Baseball’s enforcer, California Angels Ed Ott

I wish I remembered the exact quote or could find it but I remember reading it. Something to the effect of, next time we’re involved in a fight with that team, go after this guy! We will not allow him to intimidate us like he did last year!

Sounds like a hockey coach discussing a rival team’s enforcer, right? Actually, the speaker was Oakland A’s manager Billy Martin. The subject was California Angels catcher Ed Ott. The year was 1982. I had to laugh when I read it. It made me think back to 1977, when I had ringside — er, box, seats for Ott’s two famous altercations while a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Ott came up through the Pirates’ system as a lefty-hitting, rifle-armed right fielder in the early 1970s. He noted the Pirates were deep in the outfield with the likes of Willie Stargell, Al Oliver, Dave Parker, Richie Zisk and Omar Moreno. Ott saw no future there and wisely converted to catching, making the big club for good in 1976. Excellent foresight, but Ott probably never foresaw how often his skills as a high school wrestler would come into play.

Schmidt turns red

The first incident occurred on July 8, 1977 against the Philadelphia Phillies at Three Rivers Stadium. It was the advent of free agency. There would be lucrative contracts for big home run hitters. They were starting to object to being pitched inside for fear of incurring injuries of long duration. Never mind the pitchers, also looking at big money based on performance, now somehow expected to give up the inside part of the plate! Pirate Bruce Kison certainly was never going to pitch that way.

On this evening, only Kison knew for sure whether he intentionally hit the Phillies’ Mike Schmidt. There was no apparent reason for it but Kison did have that reputation. In any event, he drilled Schmidt with a pitch in the seventh inning. I was in the second row behind first base and could hear everything. Schmidt pointed angrily at Kison en route to first base, saying, “Next time that happens, I’ll come and get you!” Kison said, “Why wait until next time?” (I was pleased to read in Dave Parker’s book, Cobra, that he remembered the dialogue as I did.) Schmidt slammed his helmet to the turf and charged Kison, who stood his ground until Ott hit Schmidt with a blind-side tackle. Ott pinned Schmidt to the turf and kept him there until tempers cooled. I’ll never forget how red Schmidt’s face was when he got up.

Upside down, you’re turning me

Then there was the night of August 12, 1977 in game two of a doubleheader vs. the New York Mets. Again I was at Three Rivers Stadium in a box seat alongside first base. In the seventh inning, Ott slid hard into second baseman Felix Millan to break up a double play, knocking him down. Millan objected to the slide and hit Ott in the side of the face, ball still in hand. What happened next was worthy of the WWE. Ott lifted Millan from his upper leg, turned him upside down and slammed him into the turf, breaking Millan’s collarbone. Both benches cleared but once Ott was pulled from Millan, there was no further escalation. The umpires and even Millan’s teammates acknowledged Ott’s slide was a clean play.

Marshmallow world

Ott and Martin each made history in October 1979 — Ott for serving as one half of the catching tandem for the world champion Pirates, Martin for becoming the only Major League manager to be fired for sucker punching a marshmallow salesman. It seemed unlikely they would ever cross paths on the diamond, but cross paths they did.

With Tony Pena ready to become the Pirates’ every day catcher, Ott became expendable. During spring training 1981, the Pirates traded Ott to the Angels for slugger Jason Thompson. It was appropriate the trade was made on April Fools’ Day because it didn’t work out for either team in the long run. Ott hit just .217 in 1981 and tore a rotator cuff the next year, ending his Major League playing career. Thompson had a monster year in 1982, earning a multiyear, seven-figure contract he never lived up to.

Meanwhile, in 1980, Martin was hired to manage the undermanned A’s, instituting his “Billyball” scrappy, aggressive style of play. The A’s fired Martin after the 1982 season. He and Ott hung around the American League West Division just long enough to become bitter rivals. All it took was one strike-shortened season.

Bad blood

The Angels and A’s were involved in several bench-clearing incidents in 1981. The first was in April in Anaheim, when the Angels accused A’s pitcher Matt Keough of doctoring the ball. The bad blood spilled over later in the month when the teams faced one another in Oakland. Ott was at the center of two skirmishes in the first two games. Martin felt that Ott was trying to distract his batters by badgering them, but it was Ott who found Rickey Henderson and rookie Shooty Babitt too talkative for his tastes.

“I have a right to discuss a pitch with an umpire without the batter sticking his nose in,” said Ott. “I’ll tell you this, the next time I ask an umpire a question and those two guys answer it, I’m going to drop the glove and start punching.” In the final game of that series, the A’s tried to inspect “Disco” Dan Ford‘s bat in the eighth inning. The benches emptied and a second altercation occurred on the way to the clubhouses after the game.

The teams met again in August but not even the baseball strike could make them forget April. Martin complained about Ott blocking the plate too aggressively on a suicide squeeze attempt, leading to the benches clearing again. I found no record of Ott employing his wrestling moves nor having been ejected from any games against the A’s.

Nonetheless, Martin would label Ott an “instigator” in 1982. Ott was less than impressed. “So, they don’t like the way I block the plate,” huffed Ott. “Well, it makes for a better collision.”

Dibble turns blue

Ott  played parts of eight years in the Majors, slashing .259/.311/.368 with 33 homers and 195 RBIs, handling most of the catching duties on some contending Pirates teams. He wasn’t Hall of Fame material, just a solid player and good guy to have on your side when a fight broke out.

Ott became a coach with the Houston Astros from 1989-93. On April 11, 1991, Cincinnati Reds pitcher Rob Dibble threw a pitch behind Astros batter Eric Yelding. Both benches were vacated and Dibble found himself in the bottom of a pile in a choke hold courtesy of the smaller Ott, who later said, “I watched him turn red. I watched him turn purple. I watched him turn blue. Then I let him up. Maybe now he’ll value life . . . I could have given him another 45 seconds and watched him turn black, but I let him go.”

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