Aug 20, 2012

Former Italian American Player of the Day: Oscar Melillo (1926-1937)

Oscar Donald Melillo was born on August 4, 1899 in Chicago, Illinois. His parents had emigrated from Tuscany, Italy in 1883 settling in the Chicago area raising their five children. Oscar wasn’t much for school dropping out of high school and working instead. He earned the nickname “Ski” after a local football hero he rooted for, and later the nick name of “spinach”.

He began playing organized ball in Canada & eventually at AA Milwaukee getting better each year. He raised his average to .291 in 1925 & was an outstanding defensive second baseman that some writers called the next Napoleon Lajoie.

Manager George Sisler was trying to strengthen his St. Louis Browns defense and according to two different reports, either traded five players for Melillo or paid the Brewers $50,000. Either way he began his MLB career in 1926 and would play ten seasons with the Browns.

That year he suffered from a kidney disease known as Brights disease, and was told by a doctor he would only survive if he ate nothing but spinach. He did that until he fully recovered.

According to the Sporting News in 1963, Wilde said “They told me to eat nothing but spinach for the next few months if I wanted to live, I tried to talk them into letting me have a steak, spaghetti, or ravioli, but they said nothing doing. When I told them I couldn’t stand the monotony of spinach three times a day, they told me I could have some variety by boiling it for breakfast, making a salad of it for lunch, and baking it for dinner.”

The cartoon character of Popeye did not come out until a few years later, possibly his eating spinach came from the Melillo real life story, but there are no proven reports.
In 1929 he hit for the cycle in May, & and finished out the season hitting .296 with 11 triples. Over the next four seasons, Oscar would hit 10 or more triples every year.

In 1930 he set an MLB record at second, handling 971 chances without committing an error (17 fewer that Nap Lajoie's 1908 record). He would be rated the best defensive second baseman twice, leading the league in fielding percentage three times, assists four times & put outs three times. His .991 fielding percentage in 1933, would stand for a decade for second baseman.

He also hit over .290 three times, enjoying his best season in 1931 with career highs in batting (.306) hits (189) doubles (34) runs scored (88) along with 2 HRs & 75 RBIs.

In 1935 new manager Rogers Hornsby was looking for a .300 hitter, while Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey & manager Joe Cronin wanted defense. They felt Melillo was the best second baseman in the game & a trade was set up for Moose Solters. Solters went on to hit .330 in St. Louis while Melillo began to slow down with injuries at age 36. He helped tutor a young infielder named Bobby Doerr who would go on to be a Red Sox legend, claiming he learned more from Oscar than he did in all his years in the Pacific Coast League. After three seasons he was allowed to be released to take a coaching job with the Browns.

Retirement: Melillo coached there, then with the Cleveland Indians under Lou Boudreau winning the 1948 World Series. He coached in Boston, again under Boudreau, & with then with the Athletics. During World War II, Melillo left baseball for a bit, working to rivet airplane wings in a Chicago factory throughout 1943 and 1944.

Personally he was an avid bowler, & had a phobia of certain animals which made him the target of many practical jokes. He passed away in November 1963 at the age of 64.

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