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Baseball's Shrine


(page 5 of 5)

Mel Ott

They called him “Master Melvin,” the “Little Giant,” a compact, 5-foot-9-inch bundle of brawn from Gretna, whose slight size belied a powerful bat that, upon his retirement, made him the career home run leader in the National League.

The fact that New York Giants legend Mel Ott died tragically in a car crash at the age of 49 only burnished his legend, especially in his Westbank hometown, where a park is named after him and a life-size bronze statue dedicated in 2009 welcomes visitors to his hometown.

“Based on our dedication of his statue, Mel Ott’s reputation is still very highly regarded not only by Gretna residents but by the New Orleans baseball community,” says Gretna Mayor Ronnie Harris.
Born in Gretna in 1909, Ott became a burgeoning hardball prodigy, but he was passed over by the New York Pelicans minor-league team at the age of 16, ostensibly because of his small stature. So he was set up with a lumber company’s semi-pro team in Patterson, where the owner of the firm noticed Ott’s talent and hooked him up with legendary Giants manager John McGraw.

“The luckiest thing that ever happened to me was that I was turned down the first time I tried to get a job in baseball,” Ott told New York Times scribe Arthur Daley in July 1958, just four months before Ott’s sudden death. “It changed the course of my life.”

Thus, at the tender age of 17, the little teen from Gretna debuted at the Polo Grounds, one of baseball’s biggest stages. Over the next 21 years, all with the Giants, Ott amassed 12 All-Star selections; a World Series title in 1933; a .304 career batting average; and 511 home runs, then the most ever by a National Leaguer.

The laid-back, eternally friendly Ott also managed the Giants for several years but couldn’t pilot them to any more titles. In fact, the Giants were occasional residents or close neighbors of the NL cellar, a fact that spurred one of our country’s most famous sayings. Reportedly, before a Giants-Brooklyn Dodgers game, Brooklyn’s irascible manager, Leo Durocher, was chided by a local beat writer to be nicer. Pointing to Ott in the opposing dugout, Leo the Lip then famously groused: “Who wants to be nice? Nice guys finish last.”

Despite the mediocrity of the teams he managed, Ott’s excellence on the field earned him an easy pass into the Hall of Fame, which welcomed him 1951, on his first ballot.

But just seven years later, on Nov. 21, 1958, Gretna’s most famous resident succumbed to the massive injuries he suffered in a car crash a few days earlier. His passing sent shock waves across the baseball world, but the New Orleans community and Gretna were especially hard-hit.

“Mel Ott, probably the mightiest ‘little man’ baseball ever knew, is lost to the world of sports,” the Times-Picayune’s Keefe opined shortly after the star’s death. “Quite a loss to all who knew him, too, as well as to his family. Having known him since he caught for Gretna High ... I can say without hesitancy that he went through his entire life, on or off the field, not as a ‘nice guy’ but as a prince of young Americans.”

The outpouring of honors from Ott’s hometown quickly followed. In April 1959, the Gretna board of aldermen changed the name of Gretna City Park to Mel Ott Park, and two years later Gov. Jimmie Davis declared May 28 “Mel Ott Day.”

Since then, the relationship between Ott’s legacy and his hometown has only grown stronger. In 1970, Daley wrote: “If Ottie has faded from memory over the years, a visit to Gretna brings a warm nostalgic glow. It also brings rich recollections of the nice guy whose image could not be dented even when he finished last.”

Ott’s descendants and relatives still populate Gretna, including Virgie Ott, whose late husband was Mel’s second cousin and who served as Gretna’s tourism director for several years, partially to promote Mel’s connection to the town.

“He never forgot us when he left [Gretna],” Virgie Ott says of Mel. “When he came back for visits, he took some of the local guys out for a beer. Gretna is so proud that he is honored in the Baseball Hall of Fame. We try to keep his memory alive.”

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