- 1B, OF
- The Big Cat
- January 7, 1913
- 6' 2"
- 215 lbs
- Major League Debut:
- 4-16-1936 with SLN
- Allstar Selections:
- 1952 BR
- Hall of Fame:
The National League’s premier slugger and top first baseman for nearly a decade, Johnny Mize hit 359 career home runs despite spending three peak seasons serving in the military during World War II. A home run hitter who rarely struck out, Mize led the N.L. in homers and slugging percentage four times each, while also topping the senior circuit in runs batted in and total bases three times each, and leading the league in runs scored, batting average, triples, and doubles once each. Blessed with a keen batting eye, Mize compiled a lifetime on-base percentage of .397, while striking out only 524 times in almost 7,400 total plate appearances. The big first baseman’s proficiency as a hitter eventually earned him a spot in Cooperstown in spite of the fact he played regularly in the major leagues for only 11 full seasons.
Born in Demorest, Georgia on January 7, 1913, John Robert Mize originally signed with the St. Louis Cardinals as an amateur free agent as a 17-year-old in 1930. However, it took Mize another six years to make his major league debut with the team. Mize elected to attend Piedmont College before beginning his professional playing career. He then needed to have corrective surgery to repair an upper-leg bone spur that almost ended his career before it began.
Arriving in St. Louis in 1936, Mize won the starting first base job and went on to hit 19 home runs, knock in 93 runs, and bat .329 in his first big league season. The poise Mize exhibited at the plate prompted Cincinnati Reds manager Charlie Dressen to refer to him as “…the greatest rookie I’ve ever seen.”
Standing 6’2” and weighing close to 220 pounds, Mize possessed little foot speed and only marginal range in the field. But he had sure hands and an extremely quick bat that soon earned him the nickname “The Big Cat.” And, despite his burly appearance, Mize displayed a great deal of finesse at the plate, rarely swinging at bad pitches and hitting for a high batting average, especially in his early years in the league.
Mize followed up his outstanding rookie campaign with an exceptional sophomore season. Finishing second to teammate Joe Medwick in the N.L. batting race with a mark of .364, the big first baseman also placed among the league leaders with 25 home runs, 113 runs batted in, 103 runs scored, 204 hits, 40 doubles, 333 total bases, a .427 on-base percentage, and a .595 slugging percentage. Mize earned a spot on the All-Star Team for the first time in his young career.
Mize had another productive year in 1938, hitting 27 homers, knocking in 102 runs, batting .337, and leading the league with 16 triples and a .614 slugging percentage. Continuing to perform at an extremely high level in 1939, Mize won the only batting title of his career with a mark of .349. He also topped the senior circuit with 28 home runs, 353 total bases, and a .626 slugging percentage, while driving in 108 runs, scoring 104 others, amassing a career high 44 doubles, and finishing second in the league with a .444 on-base percentage, en route to earning a second-place finish in the league MVP voting.
Mize decided to swing more for the fences in 1940, leading the National League in both home runs (43) and runs batted in (137), while seeing his batting average drop somewhat to a still impressive .314. The slugger led the league in both total bases (368) and slugging percentage (.636) for the third straight year, while also placing among the leaders with 111 runs scored, 13 triples, and a .404 on-base percentage. Mize again finished second in the league MVP balloting.
Although Mize put up solid numbers again in 1941, he showed decreased offensive production in virtually every statistical category. Following his pattern of trading away players before their skills began to decline, Cardinals general manager Branch Rickey dealt the 29-year-old first baseman to the New York Giants prior to the start of the 1942 campaign.
Mize performed well for the Giants in his first year in New York, hitting 26 home runs, scoring 97 runs, batting .305, and leading the league with 110 runs batted in and a .521 slugging percentage. However, the club was forced to do without his services the next three years after Mize enlisted in the Navy in March 1943. He missed the entire 1943, 1944, and 1945 campaigns, before being discharged in October 1945. Mize returned to the Giants in 1946 but found himself unable to play virtually all of the season’s final two months. After missing more than a month of action with a broken hand suffered as the result of being hit by a pitch during New York’s Mayor’s Trophy Game, Mize sat out the remainder of the year after breaking his toe upon his return. He finished the campaign with a .337 batting average, 22 home runs, and 77 RBIs in fewer than 400 official at-bats.
Taking full advantage of the Polo Grounds’ short right-field porch, the lefty-swinging Mize had his most productive offensive season when he returned to the Giants in 1947. The big first baseman tied Ralph Kiner for the league lead in home runs (51), and also topped the circuit with 138 runs batted in and 137 runs scored, while batting .302. Mize struck out a total of only 42 times over the course of the season, making him the only player ever to strike out fewer than 50 times while also hitting 50 home runs.
Mize’s proficiency as a hitter could be attributed largely to his keen batting eye and great patience at the plate. Sportswriter Tom Meany once wrote, “Taking a pitch, Mize actually followed the ball with his eyes right into the catcher’s mitt, and he maintains that he actually could see the ball hit the bat.”
Meanwhile, Stan Musial, who played briefly with Mize in St. Louis, discussed the poise and grace his former teammate exhibited in the batter’s box: "Did you ever see a pitcher knock him down at the plate? Remember how he reacted when brushed back? He'd just lean back on his left foot, bend his body back and let the pitch go by. Then he'd lean back into the batter's box and resume his stance, as graceful as a big cat."
Mize again tied Ralph Kiner for the league lead in homers in 1948, clubbing 40 for the Giants, while also driving in 125 runs, scoring 110 others, and batting .289. However, the 36-year-old first baseman gradually saw his playing time diminish over the course of the 1949 campaign, prompting him to request a trade to another team. The Giants sold Mize to the Yankees for $40,000 in August 1949, and the veteran first baseman went on to become a key contributor to five consecutive world championship clubs on the other side of town. Although he remained a part-time player during his time with the Yankees, Mize produced whenever the team called upon him, providing a powerful left-handed bat against opposing right-handers and serving as a pinch-hitter deluxe. He had his best year with the team in 1950, hitting 25 home runs and knocking in 72 runs in only 274 official at-bats. Mize led the American League in pinch hits in each of the next three seasons. He also earned World Series MVP honors in 1952, hitting three home runs and batting .400 during New York’s seven-game triumph over the Dodgers in the Fall Classic.
While with the Yankees, Mize continued to impress all those who observed his hitting style. Manager Casey Stengel noted, “His bat doesn’t travel as far as anybody else’s. He just cocks it and slaps, and when you’re as big as he is, you can slap a ball into the seats. That short swing is wonderful.”
Mize announced his retirement from the game at the conclusion of the 1953 season. He ended his career with 359 home runs, 1,337 runs batted in, 1,118 runs scored, 2,011 hits, and a .312 batting average. Those relatively modest numbers prevented Mize from gaining admittance to Cooperstown during his initial period of eligibility. However, the members of the Veterans Committee eventually elected him to the Hall of Fame knowing that his career numbers had been compromised by the three years he spent in the Navy during World War II. They also voted for him on the strength of his impressive .397 career on-base percentage, .562 slugging percentage, 10 selections to the All-Star Team, and six top 10 finishes in the league MVP voting. Likely resonating with the voters as well were Mize’s all-time record six three-homer games, his outstanding walk-to-strikeout ratio of better than 1.5 to 1, and the fact that he homered in all of the 15 major league parks in use during his career.
Following his playing career, Mize served briefly as a coach with the Kansas City Athletics, before working for a housing development in St. Augustine, Florida during the 1970s. He eventually returned to Demorest, Georgia, where he spent the last few years of his life before passing away at the age of 80 in June 1993.
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