Looking Back on PSB Co-Founder, Harry Williams:
This article was written by Fred Stein for the Society of American Baseball Research
Mel Ott’s life is a classic rags-to-riches story of a naive, unheralded, teenager from a small Southern town who rose to great heights in New York, the country’s largest and most forbidding city at the time. His baseball career could not happen today; no team could carry an inexperienced 17-year-old on a major league roster as an apprentice instead of sending him out for minor-league seasoning. It is also highly unlikely that such a diamond in the rough would be paid a minimal bonus and salary and, in today’s season-by-season money grab, that such a superstar would remain with his original team for 22 years.
Melvin Thomas Ott was born March 2, 1909, in Gretna, Louisiana, a New Orleans suburb. He was one of three children born to Charles and Carrie Ott, a hard-working couple of Dutch descent. Mel’s father, a laborer in a cottonseed oil plant, and two of his uncles played on a semi-pro team, and young Melvin learned the game as a small boy. Despite his short, stocky build, Mel was a gifted athlete in all sports. As early as grammar school, he knew more about baseball than his playmates, so he became the natural leader in pickup games and later in high school. He was a fine, dependable catcher and, from the start, he had the ability to hit the ball harder and longer than the other boys, regardless of size.
Mel’s high school team played two games a week. On other days he excelled as the lefthand-hitting catcher for a semi-pro team. It was a local custom to pass the hat when a player’s home run figured in a victory. Mel Ott was earning money with his bat at the age of 14.
He was turned down as “too small” by the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association, so 16-year-old Mel joined a lumber company’s semi-pro team in Patterson, Louisiana, about 90 miles from New Orleans. He was an immediate sensation. A few months later the owner of the company, millionaire Harry Williams, stopped in New York on his way to Europe and recommended that Giants manager John McGraw give the youngster a tryout. Mel did not take seriously Williams’s postcard instructing him to report to McGraw. An annoyed Williams, on his return home in August, bought the teenager a train ticket to New York.
The frightened youngster reported to McGraw for a tryout in early September 1925, impressing onlookers mightily on his first turn at practice. Giants’ second baseman Frankie Frisch recalled: “Mel stepped into the first few pitches and smashed them solidly through the infield. Then he hit several deep into the outfield, and finally he parked a number of fastballs and curves high against the advertising signs on the right field wall.” Later, with the sturdy little fellow out of earshot, an enthusiastic McGraw told a writer, “That kid is remarkable. He’s like a golfer; his body moves [including the distinctive cocked right leg action just before the pitch], but he keeps his head still with his eyes fixed on the ball. He’s got the most natural swing I’ve seen in years.” Then McGraw added, prophetically, “This lad is going to be one of the greatest lefthand hitters the National League has seen.”
After the young Louisianan’s eye-opening hitting, McGraw kept him with the Giants, but out of the public eye. McGraw gave Mel a $400 bonus and a contract in January 1926. During spring training, McGraw told the still-growing 5-foot-7-inch, 150-pounder that he was too small to be a catcher, so he would be tutored as an outfielder. Every batting technique, every outfielding trick, and every fine point were provided by McGraw himself, star right fielder Ross “Pep” Youngs, left fielder Emil “Irish” Meusel and coach Roger Bresnahan. Bernie Wefers, a respected track coach, schooled the young man in running properly to avoid charley horses and knotted leg muscles to which the still-growing Ott was susceptible.
McGraw forbade Mel from fraternizing with the older players on the theory that the case-hardened veterans would “corrupt” the green teenager. Nevertheless, Mel’s teammates liked the quiet youngster from the start and were sure that it was only a matter of time until he became a solid major league player. McGraw had decided to keep his young prodigy rather than farm him out to be ruined by a minor league manager. And so Mel was brought along slowly, spending the next two years as a part-time player and, when he was not in the game, sitting uncomfortably on the bench listening to the profane McGraw’s intimidating lectures. After Ross Youngs died at 30 from a kidney disease in October 1927, Ott took over as the Giants’ regular right fielder at 19 in 1928.