Out of Left Field
New sluggers keep coming,
passing Stan's old hero
By STAN ISAACS
This is a tough year for Mel Ott. And for people like me who idolized him when he played for the New York Giants in the 1930s and 1940s.
When Ott retired as an active player in 1947 his career home run total of 511 was the highest for any National League slugger and was topped only by Babe Ruth with 714 and Jimmie Foxx with 534. Home runs were much rarer in those days. Today rinky-dink hitters slug homers because the ball is livelier and the fences in many ball parks are closer to home plate.
Since Ott retired a parade of hitters have passed the 500 home-run mark and Ott. We have seen such as Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Mike Schmidt and Willie McCovey, among others, pass him. Even Harmon Killebrew, little more than a free-swinging beastie, passed him, which says something about the ease of home-run hitting now.
A few weeks ago Sammy Sosa hit career homer No. 512 to move ahead of Ott, putting the immortal Giant in 17th place on the all-time list. Ott will fall to No. 18 at any moment because Rafael Palmeiro of the Texas Rangers recently tied him with homer No. 511 and could well have hit No. 512 by the time anybody reads this.
Mel Ott came to the Giants from Gretna, Louisiana, when he was 16 in 1925, sat at manager John McGraws side for a few seasons and then settled down to a playing career that spanned 21 seasons and almost six years as a manager.
I idolized him-and the great pitcher, Carl Hubbell--as did any Giants fan of that period. I knew all there was to know about him: His distinctive batting style, pumping up his right leg before delivering a left-handed swing that hit home runs into the right field stands at the Polo Grounds; his uniform, No. 4; his impressive statistics; and his personal background--notably that he was born in Gretna and went back to live in Louisiana during all those years he played with the Giants. He died tragically of injuries in a car crash outside of New Orleans in 1958 when he was 48.
I had a conception of Gretna as an idyllic place out of an Andy Hardy movie or a Smitty comic strip, with white picket fences and manicured lawns. It represented an Eden far different from my own Berry Street in Williamsburgh, Brooklyn, where you had to walk four blocks for the nearest tree.
When I was in New Orleans covering the fourth Super Bowl in 1970 it seemed like a good idea to pause and take a look at Gretna, the town that had for so long been a part of my Mel Ott consciousness. I rented a car and with my wife drove over the Mississippi River to nearby Gretna.
My first look was disappointing. Rather than being the bucolic joy I had imagined, it seemed more nondescript, lying up against the Mississippi akin to New Orleans much as industrial Long Island City is to Manhattan. There seemed to be little or no awareness of Ott. Somebody mentioned that he had lived most of the time during his career in the suburban town of Metarie. I was told, There is a little park here thats called Mel Ott Park, I think.
We drove over and found a somewhat dinky little dirt park adjoining a railroad track. It had a baseball field, not kept up well, a small sign that said the park was run by the American Legion. No mention of Mel Ott.
It was a disappointing experience and I wrote a column about it in Newsday. A few days later I got a few salty responses from Gretna, one from the mayor, in defense of the town. They said Mel Ott was revered there and that I did not get a true picture of the love for him that existed there.
Many years later my wife and I attended an Elder Hostel week in New Orleans. Before going it occurred to me that perhaps I should take another look at Gretna, even apologize if I had been unfair to the community. I wrote as much to the mayor, whoever he was, and received a more-than-cordial reply from the then mayor, Ronnie Harris, offering to show me around.
Mayor Harris drove over to pick us up for our date with Gretna. He was an engaging man, boyish in his enthusiasm for Gretna. He had first been elected in 1985 and twice after that. He told me right off not to apologize for what I had written about the town because he had seen the column and used it as an argument to get the city to do more to honor Ott.
He gave us an inside look at the town that measured three-and-a-half square miles with a population of 17,500. At the City Hall there were pictures of eminent Gretna natives; Lash LaRue, the 1930s actor; rock singer Frankie Ford; Joe Spencer, a Negro League worthy; and a photo of Ott at the 1934 All Star Game with Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx.
This time Gretna looked more small town, less industrial than Long Island City. As we drove on Huey Long Boulevard, Mayor Harris explained that it originally was a dirt street with another name. Long, as governor, told the people that if they would name the street after him, he would have it paved. They did and he did.
He explained that the city originally had the name, Mechanikam When it became a city in 1813, it was named Gretna because, like the Scottish village of Gretna Green, known for quickie marriages, it was a place where Louisianans could come for a quick marriage.
He showed us a historic fire house, a tourist center in an old railroad car and the bungalow-like wooden frame house on Huey Long Blvd where Mel Ott lived before he left for New York at the age of 16 to become the Boy Wonder of the Giants. And then we drove out to Mel Ott Park. It had not one, but two Mel Ott signs, one of them a huge electric sign. The park was spacious with two regular diamonds and Little League fields. It was in excellent shape. Gretna, with a mayor boasting a fine sense of history, was doing right by Mel Ott.
Before I left Louisiana, I cabbed out to Metarie on the same side of the Mississippi as New Orleans, across from Gretna, to Metarie Cemetery. There in section No. 140 on Avenue O stood the Ott sarcophagus. It read Melvin T. (for Thomas) Ott on the front. In the rear of the chamber was a blue-stained glass window. It was 15 feet high and 10 feet wide and above ground. All New Orleans cemeteries feature above-ground shrines because of the low water table there. No more ornate than most of those in the cemetery, it stood at the end of the row facing toward the highway to New Orleans.
Standing at the structure, I pictured the old slugger at the plate, the right leg cocked as he swung and sent a ball flying on a line into the right field stands at the Polo Grounds.
Sosa Palmeiro .the modern sluggers keep coming. And they keep passing the 511 home runs of the old hero.
©2003 by Stan Isaacs. The Stan Isaacs caricature is ©2001 by Jim Hummel.
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