Mize, John Robert (“Johnny”)

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Mize, John Robert (“Johnny”)

(b. 7 January 1913 in Demorest, Georgia; d. 2 June 1993 in Demorest, Georgia), baseball player best known as a power hitter who led the National League in home runs four times, had a lifetime batting average of .312, and compiled a .562 slugging percentage during a fifteen-year major league career.

Mize was born in Habersham County, Georgia, the son of Edward Mize, a local merchant and salesman, and Emma Loudermilk, a homemaker. His parents separated when Mize was young, and he moved in with his grandmother in Demorest. When he was fifteen he was asked to play on the baseball team at nearby Piedmont College: “They told my [high school] coach to let me take a subject in college so I could play ball for them. And I played ball for them, but they never came up with a subject,” he recounted in a 1991 interview. After playing three years of college baseball while still in high school, Mize graduated from Tipton High School in 1930.

Signed to a professional contract with the St. Louis Cardinals that same year, Mize quickly became a star in the minor leagues. The Cincinnati Reds purchased his contract for $55,000 in 1931. A torn hip muscle, however, sent him back to the Cardinals. Misfortune struck again: he tore a muscle in his other hip. About to quit baseball altogether, despite batting .336 during six minor league seasons, Mize decided to give it one more try after successful surgery on both hips.

On 16 April 1936, Mize made his first major league appearance with the Cardinals. His first big-league at bat resulted in a strikeout, but his rookie season was generally sensational. He hit nineteen home runs, batted .329, and drove in ninety-three runs. His slugging percentage was a healthy .577. Over the next four years his slugging percentage was .595, .614, .626, and .636. The first six years he played with the Cardinals, Mize batted over .300 and averaged twenty-six home runs a year. In 1940 he led the league in runs batted in.

Apart from his hitting skills, Mize was a slow but smooth-fielding first baseman. Graceful despite his hulking size of six feet, two inches, and 215 pounds, Mize earned the nickname “the Big Cat” for the way he pounced on bad hops at first base, as well as for the balance of his batting stance and the way in which he effortlessly avoided brush-back pitches.

At the end of the 1941 season, Mize unsuccessfully sought to renegotiate his contract with the St. Louis general manager Branch Ricky. Ricky wanted Mize to take a cut because his batting average was down from previous seasons. Mize, who had led the league in hitting, in home runs, and in runs batted in, asked to be traded, and before the start of the 1942 season he found himself wearing a New York Giants uniform.

New York, under its recently appointed manager, Mel Ott, exchanged three players and $50,000 to bring Mize to the Giants. As a straightaway hitter, Mize worried that the Polo Grounds—a huge park marked by a distant center-field fence and a right field power alley—was the worst place he could have been traded to, but he quickly learned to adapt his hitting style to fit the park’s dimensions. Mize reached the pinnacle of his baseball success as a New York Giant. His first year in New York saw him lead the league in runs batted in (110) and in slugging percentage (.521).

In 1943 Mize was summoned into World War II military service, and he spent three years in the navy. He returned to the Giants for the 1946 season. However, during an exhibition game he was hit by a pitch and broke a bone in his hand. The injury limited him to 101 games that season, but he managed to hit .337 with a slugging percentage of .576. The next year, at age thirty-five, he hit fifty-one home runs to become the only National League lefty to hit fifty or more homers in a season. He also knocked in 138 runs, thus leading the league in both categories. He batted .302 that year. It marked the fourth time in his career that he had edged over .600 in slugging percentage. Despite these achievements he was not selected the league’s Most Valuable Player—he finished third in the voting behind Bob Elliott and Ewell Blackwell. In 1948 he led the league in homers again with forty and drove in 125 runs. But for the first time in his major league career his batting average fell below .300.

In 1948 Leo Durocher arrived as the new Giants manager. Mize’s slowness, due to his size, and the fact that the Giants were overloaded with power hitters led Durocher to cut his playing time. During the early part of the 1949 season he was traded to the New York Yankees and their new manager, Casey Stengel, for $40,000.

