By Marty Appel
Young St. Louis Cardinals fans in the 1930s loved their Gashouse Gang, but oh, did they wish they had their very own version of Babe Ruth. And then, in 1936, they got him. He was big and strong and, my goodness, he was even related by marriage to the Babe, being the second cousin of the Babe’s wife Claire.
There was much unique about Johnny Mize’s career, certainly more than enough to fill out his Hall of Fame plaque when he was elected in 1981.
For one thing, he held the single-season home runs for both the Cardinals (43 in 1940) and the Giants (51 in 1947), and was sixth on the all-time home run list with 359 when he retired in 1953.
But as Casey Stengel said, “He’s more like a leadoff hitter than a home run hitter.” It was true; he was in fact, the only 50-home run man to strikeout fewer than 50 times in a season – that same 1947 produced only 42 strikeouts. He hit .320 in his 11 National League seasons and wound up at .312 for his total career. And although he never won an MVP award, he received MVP votes in 11 of his 15 seasons and had a lifetime on-base percentage of .397.
“Big Jawn” Mize was a product of Demorest, Georgia, and he hit .329 as a rookie. He played six years for the Cardinals, won and tied for two home run titles, drove in 100 or more runs five times, and left behind a legion of unhappy fans when he was traded to the New York Giants for three players and $50,000 cash four days after Pearl Harbor.
Mize was true to form in ’42 (.305-26-110), adjusting his swing from Sportsman’s Park to the more foul-line friendly Polo Grounds, but then it was off to war for him. He didn’t return to the Giants until 1946, when he was 33. In ’47 and again in ’48, he tied Ralph Kiner for the league’s home run title. By the time he was sold to the Yankees in August 1949, he was sixth all-time on the home run list, just ahead of Joe DiMaggio, and trailing only Ruth, Jimmy Foxx, Mel Ott, Lou Gehrig and Hank Greenberg.
With the Yankees, he would win his first World Series ring – and then four more. Yes, he would play for five Yankee world champions, contributing strongly to each with pinch hits, lots of RBIs and solid fill-in work at first base. In 1950, when he spent a month in the minors recovering from an injury, he still hit 25 homers and drove in 72 runs on 76 hits. He became the poster boy for late-season pennant race acquisitions by the Yanks.
It would be 28 years after his retirement before his Hall of Fame election by the Veteran’s Committee. Some felt he became overlooked when his home run ranking started to slip with the generation of sluggers who came along in the ‘50s. But Mize was an impact player on three franchises and left his mark for each.