No. 80: Johnny Mize

Johnny Mize was a distant cousin of Ty Cobb and was related through marriage to Babe Ruth. This doesn’t have much to do with his greatness as a player, but it’s impressive.

Mize grew up in Demorest, Georgia, a town of about 1,500 that is an hour Northeast of Atlanta and proudly points out that it has the longest running Fourth of July festival in the state. The Johnny MIze Museum is also there.

He grew up playing tennis, which might have something to do with his extraordinary eyesight and hand-eye coordination. Mize is the only player in baseball history to hit 50 homers in a season while striking out fewer than 50 times. In 1947, he hit 51 homers and struck out 42 times.

Fewest strikeouts with 50-plus homers:

1. Johnny Mize, 1947, 51 homers, 42 Ks.
2. Willie Mays, 1955, 51 homers, 60 Ks
3. Ralph Kiner. 1949, 54 homers, 51 Ks.
4. Roger Maris, 1961, 61 homers, 67 Ks.
5. Willie Mays, 1965, 52 homers, 71 Ks.

Last year, in case you are wondering, Chris Davis set a record for MOST strikeouts when hitting 50-plus homers. He hit 53 homers and struck out 199 times.

Mize was a baseball prodigy. He played for the local Piedmont College baseball team when he was 15. He was already close to full-size — The Big Cat topped out at 6-foot-2, 215 — and hit prodigious home runs that people in the surrounding towns often told stories about. According to this fine SABR remembrance, Branch Rickey sent his brother Frank to see Mize play and, after just one game, the Cardinals signed Mize when he was just 17 years old.

Mize was an outfielder then but already shockingly slow. Within a year, they put him at first base. He was not nimble at all — most people thought of him as a defensive liability — but he had soft hands and, of course, that legendary hand-eye coordination. He took pride in his ability to dig balls out of the dirt. He always said a minor league manager saw him doing just that and nicknamed him “The Big Cat.” Others said the nickname came because of the way he would paw at the ball helplessly. The first story seems a kinder way to remember Mize.

Even though Rickey signed Mize at 17, he did not feel any great rush to move him through the minors. The Cardinals already had an All-Star first baseman in Ripper Collins (who had been buried in the minors for years himself), so Mize was held down for at least two years too long. He hit .337 in Greensboro and was sent back. As a 20-year old, he made it to Rochester of the International League, and hit .352 and slugged .610. He was sent back. He hit .339 and slugged .559 but was hurt. He was sent back. He hit .317 in Rochester in 1935 and was finally in 1936 called to the big leagues.

He was star right away … it’s clear he was ready for the big leagues long before. As a rookie hit hit .329/.402/.577 with 57 extra base hits. In his second year, he hit .364 with 40 doubles, 7 triples and 25 homers. He led the league in slugging, OPS and total bases the next three years.

Mize couldn’t run at all, and yet he led the league in triples in 1938 and three times reached double digits in triples. This was a testament to how hard he hit baseballs and how well he could place them. He was an unusually thoughtful hitter for his day. he loved to figure out the defense’s positioning before he hit. Mize had bats of different weight that he would use against different kinds of pitchers — a lighter bat for harder throwers, a heavier bat for the junkballers. And he was renowned for making a pitcher throw a lot of pitches. “The pitcher has to the ball in the strike zone sooner or later,” he would say. “And the rules allow the hitter only one fair ball each time he bats. So why not hit the pitch you want to hit and not the one he wants you to hit.”

Casey Stengel said that Mize was a slugger who hit like a leadoff man, a more or less perfect description.

As Mize got into his late 20s, he began turning on the ball and hitting more home runs. The five years before World War II, Mize was probably the best player in the National League, ahead of Mel Ott (who became the Giants manager in 1942 and promptly traded for Mize). He led the league in SOMETHING every year:

1938: Led league in triples, slugging and OPS and total bases.
1939: Won batting title, led league in homers, slugging, OPS and total bases.
1940: Led league in homers, RBIs, slugging, OPS and total bases.
1941: Led league in doubles.
1942: Led league in RBIs and slugging.

Then, just as he turned 30, in 1943, Mize went into the Navy. He missed three prime years for World War II. If you had to name players who lost their prime years to the War, you would of course name Bob Feller, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Hank Greenberg. Johnny Mize should be on that list as well.

