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.”