Johnny Mize

Why Johnny Mize was shocked to be elected to the Hall of Fame

On March 11, 1981, “the Big Cat” Johnny Mize, who held the Cardinals’ single-season home run record for more than 40 years and would go on to hold it for 17 more, was finally elected to the Hall of Fame.

Mize was selected by the Veterans Committee alongside Negro Leagues founder Rube Foster. He and Foster were inducted alongside Bob Gibson, who received 84% of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) vote in his first year on the ballot.

It was an unexpected honor for Mize, who had never eclipsed the 43.6% of the vote he received in 1971 in his ninth year on the ballot. Though he knew the Veterans Committee was voting that day, Mize decided not to wait by the phone awaiting a call that may never come. Instead, with a new second-floor porch being constructed on his home in Demorest, Georgia, he decided to assist with the project.

“After always being the next man in line, I told Marge I was either going fishing or golfing on the 11th,” Mize said. “But with the carpenters here, I decided to help until the noon news came on. I figured I might as well see if they said anything. When it got to be 12:30, I told Marge, ‘Well, that’s it.’”[1]

Incredibly, the call from the Hall of Fame didn’t come because the Hall had the wrong number for Mize. Instead, he was reached by a reporter, who shared the news with him shortly after the Hall’s announcement.

“I knew they were voting again today, but I had already given up hope because no one had called,” Mize said. “It comes as kind of shock, especially since I’ve seen so many guys go in who were behind me when I first became eligible years ago. I’m happy it finally came. Most of all because throughout this long wait, I never knew so many people cared.”[2]

In fact, so many people cared that Mize had to halt construction for the day rather than try to speak to his many callers over the din of their labor.[3]

“I’m just a little disappointed they didn’t see to vote me in earlier,” Mize admitted. “My mother is 87 years old and in the hospital after having both her legs removed after five operations. She always had looked forward to me getting in the Hall. Last year would have been fine, but now she just barely recognizes me and doesn’t realize what’s going on any more than the man in the moon.”[4]

Mize began his path to the Hall of Fame with the Cardinals after Branch Rickey’s brother Frank discovered Mize and placed the 17-year-old with the Cardinals’ farm team in Greensboro, North Carolina.[5] Mize soon became one of the top sluggers in the Redbirds’ system, but in 1934 he suffered a serious leg injury that hampered his movement.

Ironically, the injury helped to keep him in the St. Louis system.

That December, under new ownership that was looking to make a splash, the Reds purchased Mize for $55,000, surpassing the $50,000 the Yankees had paid the San Francisco Seals that November for another highly touted prospect named Joe DiMaggio. However, the high-paying deal came with a caveat – if Mize’s injury hampered him in any way, the Reds could return Mize and get their money back.

Ultimately, the Reds selected that option. Spurs had developed on Miz’s pelvic bone, and that spring it became clear that Mize was playing through an injury. Uncertain whether Mize would ever be able to play on an everyday basis, the Reds voided the deal and sent him back on April 15.

That proved fortunate for the Cardinals.

Mize played in 65 games for the Cardinals’ minor-league club in Rochester that season, batting .318 with 12 homers, before the pain became too much and he required surgery. When Mize came back, he not only was assigned to the Cardinals, but he beat out incumbent Ripper Collins for the first base job. The rookie Mize hit .329 with 19 homers and 93 RBIs and led all of baseball with 21 intentional walks.

“There is not a ballplayer in the major leagues playing better baseball than Johnny Mize,” Cardinals manager Frankie Frisch said.[6]

In each of his six seasons with the Cardinals, Mize hit at least .314 with an on-base percentage above .400. In 1939, he won the National League batting crown with a .349 average. He also led the league with 28 homers, a .626 slugging percentage, a 1.070 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage), and 353 total bases. That year, he finished second in the NL MVP voting behind Cincinnati’s Bucky Walters.

“He was a great hitter right when he came up,” said Terry Moore, who roomed with Mize in their Cardinals days. “He never swung at a bad pitch. It was a pleasure to watch him hit.”[7]

In 1940, Mize may have been even more impressive. His 43 home runs led all of baseball and set a Cardinals single-season franchise record, one that would hold up until Mark McGwire finally broke the record on his way to 70 homers in 1998. Mize led the NL in slugging percentage (.636), OPS (1.039), and total bases (368), and led all of baseball in intentional walks (24). Once again, Mize finished second in the MVP voting to a Red, this time finishing behind Frank McCormick.

After the season, Mize held out for an increase on his $16,000 salary.