When he returned, he was a different hitter. He was still a great hitter — he twice led the National League in home runs and he had his 50-homer, 42-strikeout season — but he was not the same hitter. Before the war, the Big Cat was an artist. His career average was .331, his slugging percentage near .600, he was like a Stan Musial. After the war, as he aged, he became more of a slugger. He hit .302 as a 34-year-old and never again hit .300.

In 1949, the Giants traded him to the Yankees, where he became a part-time player. Oddly, he probably earned more fame as a part-timer for the Yankees than he did as the best player in the National League in the 1930s. In 1949, he was a bit of a World Series hero by getting a key pinch-hit off Ralph Branca in the ninth inning of Game 3. In 1950, he hit 25 home runs in 90 games and the Yankees won the World Series again. In 1951, he hit just .259, but cracked 10 home runs and the Yankees won the World Series again. In 1952, at age 39, he hit .400 with three homers in the World Series as the Yankees won yet again.

And in 1953, he was 40 years old, and though he didn’t get a hit in the World Series. In fact, his only real renown that Series was being Carl Erskine’s 14th strikeout on a curveball in the dirt. Mize had been griping at his teammates all game to lay off the curveballs in the dirt. But he got his fifth straight World Series championship anyway.

The sportswriter Dan Parker wrote a couplet in his honor.

Your arm is gone, your legs likewise
But not your eyes, Mize, not your eyes

When it came to the Hall of Fame, the Baseball Writers never gave Mize even 50% of the vote. Some said this was because of weak defense, but it’s likely that the three years he missed for the World War II cost him. Without that, he almost certainly would have had 400 homers and an even better batting average than .312. With those numbers, he almost certainly would have been elected by the BBWAA.

As it turns out, he was finally elected by the veteran’s in 1981 when he was 68 years old. He took it in stride. “I had a speech ready,” he said. “But somewhere along in 28 years, it got lost.”

30 thoughts on “No. 80: Johnny Mize

      1. Karyn

        It took me the longest damn time to figure out you guys were riffing on an error that had been corrected by the time I got here. Nice work!

        Reply
  1. johnq11

    I never understood why it took Mize so long to get elected to the HOF? Even by the standards they were using back in the 1960′s, he should have been an easy first ballot HOF type player. I guess he appeared on the ballot before the McMillan Baseball Encyclopedia came out. Maybe those years as a part-time player with those Yankee WS teams hurt his overall perception as a player, which is a similar thing that happened to Tim Raines.

    I guess they never compensated the years he lost from ww2. Even without the WAR years he was a dominant hitter.

    After Mel Ott, Eddie Mathews and Wade Boggs, Mize is probably the best player not to win an MVP award.

    I remember meeting Mize at a baseball card show around 1981 right after he was voted into the HOF. I was 15 years old and I didn’t know who the hell he was. In those days they would sign autographs for free as a bonus to try to attract people to these card shows. It’s kind of sad in retrospect. Here’s this all time great player, probably being paid a small stipend by the card show promoters, signing pictures for a bunch of kids who have no clue who he is.

    Reply
    1. SBMcManus

      A wonderful topic for Joe to write a book on would be the history of nicknames in baseball, the conflicting stories about them, etc. I’m sure Joe gets plenty of (unwanted!) suggestions on topics, but this would be a great one!

      Reply
  2. Brent

    I think Mize was hurt by bad timing. It is amazing that he managed to play for the Cardinals in the 30s and 40s and not on one of their pennant winning teams, so he never played for them in the World Series. Then, he gets traded to the Giants in 1942 and they, after being a pennant winner many times in the late 30s, don’t make the WS during his time there (and the Cardinals, after trading him, manage to win pennants in 1942, 1943, 1944 and 1946).

    Finally, he does go to the Yankees and makes several WS, but of course as a part timer.

    And the war years didn’t help him either.

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  3. Brent

    Okay, this series is great, but there is something missing with this one, I feel. There has to be a story about why the Cardinals traded their 28 year old superstar 1st baseman to the Giants in December, 1941 for a whole lot of nothing. Were the Cardinals cash strapped? (they got 3 players in the trade and $50K. One of the guys never played for the Cardinals, one was a back up catcher and the best player was a pitcher who the Cardinals sold back to the Giants in May of 1942) There had to be something going on.

