Tuesday, February 9, 2010

#23 Johnny Mize

Johnny Mize was born in 1913 in Demorest, Georgia. As a child, his natural athleticism allowed him to excel in many sports, most notably tennis, but he chose baseball to be what he would dedicate his life to. At age 17, he signed with the St Louis Cardinals and was assigned to Greensboro in the Piedmont League. In 1933, he was batting .360 with Greensboro when he was sent to Rochester in the International League. His 1934 and 1935 were shortened by injury, but the Big Cat could not be kept out of the Natinal League forever. He finally joined the Cardinals in 1936, and the first baseman had immediate impact. He won the batting title in 1939 with a .349 average, as well as topping the league in home runs as well, with 28. In 1940, he belted 43 homers and finished second in the MVP voting for a second straight season.

After the 1941 season, Mize was dealt to the New York Giants, and after a 1942 season that saw him hit .305 with 110 RBI, he joined the military and spent the next three years helping with the war effort. He returned to the Giants in 1946, and 1947, he had career highs in home runs (51) and RBI (138). He added another 40 home runs in 1948 at age 35, and in mid 1949, was sent to the Yankees. He stayed with the Yankees for 5 years, until finally retiring at age 40 in 1953.

After his career ended, with 359 home runs and a .312 lifetime average, Mize had to wait until 1981 to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. He had bypass surgery in 1982, and spent his remaining years back in Demorest. He frequently appeared at Old-Timer games, and spent a lot of his time visiting children's hosptials to sign autographs and tell stories to kids. He died in his sleep in 1993 at the age of 80.

Mize is one of those players whose candidacy for the Hall of Fame seemed so obvious. He missed three prime years due to World War 2, so he would have easily approached 450 lifetime home runs and 2500 hits. An incredible slugger, and a great contact hitter (in the year he hit 51 home runs, he only struck out 42 times). In fact, he only fanned fifty times in a season one (57 in 1937). He attributed his hitting skill to practing hitting a tennis ball with a broomstick for hours as a kid.

My dad took me to the Baseball Hall of Fame for the first time in 1981. We went for induction weekend, to watch Mize, Bob Gibson and Rube Foster get inducted. It was a thrill for me, at age ten, to see this event. I remember hearing the legenday speech by Ernie Harwell as he was inducted into Broadcaster's wing of the Hall. Foster had died 51 years earlier, but his widow (!) accepted the award for him. She reminded me a lot of Mother Jefferson. Mize's speech was a good and heart-warming one, so good that around 20 years later, I lifted part of it for a toast at my friend George's wedding. Mize said, "Years ago, writers told me I'd make the Hall of Fame, so I kinda prepared a speech. But somewhere in the 25 years it got lost." I took that quote and twisted it around a little to mock George's lengthy engagement at their wedding reception.

The Autograph: Mize was always a willing signer, although by the time I got to writing to him, he was asking for 5 dollars each to go to a children's hospital near his home.

Mize at 19, playing in Elmira, NY

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