living and made his fans very, very happy.

DiMaggio, I’ll grant you, cast a wider PR net after his retirement, but I’ve got news for you. Before the Yankee Clipper clocked a single base hit, Ott outed 242 balls for home runs. The 511 he hit, that total passed so often in the injection era? It’s still 19th-most all time. A decade ago, it was 14th-most. And when Mel Ott retired on July 11, 1947, exactly 60 years ago tomorrow, it was the third-highest home run total in baseball history, trailing only Babe Ruth’s 714 and Jimmie Foxx’s 534. Until 1966, Ott’s 511 was the N.L. standard. The man who eventually topped him was Willie Mays, six seasons a New York Giant himself and the only fellow to be mentioned in a serious discussion of greatest everyday New York Giant ever.

Willie was Willie [3], but San Francisco unfortunately beckoned for the balance of his prime. Bill Terry compiled a lifetime .341 average, but little of the power and, at best, a fraction of the affection Ott did. Mel Ott, beyond his staggering numbers (notably 1,860 RBI, eleventh-most all-time) was beloved in ways that defy our modern, cynical perceptions of professional athletes.

It wasn’t for nothing that Time placed him on its cover in the twilight of his career, pronouncing him “Everybody’s Ballplayer.” It wasn’t a coincidence that when Lou Gehrig acknowledged the Giants paying him consideration in his darkest hour (“when the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice-versa, sends you a gift — that’s something”), that those were Ott’s Giants. It wasn’t a fluke that a nationwide poll of war bonds buyers in 1944 identified him as the most popular sports hero of all-time even after batting .234. And it’s no accident that the most famous and famously mangled quote in baseball, Leo Durocher’s “nice guys finish last,” started out as a tribute to the nicest guy of them all:

“Do you know a nicer guy than Mel Ott?”

Durocher offered his lefthanded praise to the Giants’ skipper (in his fifth season of seven as player-manager, when the Giants, in fact, were eighth of eight in the league) in the service of promoting Durocher, but it wasn’t an inaccurate assessment of Ott’s persona as it was widely viewed through his 22 seasons as a player.

• Is it any wonder that the National League officially honors its annual home run champion with the Mel Ott Award to this day [4]?

• Is it any wonder that the evening after Ottie banged his 500th homer, renowned saloonkeeper Toots Shor abandoned entertaining the Nobel Prize winner who happened to be in his establishment, Sir Alexander Fleming, to welcome Master Melvin to the premises with a perfectly reasonable, “Excuse me, Alex, I’ve got to greet someone who’s really important”?

• Is it any wonder that after he was dismissed as manager by the Giants in 1948, they didn’t pretend he never existed but instead made sure to retire his number 4 the very next year? (It remains retired; thanks for that much, San Francisco.)

So he was a sweetheart and he hit a lot of home runs. Is there more to Mel Ott than that?

How about this: Mel Ott is the Home Run King of New York.

Aw, come on, you may be thinking. Everybody knows that’s Babe Ruth’s gig; we’ve seen the pictures with the Babe wearing the crown. Yes, of course, Ruth set the records for most home runs in a season and in a career, but not even the Bambino homered as much in New York City as Mel Ott did.

As documented in Stew Thornley’s essential Land of the Giants: New York’s Polo Grounds, Babe Ruth hit 299 regular-season home runs between the PG (Yankee home Ruth’s first three seasons in town) and Yankee Stadium. That, though, is a full 24 shy of Ott’s Coogan’s Bluff total of 323 — which doesn’t even take into account his frequent visits to Brooklyn and the 25 homers he hit out of Ebbets Field.

Granted, the Polo Grounds was as strangely shaped [5] then as Barry Bonds’ head is now. Lefty Ott and his singular stance [6] — lifting his right foot “completely off the ground and slightly crook[ing] his knee more as if he were pitching a ball than about to hit one,” Roger Angell wrote — surely took advantage of the 257-foot rightfield foul pole. If that’s how she played, that’s how she played. The wondrously weird dimensions of the Polo Grounds (including 483 feet to center) were as nutty for every Giant and every opponent as they were for Ott. If Yankee Stadium was The House That Ruth Built, the Polo Grounds turned out to be the crib where Mel Ott was born to deposit line-drives over a short fence.

Did somebody say “crib”? It wasn’t long after he first drew breath that he was swinging there. Mel Ott made his Major League debut in 1926 at the preposterous age of 17 (no minor leagues for this minor), thus earning that endearing and enduring nickname, Master Melvin. In Yogiesque terms, he was mighty young for an awfully long time. There was also something oxymoronic about his appearance, all 5′-9″, 170 pounds of it: A boy that green, a frame that slight, a signature right leg lift that unorthodox…yet home runs that plentiful. It’s as fitting and can be that the definitive book on him, by historian Fred Stein, is titled Mel Ott: The Little Giant of Baseball.

