"Every time I sign a ball, and there must have been thousands, I thank my luck that I wasn't born Coveleski or Wambsganss or Peckinpaugh" -Mel Ott
There's a chance this whole post is just an excuse to use that brilliant quote, and there's a slightly smaller chance that I wanted to appreciate the funky nickname of "Master Melvin," but there is also a very good chance that you have little-to-no idea who Mel Ott is, and that ought to be fixed post-haste. At five-foot-nine and a-hundred-seventy-pounds-soaking-wet, Ott could never be confused with hulking giants like Hank Greenberg or Hal Trosky, but he would end his career with the most home runs of anyone in the history of the National League. If it wasn't for George Herman Ruth, the legend of power-hitting outfielders would lead straight to Mel Ott. In some ways, it already does.
"The first big-league game I ever saw was at the Polo Grounds. My father took me. I remember it so well—the green grass and the green stands. it was like seeing Oz." -John Curtis, Giants Pitcher
The Polo Grounds are not what you would call a typical baseball stadium. In fact, if it wasn't for all those bats and gloves and that damned infield right in front of your eyes you'd swear it was supposed to be a football stadium. The odd happening of baseball in a place expressly not made for baseball gave the field probably the strangest playing dimensions of any field in baseball history, with the right field corner measured at 258 feet and deep center field coming in at twice that number. Left field was a little longer than right, 279 feet, but it also had an overhanging porch that turned a routine fly ball into the most frustrating home run you've ever given up. This is the stadium in which Mel Ott was introduced to professional baseball.
At 17 years old Ott went 23-for-60 in his first exposure to the National League. At 19 he led the New York Giants in home runs for the first time; he went on to lead them every year until he was 36 years old. Those 17 consecutive seasons of leading a team in home runs is the longest such streak for any team in any Triple Crown category in the history of baseball. At 20 he led the league with 113 walks, hit 42 home runs, and finished 11th in MVP voting. By the time he was 28 he was the National League's all-time home run champion, with 306. His youth was so prodigious that his closest comparisons until age 21 are Bryce Harper and Mike Trout, while his older years were most similar to sluggers Frank Robinson and Hank Aaron. All of his most similar players, by year or by career, are either in the Hall of Fame, on their way, or are Rafael Palmeiro. Despite his frame, Master Melvin was a true slugger, and his numbers can hang with the all-time greats.
As much as those short porches welcomed him, the deep rectangle that was center field hurt just as much; in many years he hit more home runs on the road than in Upper Manhattan. Also conspiring against him were the baseballs; the National League notoriously purchased baseballs that were harder to hit, resulting in the American League surpassing the Senior Circuit in home runs by an average of 21% in the thirties and forties. Still, Ott became the first player in the National League to breach the 500 home run mark, finishing his career third on the all-time list behind Ruth and Jimmie Foxx with 511 dingers. While he never finished higher than third in an MVP vote, he did make 11 consecutive All-Star teams, and he played every single last one of his games with the Giants. He was the star of the Polo Grounds, the best National League slugger of his time, and one of the forgotten greats of the game. He also had the easiest signature in baseball history.