Stengel, who referred to Mize as “a slugger who hits like a leadoff man,” was delighted to have a quality backup first baseman. But after only six days as a Yankee, Mize separated his shoulder diving to tag first base. He played sparingly that season, and for the next four years he was a part-time player. His most important contribution was as a pinch hitter. In 1951, 1952, and 1953 Mize led the American League in pinch hits. From 1949 through 1953 Mize played in five World Series; the Yankees won all five. The 1952 World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers represented the high point of Mize’s career. In game three, replacing first baseman Joe Collins, Mize homered; in game four his home run proved to be the winning hit; in game five he hit a three-run homer, marking the first time a player had homered in three consecutive World Series games. For the seven-game series, Mize finished with three home runs, six runs batted in, and a .400 batting average and was named the Series’ Most Valuable Player. In 1953, at age forty, Mize played the last season of his career, as a successful pinch hitter in a year in which the Yankees achieved their fifth consecutive championship. As Mize neared retirement, the New York sportswriter Dan Parker penned a fitting ode in tribute to the big first baseman: “Your arm is gone, your legs likewise. But not your eyes, Mize, not your eyes.”

Mize was a unique slugger, one who rarely struck out while hitting for a high average, and he has been rated the fifth-best first baseman of all time (behind Lou Gehrig, Bill Terry, Jimmy Foxx, and George Sisler). Mize, who threw right-handed and batted left, is the only man in major league history to hit fifty home runs in a single season while striking out less than fifty times. He accomplished that feat in 1947, hitting fifty-one homers and striking out only forty-two times. He remains the only player to hit three homers in a game on six different occasions. He also homered, at least once, in all fifteen of the ballparks in use during his playing days.

Mize accomplished a number of other impressive statistics during his fifteen-year baseball career. In his first nine years he hit over .300 each year. In 1939 his .349 batting average led the league. He finished his career with a .312 lifetime batting average. He led the National League in home runs four times and finished with a career total of .359. He led the National League in runs batted in three times. His career slugging percentage of .562 is eighth on the all-time list. He played in nine All-Star games. Finally, he holds the World Series records for pinch-hit at bats and pinch hits. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981.

After his retirement as a player, Mize worked in the Giants organization as a scout. In 1961 he served as a coach for the Kansas City Athletics. He also worked briefly as a special batting instructor for the Bradenton Braves of the Florida Winter League. His retirement years were first spent in Deland, Florida, where he operated a liquor store and an orange grove near his twelve-acre homestead.

On 14 July 1957, Mize’s first wife, the former Jane Adams, whom he had married in August 1937 and with whom he had two children, died from burns suffered in a fire at their home. On 23 October 1957, Mize married Marjorie Pope, a Deland radio news writer. The two owned and operated orange groves for a number of years.

In 1974 they moved to Demorest and settled in Mize’s grandmother’s house, his boyhood home. In December 1982, he underwent successful triple-bypass surgery. Mize spent his retirement playing golf, attending baseball card shows, signing autographs, and contributing time and money to charitable causes. On 2 June 1993, Mize died of cardiac arrest in his sleep at home. He is buried at Yonah Cemetery in Demorest.

Mize won fame as much for his humility as for his exploits in the batter’s box. “As a player,” he commented to one reporter on induction day at the Hall of Fame, “I never broke a bat after striking out. A guy couldn’t be blaming a poor old bat for what happened, could he?”

A scrapbook collection and memorabilia on Mize’s professional career are at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York. There are brief autobiographical accounts in Donald Honig, Baseball Between the Lines: Baseball in the 40’s and 50’s, as Told by the Men Who Played It (1976); Noel Hynd, The Giants of the Polo Grounds: The Glorious Times of Baseball’s New York Giants (1988); and Roger Kahn, The Era: 1947-1957, when the Yankees, the Giants, and the Dodgers Ruled the World (1993). Newspaper articles discussing Mize’s career are J. G. Taylor Spink, “The Big Cat Still Winning Blue Ribbons at Forty,” Sporting News (8 July 1953); Dick Young, “Writers’ Dislike of Mize Kept Him Out of Hall,” New York Daily News (13 Mar. 1981); George Vecsey, “Welcome to the Hall,” New York Times (3 Aug. 1981); and David Craft, “John Robert Mize,” Sports Collectors’ Digest (25 Sept. 1987). A special tribute to Mize is Leo Trachtenberg, “At the Age of Eighty, Johnny Mize Passes Away: A True Yankee Great,” Yankees Magazine (1993). Obituaries are in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (3 June 1993), New York Times (3 June 1993), and Northeast Georgian (8 June 1993).

Charles F. Howlett