Even though he’s a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, Johnny Mize, in his prime, could not have played for the 2013 Atlanta Braves.
It’s been nearly 20 years since “Big Jawn” died on June 2, 1993 at his home in Demorest. It’s been nearly 32 years since he was enshrined in Cooperstown, on Aug. 2, 1981. And it’s been about 50 years since he played in his last game, on Oct. 5, 1953.
In all that time, no one has broken one of the most amazing records in baseball history.
In 1947, Mize, a 6’2”, 215-pound first baseman for the New York Giants, tied Ralph Kiner of the Pirates for the National League lead in home runs, with 51.
But here’s the kicker: He struck out just 42 times. Mize remains the only man in baseball history to hit 50 home runs while striking out fewer than 50 times.
And that was no fluke. The next year, Mize and Kiner again tied for the home run lead with 40. Mize struck out 37 times.
Clearly, the “Big Cat” would have no place in the current Braves lineup. Heading into the weekend series in New York, the Braves had played 46 games, a little more than 28 percent of their schedule.
Already, dangerous Dan Uggla had posted 57 strikeouts. BJ Upton had amassed 55. Justin Upton had whiffed 49 times. Juan Francisco, Evan Gattis and Chris Johnson were each on pace to top 100 Ks. Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman had solid shots.
Granted, the current game is much different than it was from 1936-53, when Mize played. The evolution of the bullpen, proliferation of hard throwers, and night games all contributed to the increase in strikeouts.
And with power numbers down drastically, it looks as if Mize’s record may be around for a while longer. The only current player who has made a run at it is Albert Pujols, who hit 49 homers with 50 strikeouts in 2006.
Even in his day, Mize was unique. In his fourth season, 1939, he led the National League with a .349 average for the Cardinals. But that was no big deal. His career average after that year was .346.
In fact, Mize hit over .300 in each of his first nine seasons, despite losing three years to World War II. His career average finally settled at .312.
Yet Mize was a power hitter to boot. He hit three home runs in a game a record six times, and hit three homers in succession four times. He hit 359 homers overall.
He still ranks 15thin career slugging percentage, ahead of such luminaries as Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron.
Mize scored more than 100 runs in a season five times, and topped the 100 mark in runs batted in eight times.
In 1947, he scored 137 runs and knocked in 138. That’s some kind of run production right there.
Picked up by the Yankees in August, 1949, he played on five straight World Series winners. He led the American League in pinch hits in each of his final three seasons.
“He didn’t run very well, and he’d injured his arm, so he couldn’t throw very well either,” Yankee teammate Bobby Brown told Jerry Grillo of the SABR Biography Project. “But Mize was an extremely valuable guy on our team, because he was such a dangerous hitter, especially in the clutch.”
The final years of his career were summed up in an ode by sportswriter Dan Parker: “Your arm is gone, your legs likewise, but not your eyes, Mize, not your eyes.”
Ah, those eyes. Sportswriter Tom Meany wrote, “Taking a pitch, Mize actually followed the ball with his eyes into the catcher’s mitt, and he maintained he could see the bat hit the ball.”
Mize attributed this skill to the hours he spent as a lad hitting tennis balls off the side of a barn with a broomstick.
Mize grew up fast. He holds another record that will surely never be broken. He played three years of college baseball — while still in high school.
As Mize told the story in his Hall of Fame induction speech, “I was 15 years old, a sophomore in high school, and Harry Forrester, the coach at Piedmont College, came up to me one day, and he says, ‘Come out for the college team.’ I said, ‘You got to be kidding!’
“I was put in as a pinch hitter. So I started out as a pinch hitter, and ended up as a pinch hitter. I got a base hit, and the next day I started, and I finished the season.”
The next year, regulations got a little tighter. Forrester had a solution.
“‘You can take one subject in college and you can play on the team,’ Mize recalled him saying. “So I went out for the team, and they didn’t mention the subject, and I didn’t, either!
“The next year, I just automatically went out and started playing.”
By the late ’40s, Mize was well-established as a professional hitter. In 1947, the Giants travelled with two trunks of bats.
“One trunk was for Johnny Mize. The other was for the rest of the team,” roommate Buddy Blattner told Grillo.
“He had bats of different sizes and weights, 34 ounces, 37, 40. The harder the thrower, the lighter the bat,” a Cardinals roommate, Don Gutteridge, told Grillo. “We were at home in St. Louis, and John says, ‘Next time I get up there, I’m going to get one of those light bats, and I’ll get around on that high fastball, you watch!’ So, next time up, he hits the first pitch out onto Grand Avenue outside of Sportsman’s Park. He comes back and says to me, ‘See, I told you!’”
As a testimonial to his hitting prowess, a 1950 headline from the Boston Traveler stands unsurpassed: “To Criticize Mize is Unwise; His Bat Supplies His Best Replies.”