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    1. Carl

      Likely had something to do w the lawsuit he filed after the season against Gum Products, who made the 1941 DoublePlay set. He claimed he hadn’t given his consent, which the clubs claimed to have. At the time, would have been considered quite the troublemaker.

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  4. Herb Smith

    I think he angered Branch Rickey and the touchy Cardinal brass with his non-stop commentary. One example; he bitched long and loud about how stupid it was to not bring up a player who was tearing apart the minors…a kid named Musial.

    Like he had with Ripper Collins and Mize himself, Rickey thought nothing of burying players in the minors for a good long time. When Musial was finally brought up, in the heat of the pennant race, he hit .426, with power. But it was too late; the Cardinals won 97 games, but finished a close second, to Brooklyn.

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    1. AaronB4Mizzou

      That’s the most common reason I’ve seen, the getting upset at the Card’s brass for not promoting Musial earlier. I’d also speculate that Rickey traded him for the same reason he traded lots of players…because of age. He always tried to trade a player a year too early instead of a year too late. I suppose he thought Mize would age especially poorly due to his poor speed. Rickey also traded Joe Medwick about this time, a year earlier I think.

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  5. Herb Smith

    One thought: why were the National League stars of the 30′s so overlooked?

    Think of the guys who are almost universally considered the most underrated players of all-time:
    Mel Ott
    Johnny Mize
    Arky Vaughn

    See a trend here? Usually, when a guy wins the Triple Crown, it’s a very big deal…except when Joe Medwick did it in the NL in 1937. Any of you guys have a theory as to what was going on?

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    1. tombando

      Yankees Yankees Yankees Yankees and Yankees. Just at a guess. Plus face it, the NL ball was deader than the AL, more of a pitcher’s league, their stats didn’t just jump off the page ala the AL’s at the same time.

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    2. johnq11

      Yeah, I don’t think the N.L. Players were necessarily underrated but more overlooked and forgotten. Wes Ferrell is the most underrated player of that time period and he was an A.L. pitcher. He’s really the only glaring HOF omission from that group of 1930′s players. Pitchers from that era tend to be underrated because of the lively scoring environment.

      If anything tends to have the most overrated players in MLB history: Lloyd Waner, Bill Terry, Chuck Klein, Kiki Cuyler, Ernie Lombardi, Dizzy Dean, Travis Jackson, Pie Tryanor, Jim Bottomley, Chick Hafey, Freddie Lindstrom, and Jesse Haines. And that comes mostly for the lively ball high run scoring environment of the 1930’s.

      I think every era will have underrated and overrated players and some eras will have more underrated hitters and some will have more underrated pitchers. I think we have to look at a two things that were particular to the era.

      1-That era was dominated by the Yankees who won 5 WS and 6 Pennants. The best N.L. Team was the Cardinals who won 2 WS and 3 Pennants. The Cubs had the best win% but never won the WS but won 3 Pennants. The Giants won 3 Pennants and 1 WS.

      2-World War 2 cut short 1930’s era players careers so that might account for some of the players being underrated.

      3-Pitchers were the most underrated group from the 1930’s because of the lively ball era.

      4-The Giants, Dodgers, Braves, Athletics and Browns all moved in the 1950’s so that might account for some players being forgotten and overlooked.

      Again, I don’t think there’s a specific problem with N.L. Players being underrated.
      Let’s look at those 3 players you listed.

      Mel Ott: He’s probably the most underrated of the inner circle HOF guys (Top 25). I think this comes partly because the Giants left NYC so he wasn’t constantly brought up in SF as one of their guys. I think the main problem was that he died fairly young so he didn’t come back to announce games or to coach or wax poetic about the old days.

      Johnny Mize: I think Johnny Mize was hurt because of World War 2 in which he lost 3 years in his prime. I think Johnny Mize was also hurt in that he played on different teams. There’s less of a bias about this now but back then a player moving around was seen as if the player wasn’t that great. One of Mize’s teams was the NY Giants so when they left a lot of memories went away. Mize also played as a part-time player with the Yankees at the end of his career so I think some younger people’s perception was somewhat biased about him. The same thing happened to Tim Raines.