“Why, they even suggested I take a cut,” he said, before noting that the Cardinals later offered him the same salary from the previous year. “My home runs were more than any St. Louis player ever hit,” he argued. “I led the National League in runs batted in with 137, in total bases with 368, and I batted .314 for the season. If that isn’t enough to get a raise, I don’t know what is. Of course, my batting average was the lowest in the five years I have been with the Cardinals, or the five years I spent in the minors, but I think the other records are enough to warrant a little more money.”[8]

Finally, after missing the first 2 ½ weeks of spring training, Mize and the Cardinals agreed to terms, giving the slugger a $1,000 raise over the previous year.[9] Though Mize went on to hit .317 with 16 homers, 100 RBIs, and a league-high 39 doubles, an arm injury forced him to miss the final 10 games of the season. The Sporting News reported that Cardinals manager Billy Southworth was disappointed that Mize spent the final games watching from the grandstand or the press box instead of sitting on the bench.[10]

That December, the Cardinals traded Mize to the New York Giants for Bill Lohrman, Johnny McCarthy, and Ken O’Dea.

“When you hold out a couple of times against the Cardinals you know you’re finished with the organization,” Mize said. “I sensed the change in attitude toward me during the season, and when the schedule was over I cleared out all my belongings in the clubhouse. That’s the first time I ever did that, but I was pretty certain I wouldn’t be with the club in ’42.”[11]

Despite missing three seasons in the prime of his career serving in World War II, Mize proved to be more than worth the cost for the Giants. In 1942, he led the National League with 110 RBIs and a .521 slugging percentage on his way to a fifth-place finish in the MVP voting.

After returning from the war, he led all of baseball in 1946 with 51 homers, 138 RBIs, and 137 runs scored in 1947, finishing third in the MVP race. The following year, at age 35, he led baseball again with 40 homers.

“I’ve always wondered how many more (championships) we would have won if we hadn’t dealt two power hitters in that period, Mize and Walker Cooper,” said Cardinals outfielder Stan Musial, who led the Redbirds to World Series titles in 1942, 1944, and 1946.[12]

In 1949, the Yankees purchased Mize’s contract from the cross-town Giants for $40,000. Used primarily as a part-time player for much of his Yankees career, Mize hit drove home the winning run in Game 3 of the 1949 World Series, then hit 25 homers in just 305 plate appearances in 1950.

When he retired after the 1953 season, Mize’s 359 career home runs ranked sixth all-time. He also had a .312 career batting average, .397 on-base percentage, 2,011 hits, and 1,337 RBIs over 15 major-league seasons. Altogether, Mize had won five World Series titles, been selected for 10 all-star games, won a batting title, and finished in the top five of the MVP voting four times, including two runner-up finishes.

“I was mostly impressed with that sweet swing and the fact that he was a power hitter who rarely struck out,” Musial said. “He had the greatest batting eyes I’ve ever seen.”[13]

“He was proud of hitting all those home runs, and when he was voted into the Hall of Fame, I guess that had to be the day he was most proud,” Moore said.[14]

At his induction speech, Mize referenced his long wait to arrive in Cooperstown.

“I’ve been asked if being elected by the Veterans Committee means going in the back door,” Mize said. “To that I say look who’s on it – ex-players, managers, and executives, most of whom are in the Hall of Fame. Who else would you want to pick you? They were my peers.”[15]

He also noted that years earlier, several sportswriters had told him he was sure to be voted into the Hall.

“So I made a prepared speech,” he said, “but somewhere along the way it got lost.”[16]

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[1] Ken Picking, “It’s Mize’s Moment,” Atlanta Constitution, March 12, 1981.

[2] Bill Madden, “Mize gains Hall of Fame with Negro loop founder,” New York Daily News, March 11, 1981.

[3] Ken Picking, “It’s Mize’s Moment,” Atlanta Constitution, March 12, 1981.

[4] Ken Picking, “It’s Mize’s Moment,” Atlanta Constitution, March 12, 1981.

[5] “Mize, Through Exercise, Will Try To Prove Cards Got a Break When $55,000 Deal For Him Fell Through,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 8, 1935.

[6] Ralph McGill, “An Atlanta Doctor Sent Mize To the Majors!” Atlanta Constitution, May 17, 1936.

[7] Mike Eisenbath, “Mize Is Recalled By Former Mates As A Great Hitter,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 3, 1993.

[8] Associated Press, “Mize’s Slugging Entitles Him to Raise, He Says,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, February 2, 1941.

[9] Sid C. Keener, “Mize Signs Contract And Works Out With Cardinals,” St. Louis Star and Times, March 17, 1941.

[10] “Mize-To-Giants Deal Surprises Breadon,” The Sporting News, December 18, 1941.

[11] Donald H. Drees, “Mize Not Surprised At Deal Sending Him to Giants,” St. Louis Star and Times, December 12, 1941.

[12] Bob Broeg, “M&M’s Bats Didn’t Melt In Their Hands,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 12, 1981.

[13] Bob Broeg, “M&M’s Bats Didn’t Melt In Their Hands,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 12, 1981.

[14] Mike Eisenbath, “Mize Is Recalled By Former Mates As A Great Hitter,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 3, 1993.

[15] Bill Madden, “Hall of Famers win the cheers of bitter crowd,” New York Daily News, August 3, 1981.

[16] Bill Madden, “Hall of Famers win the cheers of bitter crowd,” New York Daily News, August 3, 1981.