St. Louis Cardinals

Greatest Cardinals No. 5: 1B Johnny Mize

The fifth greatest Cardinal: Johnny Mize

Hall of Fame first baseman Johnny Mize is the fifth greatest player in St. Louis Cardinals team history.
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Hall of Fame first baseman Johnny Mize is the fifth greatest player in St. Louis Cardinals team history.

NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener. The running list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.

NO. 5: 1B Johnny Mize

Branch Rickey operated on the oft-repeated mantra that it is better to trade a player a year too soon than to trade him a year too late.

It’s a philosophy that — at least in part — inspired him to the innovative development of baseball’s first minor league system. The constant influx of new talent would keep his rosters from getting too old and — to the delight of owner Sam Breadon — too expensive.

So, come the end of 1941 season, with young left-handed sluggers Johnny Hopp and Ray Sanders both languishing on the Cardinals’ bench, Mr. Rickey decided it was time for the team’s incumbent first baseman to go.

In fairness, he couldn’t have been too wrong. As a two-man platoon in 1942, Hopp and Sanders produced a less-than-stellar .258 average, six home runs and 63 RBIs. But, even that was good enough to help the Cardinals to a franchise record 106 wins and a five-game demolition of the mighty New York Yankees in the World Series.

But Rickey clearly miscalculated what “a year too soon” means for a guy like Johnny Mize, who at a geezerly 28 years old was shipped to the New York Giants for cash and three middling veterans.

St. Louis had just won 97 games and finished second to the Brooklyn Dodgers in a tight pennant race. All Mize contributed was a .317/.406/.535 batting line with a league-high 39 doubles and his fifth straight season of at least 100 RBIs.

Those 16 home runs, though, fell well short of the 43 he’d hit in 1940 and, apparently, Breadon wasn’t too keen on doling out another raise. As good-natured a southern gentleman as Mize was known to be, he hadn’t been at all shy about holding out for more money.

If Rickey was worried about paying top dollar for an aging asset, he shouldn’t have been. Mize gave three seasons during the prime of his career to the Navy in World War II and still returned to the Giants with enough oomph in his swing to twice lead the National League in home runs (51 in 1947 and 40 the year after) and once more in RBIs (138 in ’47).

In the interim, St. Louis claimed four NL championships, three World Series titles and finished every other season of the 1940s in second place. Imagine Mize sharing a lineup with the likes of Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter, Red Schoendienst and Whitey Kurowski. It’s fair to wonder what kind of dynastic run the Cardinals might have mounted.

Alas, he merely bridged the gap between two great Cardinals eras — the Gas House Gang and the Swifties.

Rickey actually had given up once before on “The Big Cat,” a name Mize earned for the feline grace with which he swung a bat and his ability to pounce on balls thrown in the dirt.

A baseball prodigy, Mize was playing for the varsity baseball team at Piedmont College in his hometown of Demorest, Georgia, when he was still just in high school. Since the small liberal arts college was not conference affiliated, it wasn’t subject to eligibility rules. That’s where Rickey’s brother, Frank, discovered the young slugger.

Two years later, while playing in class-AA Rochester, New York, Mize was trying to stretch a hit into a double when he felt a pop in his groin. The injury knocked him out for months.

Rickey, sensing damaged goods, shopped the 6-2, 215-pound Mize to Cincinnati, which agreed to terms on a cash trade pending a physical. Mize couldn’t pass it and the deal was called off. His career might have been in jeopardy if not for a risky surgery performed by Dr. Robert Hyland, who removed painful spurs from his pelvic bone.

Mize returned in the spring of 1936 so much improved that he not only earned his spot on the Cardinals’ big-league roster, but also displaced Ripper Collins at first base. In 126 games, the rookie batted .329/.402/.577 with 19 home runs and 93 RBIs.

In Mize and outfielder Joe Medwick — who couldn’t have been any different in personality — the Cardinals possessed the deadliest middle-of-the-lineup combo in baseball.

Medwick, a reputed hothead who would fight anyone for just about any reason, won the National League’s last Triple Crown in 1937 by batting .374 with 31 home runs and 154 RBIs. That same season, the mild-mannered Mize finished second in the NL with a .364 average, and third with 25 homers and 113 RBIs.

At various points over the next four years, Mize would lead the league in just about every offensive category — including his 16 triples in 1938 — and narrowly missed his own Triple Crown twice.

In 1939, Mize won his lone batting championship at .349/.444/.626, as well as the first of his four home run titles with 28. His 108 RBIs, however, were just the third best behind Frank McCormick’s 128 and Medwick’s 117. The following season, Mize’s 43 home runs and 137 RBIs led the Senior Circuit, but his .314 average was fifth.

Somehow, Mize finished just second in the MVP balloting both seasons.

A distant cousin to Hall of Famer and fellow Georgian Ty Cobb, Mize was not the prototypical home run basher with towering drives deep into the stadium bleachers. He was a line drive hitter, but was big and strong enough that sometimes the ballpark couldn’t hold his hits.

Mize didn’t strike out much, either, especially for a hitter with a lifetime slugging average of .562. In 15 major league seasons, he never struck out more than 57 times and drew nearly twice as many walks.

“We always knew how to pitch to him,” Brooklyn catcher Roy Campanella once said, “but some days when you’re squatting behind the plate, Mr. Mize’s bat swells up.”

The Cardinals led Brooklyn in the standings for much of the 1941 season and were up by a half-game on Sept. 1 thanks to Mize’s 24-RBI August. But a balky knee limited Mize down the stretch, prompting the team to promote Musial for his major-league debut on Sept. 17. The future Hall-of-Famer batted .426 in 12 games, but the Cardinals still fell short of the pennant by 2 1/2 games.

As he did 15 years earlier when he traded away Rogers Hornsby, Rickey dispatched his best player to a league rival to make space for Hopp and Sanders. The shock of selling off Mize to the Giants wasn’t as jolting, though, because just four days earlier, the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. The loss of his 26 home runs and 110 RBIs in 1942 was forgotten, too, in the thrill of the Cardinals’ banner season.

Mize returned from his tour of duty in the military in 1947 at age 34. He chased the Triple Crown one more time by batting .302/.384/.614 while leading the NL with a career-best 51 home runs and 138 RBIs. He also became the only player in baseball history to hit more than 50 home runs while striking out fewer than 50 times.

But when Mize clashed with another former Gas House Gang member, Giants manager Leo Durocher, he was traded across the Harlem River to the Yankees. As a pinch hitter, he helped the Bronx bombers to five straight championships, including the 1952 World Series in which he batted .400 and belted three home runs.

Mize retired in 1953 at age 40 to pursue various business interests and enjoy golf in the Florida sunshine. It took 28 years for the Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee to finally welcome him to Cooperstown.

“Years ago the writers were telling me that I’d make the Hall of Fame, so I kind of prepared a speech,” he said at his induction with a wry southern drawl. “But somewhere along in the 28 years it got lost.”

SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1936-1941

KEY STATS

.336/.419/.600 in St. Louis | 4x All-Star | 39.0WAR | HoF’02

TOP 100 SCORE: 6.60

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BND Assigning News Editor Todd Eschman has won numerous state and regional awards for his columns, feature stories and news reporting. He was born and raised in Belleville, attended SIU-Carbondale, and is a member of the BBWAA, SABR and St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame.
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