      Arky Vaughn: Probably the most underrated star player in MLB history. The guy was a superstar and he was completely forgotten by the 1950’s and didn’t get elected to the HOF until 1985. I really don’t understand this at all. Maybe WW2 hurt him a little because he lost 3 years. Maybe player on crappy Pirate teams during the 1930’s hurt his image. Maybe his lack of power hurt somewhat. Maybe his On-bas ability was overlooked. He was a perennial All Star so I really don’t know.

      Here’s the top 12 overlooked forgotten underrated players (IMO) from the 1930’s:

      Wes Ferrell-SP, Should be in HOF.
      Mel Harder-SP
      Wally Berger-CF-WW-2
      Ben Chapman-CF, WW-2, infamous Phillies manager in the Jackie Robinson story.
      Larry French-SP, WW-2,
      Tommy Bridges-SP, WW-2,
      Buddy Myer-2B
      Lon Warnake-SP, WW-2
      Bob Johnson-LF
      Red Lucus-SP
      Bobo Newson-SP
      Dick Bartell-SS, WW-2.

      World War 2 cost Tommy Bridges and Lon Warnake a shot at the HOF.

      Reply
          1. johnq11

            Yeah, the problem with Hack is that he came up mid decade so he’s really more a mid-late 1930′s-WW2 era player.

            Mid decade players can be somewhat underrated because they don’t fit neatly into sports writers perceptions of a specific time period, 30′s, 40′s, 50′s, etc. Best SS of the 30′s, best catcher of the 30′s etc. It’s easy for them to say, “Player X had the most home runs for the 30′s, therefore he was the best, etc.”

            If you wanted to make a list of the most underrated/overlooked players from the mid 1930′s to the mid 1940′s and you take something like the 12 year period of 1934-1945, you’d get something like:

            Bob Johnson
            Bucky Walters
            Stan Hack
            Dolph Camilli, WW-2
            Claude Passeau
            Bobo Newsom
            Tommy Bridges, WW-2
            Harlond Cliff,
            Curt Davis,
            Lonny Frey, WW-2
            Thorton Lee
            Augie Galen
            Schoolboy Roy, WW2

            The odd thing is that Bob Johnson, Bucky Walters, and Stan Hack were not only some of the most underrated/overlooked players from the era they were also some of the best players of the era. I’m also looking at it from the perspective of how we view them today.

            That ww2 era is very strange and really there’s nothing like it in baseball history. You just have these great players like Joe Dimaggio, Ted Williams, Bob Feller, Johnny Mize, Bill Dickey, Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter, Phil Rizzuto, Charlie Keller and Pee Wee Reese gone from the majors. As a result you get some odd top ten lists of players from that time period.

    3. johnq11

      Herb,

      I think another problem was the run scoring environment differential between the two leagues. I think the A.L. outscored the N.L. by something like 1 run per game on average which is just huge.

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  6. Wilbur

    I’ve read that Rickey had a contract by which he received a percentage of the sale price for every player he sold. That might explain the sale of Mize to the Giants.

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  7. Ignatius J. Rreilly

    He was my dad’s favorite player as a Cardinal. Why? My dad delivered grocerys and the Mizes were the biggest tippers. Unrelated, years later Mize’s wife died in a fire.

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  8. Cliff Blau

    Mize was actually sold to the Reds before the 1935 season, and they sent him back to the Cardinals because he was hurt.

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  9. James Nicolls

    Johnny Mize told me this story at a card show: “I needed one more pinch hit (with Mize’s accent, the phrase is peench hit) to tie the record for most pinch hits in a season. Well, it came down to the last day of the season, and we had won the pennant (1953) long ago. So, I didn’t start, but in the ninth we were losing and got a couple of runners on. Instead of sending me up to hit, Stengel sent up a rookie, who made an out to end the game. Then Stengel ran up to me and said “You were my next man up!” After the game I found out who held the pinch hit record – and it was Stengel! I said right then, if that’s all they think of me, then I’ll quit after the Series.”
    He also said Claude Passeau was thehardest pitcher for him to hit.

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  10. Stanley G. Stewart

    Johnny R. Mize is my first cousin twice removed. He was by great grandfather’s nephew (E.A. Mize) the most prominent man in Banks County, Georgia. Ty Cobb’s grandmother was Sicily Mize, thus the connection. The Mize family goes back to the 1740′s in Virginia.

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