John Robert Mize
(The Big Cat)
- Bats Left, Throws Right
- Height 6' 2", Weight 215 lb.
- School Piedmont College
- High School Piedmont Academy (Georgia)
- Debut April 16, 1936
- Final Game September 26, 1953
- Born January 7, 1913 in Demorest, GA USA
- Died June 2, 1993 in Demorest, GA USA
"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. ..." - Casey Stengel
Johnny "the Big Cat" Mize was a ten-time All-Star and top 1940s slugger who had a relatively short but impressive Hall of Fame career. But for losing three prime years to World War II it likely would not have taken so long to reach Cooperstown.
Even without those three missing years, Mize retired as #6 on the all-time home run list (behind only Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio, in under 1,900 games) and #7 in slugging (trailing only Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Hank Greenberg, DiMaggio, and Rogers Hornsby). An all-round hitter he was a four-time National League home run and slugging percentage champ who variously led the league in batting, doubles, triples, RBIs, runs, and total bases.
Surprisingly, despite his notoriety as a slugger he averaged only 38.5 strikeouts over 12 seasons in which he made at least 400 plate appearances. Even more impressive, he once hit 51 home runs while striking out just 42 times, the highest total with the fewest strikeouts in baseball history.
As of 2006, Mize ranks # 20 on the all-time slugging percentage list and # 18 all-time in Adjusted OPS. He played the first part of his career with the St. Louis Cardinals, the middle with the New York Giants, and finished strong with an unprecedented five consecutive World Series rings as a crucial platoon player with the New York Yankees.
By many methods of sabermetric analysis Mize's career records are more impressive to observers today than they generally appeared to his contemporaries. In spite of his league-leading productivity and demonstrable versatility with the bat he was generally overshadowed by such iconic contemporaries as Gehrig, Foxx, DiMaggio, Williams, Greenberg and Stan Musial, even though many of his statistics are comparable to theirs. What's more, he was marooned for six long years in the minors (while hitting .337, .326, .358, .352, and .317 starting at age 18), stalled behind Cardinal regular first baseman Ripper Collins till he was 23, the oldest start of any great power hitter.
Born in Georgia, he was known as "Big Jawn" and "The Big Cat" for his smooth fielding and lightness afoot. He had a fine batting eye, swatting .329 as a rookie in 1936 and .363 his sophomore season, second to teammate Ducky Medwick's NL-leading .374. He really hit his stride in 1939, pacing the NL both in batting at .349 and homers with 28. He upped the latter to a NL-leading 43 the next season, also topping the circuit in RBIs in 1940 and 1942 and slugging from 1938 to 1940.
Following a slightly down 1941 (where he "only" hit .317, slugged .535, and led the NL in doubles with 39) the twenty-eight-year-old Mize was traded to the New York Giants by Cardinals general manager Branch Rickey, who famously believed in dealing players before their declines set in. Mize's, however, was still far off, as he led the NL in slugging and RBIs with his new team before entering the United States Navy in March 1943.
The Cardinals, for their part, managed by trading him after the 1941 season to open up a spot for the youngster Stan Musial. Musial played outfield while Johnny Hopp, who had been in the outfield in 1941, moved to first base in 1942.
Mize spent all of 1943, 1944 and 1945 in military service during World War II, being discharged in October 1945. Back with the Giants in 1946, he suffered a broken hand that August when Joe Page hit him with a pitch in the Mayor's Trophy Game, missed over a month, and promptly broke a toe in his return. All this and he still only fell one home run short of the NL title, won by emerging Pittsburgh Pirates star Ralph Kiner. In 1947 Mize hit a career-high 51 home runs, a rarefied plateau - the "50 homer Club" then only having been reached by Ruth, Foxx, Greenberg, and Hack Wilson. Even so, the 51 only tied Kiner for the league lead. He also led in runs and RBI, and became the only player to strike out fewer than fifty times while hitting fifty home runs. In 1948, Mize and Kiner again tied for the league home run championship with 40 each.
Once again Mize's productivity was discounted and the reigning back-to-back NL home run champ was traded late in the 1949 season to the New York Yankees after expressing discontent with his playing time with the Giants.
It was just the aging Mize's luck that the Yankees had a platoon-happy manager in Casey Stengel. Though used even less than by the Giants, the thirty-six-year-old Mize was given valuable roles as a part-time first baseman and Stengel's go-to pinch-hitter. Winning five World Series rings in five straight years kept the former malcontent turned elder statesman well rewarded. In the 1952 World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers he hit 3 home runs, one as a pinch-hitter, and was robbed of a 4th by Dodgers right fielder Carl Furillo, who made a leaping catch above the fence in the 11th inning to preserve a win for the Dodgers.
Mize holds the major league record for the most three-homer games, a feat he performed 6 times, tied with Sammy Sosa and Mookie Betts. He also was the first player to do it in both leagues — 5 times in the National League and once in the American League. He finished his career with 359 round trippers. Like DiMaggio, Williams, and Greenberg, all of whom spent at least 3 years in the military at the peak of their power, Mize undoubtedly lost scores of homers because of his service.
Mize was the first to smear mud under his eyes to reduce glare, and was so focused and comfortable as a hitter he never stepped out of the batter's box between pitches.
For a player with such obviously notable achievements it took an unusually long time to make it to Cooperstown, finally being chosen in 1981 by the Veterans Committee 28 years after his retirement. One possible explanation is that during his playing years he apparently did not enjoy particularly good relations with baseball sportswriters, whose votes determine Hall of Fame election. A second is being overshadowed by the historic performances of contemporaries Ted Williams and Stan Musial and the glamor of two-way Yankee star Joe DiMaggio (whose career numbers only slightly edge Mize's).
From today's vantage point, his combination of power, batting average, and extremely high on-base percentage stand out brightly in the light of modern sabermetric analysis.
- 10-time All-Star (1937, 1939-1942, 1946-1949 & 1953)
- NL Batting Average Leader (1939)
- 4-time NL Slugging Percentage Leader (1938-1940 & 1942)
- 3-time NL OPS Leader (1938-1940)
- NL Runs Scored Leader (1947)
- 3-time NL Total Bases Leader (1938-1940)
- NL Doubles Leader (1941)
- NL Triples Leader (1938)
- 4-time NL Home Runs Leader (1939, 1940, 1947 & 1948)
- 3-time NL RBI Leader (1940, 1942 & 1947)
- 20-Home Run Seasons: 9 (1937-1940, 1942, 1946-1948 & 1950)
- 30-Home Run Seasons: 3 (1940, 1947 & 1948)
- 40-Home Run Seasons: 3 (1940, 1947 & 1948)
- 50-Home Run Seasons: 1 (1947)
- 100 RBI Seasons: 8 (1937-1942, 1947 & 1948)
- 100 Runs Scored Seasons: 5 (1937, 1939, 1940, 1947 & 1948)
- 200 Hits Seasons: 1 (1937)
- Won five World Series with the New York Yankees (1949, 1950, 1951, 1952 & 1953)
- Baseball Hall of Fame: Class of 1981
- Jerry Grillo: "Johnny Mize", in Bill Nowlin, ed.: Van Lingle Mungo: The Man, The Song, The Players, SABR, Phoenix, AZ, 2014, pp. 99-104. ISBN 978-1-933599-76-2
- Johnny Mize (as told to George Vass): "The Game I'll Never Forget", Baseball Digest, March 1979, pp. 74-76.