The Veterans Committee Gave the Big Cat His Due

By Glen Sparks

(This post is dedicated to every fan who has a favorite player still needs a few more votes to make it into Cooperstown.)

Really, it seems amazing that it took so long for Johnny Mize to make it into the Hall of Fame.

Johnny Mize was one of baseball's most fearsome sluggers but had a long wait until he finally made it to the Hall of Fame.

Johnny Mize was one of baseball’s most fearsome sluggers but had a long wait until he finally made it to the Hall of Fame.

Mize, born on this date in 1913, hit 359 home runs, drove in 1,337 runs and batted .312 over a 15-year career. He led the National League in home runs and slugging percentage four times each. The Big Cat, as they liked to call him, finished first in RBI three times and in batting average, triples and runs scored one time apiece. Mize walked enough to retire with a .397 on-base percentage.

He did all this while missing three prime seasons due to World War II. Mize remains the only player to hit more than 50 home runs (51 in 1947 for the New York Giants) and strike out fewer than 50 times (42) in one season.

The first baseman from rural Demorest, Ga., retired after the 1953 season. He stood at No. 6 on the all-time home run list when he left the game.

And then he waited.

He got a measly 16.7 percent of the Hall of Fame vote in his first year on the ballot, 1960. The following year, his vote dropped to 8.8 percent. He got 26.9 percent in 1962. Was he building momentum for that coveted plaque in Cooperstown? Nope. He dipped to 26.8 percent in 1963. (Hall of Famers need 75 percent.)

Mize, who was the first person to hit three home runs in a game six times, and whose 43 home runs was a Cardinal record for a single season until Mark McGwire blasted 70 n 1998, never could muster much support from the writers. His vote peaked at 43.6 percent in 1971. He went off the ballot after getting just 41.3 percent of the vote in 1973.

What was wrong? Mize made 10 All-Star teams; he finished as the MVP runner-up in 1939 and 1949 for the Cardinals.

Was it that nickname? The Big Cat? Does that explain anything?

The origin of the “Big Cat” moniker is shrouded in contradiction. Mize said Cardinal infielder Joe Orengo came up with the name after Mize dug some throws out of the dirt. Like, “Hey, you look like a Big Cat doing that.”

The problem with the story is that no one thought Mize was much of a defensive first baseman. The manager put Mize in there to hit. Bob Broeg, the late, legendary writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said the name goes back to the way Mize would “stalk” around the first-base bag, like a cat. Apparently, not always reaching his prey, i.e., the baseball.

Jerry Grillo wrote an article in 2011 about Mize. He includes speculation on Broeg’s part that Mize’s poor defense kept him out of the Hall of Fame for so long. But, Mize was a slugging first baseman. Did writers put that much emphasis on his glovework?

Maybe Mize didn’t put up enough “good” years to wrap around his “great” years. He hit at least 40 home runs three times, but he dropped off after that. (He did lead the N.L. with 28 dingers in 1939, and he topped the league in slugging percentage three times when he hit fewer than 30 homers.)

Mize probably lost at least 75 home runs due to World War II (maybe much more) and more than 300 RBI. He hit 26 home runs for the Giants in 1942, left for the Army, slammed 22 homers in 101 games in 1946 and then belted his career-high 51.

The Veterans Committee finally voted Mize into the Hall of Fame in 1981. Grillo includes this great Mize quote from induction day: “Years ago, the writers were telling me that I’d make the Hall Fame, so I kind of prepared a speech. But somewhere along in the 28 years, it got lost.”

It’s a shame that Mize didn’t get to give that speech sooner. He finished with 71 WAR points, more than, among others, Harmon Killebrew (60.3), who blasted 573 home runs, Willie McCovey (64.4), who hit 521 home runs, and Eddie Murray (68.3)), who knocked out 504. Murray and McCovey were first-ballot Hall of Famers; Killebrew was elected in his fourth year.

Bill James, author of the Historical Baseball Abstract, rated Mize as the sixth-best first baseman of all time in 2003, ahead of Killebrew, Hank Greenberg, McCovey and Tony Perez, all Hall of Famers. James also writes that Mize was “probably the best all-around player in the National League in 1940 and 1947, and the second-best in 1937, 1939 and 1948, third best in 1942.”

This might surprise some people:

Willie Mays

Batting average: .302

On-base percentage: .384

Slugging percentage: .557

Hank Aaron

Batting average: .305

On-base percentage: .374

Slugging percentage: .555

Johnny Mize

Batting average: .312

On-base percentage: .397

Slugging percentage: .563

No, I am not making the argument that Mize was a better player than Mays or Aaron, two of the all-time all-timers. Mays and Aaron did much more on the baseball field than Mize, who had the advantage of playing ball during a great hitters’ era. The WAR points aren’t close. Mays finished with 156.2 and Aaron with 142.6, both totals more than double Mize’s.

It does seem clear, though,  that the Big Cat, no matter how he got that name, is a worthy Hall of Famer.

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