It’s sadly apropos that Ott got such an early start seeing as how his life ended too soon, at age 49, after a gruesome car accident in his native Louisiana. It’s unfortunate in a less tangible way that his death in 1958 accelerated the forgetting process that erases far too many figures from the collective memory.

Mel Ott is gone nearly 50 years. He fleetingly re-emerges in the collective baseball consciousness from time to time.

• Like when Ken Griffey became the most recent player to pound a 511th homer and when Frank Thomas or Alex Rodriguez becomes the next to reach that plateau.

• Like when TV Land airs that episode of M*A*S*H in which Colonel Potter, irked by Major Winchester’s assertion that operatic tenor Enrico Caruso is a giant, makes the same reference any American would have thought of as late as the Korean War:

“If I want a Giant, I’ll send for Mel Ott!”

• Like when 37-Across in the Times crossword contains the clue “Giant Mel” and there are three squares to fill.

• Like when the United States Postal Service issued four stamps [7] last July to honor four Baseball Hall of Famers. Three of them — Mickey Mantle (61*), Roy Campanella (It’s Good To Be Alive) and Hank Greenberg (The Life And Times Of…) — were immortalized in film. The fourth is Mel Ott.

He’s a hint. He’s a sitcom rejoinder. He’s a line in The Baseball Encyclopedia to be hopped, skipped and jumped by the next slugger who doesn’t test positive for something a 5′-9″ legend in his time never needed.

Now he’s a stamp. Anything that affixes him in memory is a good thing, I suppose. Seems like he should be more, though. He was Mel Ott, for goodness sake. When I was in third grade, I found four ancient biographies of long-retired ballplayers in the school library: Ruth, Cobb, Gehrig, Ott. Ott was the only one I hadn’t really heard of before. Those other guys have stamps and movies to burnish their accomplishments, and a seemingly perpetual place in the National Pastime’s mythology. I’d be shocked if a single third-grader in America is reading about Mel Ott this term or next, no matter how often the post office cancelled his image in the past year.

Mel Ott played the 2,730th and final game of his Hall of Fame career 60 years ago Wednesday. He made his retirement as a player official at the end of 1947, returning as manager for ’48 — by then they were routinely referred to as the Ottmen — only to be replaced midway through the campaign by the far more fiery Durocher. Leo the Lip would do great things as Giant general, but it is no hyperbole to say an era ended with that momentous change of command. Mel Ott played for John McGraw. McGraw defined his franchise and his circuit in New York for more than a quarter-century. There was an unbroken line there that ran from McGraw’s hiring in 1902 and Ott’s dismissal in 1948. There’s never been a stronger baseball tradition in New York, not in the sense that generations and families inform tradition.

Mel Ott was National League baseball in New York in the way that…I don’t know that there’s an obviously analogous Met. I’d like to say Tom Seaver, but we know evil forces sent him on a wayward path [8] far from home. (Ott, by the way, was a Tigers broadcaster when the Giants played their final home game in Harlem in 1957 and missed its farewell; imagine Seaver not being on hand at Shea next September.) Maybe if Buddy Harrelson had become a beloved and tenured Met skipper, maybe him, but we’re also talking about a playing career that is nearly unparalleled in all big league annals. No, there is no Met (yet) who quite measures up in Ottman terms. Not too many teams have had anybody like that, but it is worth mentioning the Mets in all of this.

Our New York Mets play under the same NY as Mel Ott did. Our New York Mets started life in the same Polo Grounds where Ott, as Angell put it, “consistently, quietly and always reliably” established his indelible statistical imprint of most National League home runs, runs batted in, runs scored, total bases, bases on balls and games played as of his retirement. Our New York Mets’ reason-for-being is born of two paternities once removed — one about to be commemorated for the umpteenth time [9] while being permanently set in brick and another that’s amazingly obscure considering its rich history — a lore known far and wide by the middle of the 20th century, disappeared from view by that same century’s end.

Mel Ott doesn’t require a rotunda in Queens. But I thought it would be nice if somebody brought up his name and delved a little into what it represents within our New York National League genetic code [10]. It’s something not nearly enough people in these parts do anymore.

You can read Fred Stein’s profile of Mel Ott at SABR’s Baseball Biography Project [11]. It is adapted from an excellent book, available here [12].