SI Vault
December 01, 1958
The Silent Type
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December 01, 1958

Events & Discoveries

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The death of Mel Ott last week after an auto accident was an event of only minor historical importance to baseball fans whose rooting interest in the game has been strictly bounded by television. For while Ott was still on the active roster of the New York Giants in 1947, when TV was beginning to establish a beachhead in major league parks, his career as a great player had ended, practically speaking, three or four years earlier, when TV cameras were still in the laboratories.

It's a shame, really, that more people didn't get to see Ott play. He was good, very good, a power hitter of genuine authority, a thoroughly competent outfielder, a professional ballplayer. Beyond his skills as a player, he brought to the game a quality that was too often lacking in major league baseball: an element of taste, of decency. Ott could use the rough, profane language of the ballplayer, and he was a hard, driving, sometimes irate competitor; but he had something in his personality beyond all this that endeared him to people sitting in the stands a hundred feet and more away. He was boyish, mannerly, square. He looked like the beau ideal of American youth: the rugged kid who could win ball games but who would stand up when a woman came into the room.

Certainly, for year after year, Ott and Carl Hubbell, his close friend and teammate, were far and away the most popular ballplayers in the world for the inhabitants of New York's Polo Grounds. Someone commented the other day that even Brooklyn fans used to applaud Mel Ott.

The most famous baseball use of the phrase "nice guy" applies to Ott. "Nice guys finish last," is what Leo Durocher is supposed to have said when Ott was managing the Giants and Leo the Brooklyn Dodgers. Frank Graham, the sportswriter who first wrote the story, said that Red Barber had chided Leo about not being a "nice guy." Durocher scoffed. "Nice guys. Look at Ott. There's not a nicer guy in the world than Mel Ott. But he's in last place."

Durocher was, of course, wrong in his implication that Ott was a loser. A poor manager, yes, but in his playing days he was a winner, all the way. The point is, even rowdy Leo Durocher recognized the fact that Mel Ott was a man to admire. He was an awfully nice guy.

On Losing Coaches

College football coaches are hanged these days with the regularity of laundry in a tidy housewife's backyard. As articulate Duffy Daugherty, coach of Michigan State, put it, "It used to be that a coach's qualifications were an ability to get along with players, a sound knowledge of the game and a great desire to win, but now it seems a coach must also have a thick neck."

Coach Daugherty's remarks were not mere idle reflections. As the principal architect of one of MSU's most outstandingly unsuccessful seasons (3-5-1), his own neck has been stretched, albeit in effigy, from a number of impromptu gallows trees. All over the hallowed land of the free other brave men who make their homes in football stadiums on Saturday afternoons have suffered the same punishment for crimes no greater than failure to teach their boys how to score more touchdowns than the opposition. All of which may prove little more than that college students are exuberant youngsters at all times and that if they are not swallowing goldfish, as they did in the '30s, then they'll be doing something else. After all a good hanging is always fun—particularly when the victim is a stuffed dummy.

On the other hand, the annual executions may at least emphasize another point: the vulnerable position of each member of that small band of mentors who every year are held personally accountable for the behavior and fortunes of their charges in a way that not even many military commanders are held. To vast armies of often oversentimental, often overenthusiastic, always fiercely partisan fans, a losing team demands a scapegoat, and the coach is the goat. This attitude is understandable and even forgivable, but it does tend to obscure the fact that football is both a sport and a team sport. It also tends to beg the question: How important is the mere fact of winning?

"I've been in football since I was 14 years old and I've never been dumb enough to think you can win them all," moaned Michigan State's Athletic Director Biggie Munn through his (quite real) tears when Coach Daugherty's team lost to Minnesota 39-12, "but when you throw a game away like this, it's terrible. When you've scratched and crawled a tenth of an inch at a time to build an empire, it takes a lot out of you to see it crash." Well now! Considering that Winston Churchill took even the breakup of the British Empire in rather more manful style, Mr. Munn's remarks seem somewhat excessive. In contrast, there was the remark of Coach Daugherty himself: "I regret the score, but not the attitude of our players. Their mistakes were honest ones and weren't caused by lack of effort. I am as disappointed as anyone, but especially for the boys."

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