Slugger Mize still takes rips when it comes to heroes

Bill Tanton

January 12, 1993|By Bill Tanton

One thing about old people: They can be brutally honest.

When they reach their 70s or 80s, they no longer care what others think. They just say what they please. Or so it seems.

I had that reaction to one of baseball's all-time great sluggers, Johnny Mize, when I met him last weekend at the 40th annual Tops In Sports banquet here.

I never saw Johnny Mize play. The last of his 15 major-league seasons was 1953. The Orioles came into the American League in 1954.

As a kid, I had Mize's baseball card, though. I believe I paid a nickel for it along with a sheet of bubble gum and two other cards, all wrapped in waxed paper. At Jay's Sports Connection in Towson, Mize's card today sells for as much as $150.

But I knew about Mize's prodigious home run production (he hit 359 of them, 51 for the Giants in 1947). Frank Sliwka, the Tops In Sports chairman, told me when he was playing ball at City College, Johnny Mize was his idol.

"Every day, I used to look at the box score to see how many home runs Mize hit," Sliwka says. "I liked him because he was left-handed, and so was I."

The first retroactive Babe Ruth Crown presented at the Tops In Sports banquet went to Joe DiMaggio. The year was 1956. The next year it went to Johnny Mize.

"Did you know Babe Ruth?" I asked Mize the other day.

"A little bit," he said. "He married my first cousin, Claire Hodgson. Whenever we played in New York, I went up to visit them. Every time I went there, Ruth had liquor on his breath."

"How about DiMag?" I asked. "How well did you know him?"

"I played on the Yankees with him," Mize said. "Ol' Joe looks all different now. When I played with him, his face was so skinny he was all teeth and bones. All that's gone now. He's had a lot of work done on his face. At least it looks that way to me."

So much for what may be the two greatest baseball heroes America has ever known.

Mize, who entered the Hall of Fame in 1981, turned 80 last week. "Sliwka and these fellows threw a nice birthday party for me last night," he said. "Took me out to dinner. Al Kaline came along. It was real nice."

There's one thing Mize won't tell anybody, however. He won't reveal his top salary in baseball.

"I'm not going to tell you," he said. "It was so low, I don't want anybody to know."

Later, Rex Barney, who pitched for the Dodgers in Mize's time, provided the answer.

"John's top salary was probably $35,000," Rex said. "When I was with the Dodgers, our highest-paid players were Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson. They both made $32,000."

Today, with multi-year contracts for as much as $37 million, a player like Barry Bonds is paid nearly that much per game.

Everyone realizes that baseball salaries today make 1940s salaries look like peanuts. In addition, the relationship between players and management has changed. Let Mize explain:

"When I was with the Cardinals, I led the National League in

hitting in 1939 with a .349 average, but I couldn't get a raise. Mr. [Branch] Rickey [the club's general manager] said a fellow with my size [6 feet 2, 215 pounds] should hit more home runs than I did. I had 28 home runs that year.

"So the next year, I had 43 home runs and 137 RBI. They're both still St. Louis Cardinal club records after more than 50 years. I still couldn't get a raise. Mr. Rickey wanted to give me a pay cut because my batting average dropped to .314.

"Today a fellow hits .265 and they say he's having a hell of a year. If you hit .265 then, you were not only out of the big leagues, you were out of baseball."

Management was not easily impressed in those days.

"When I was coming up," Mize says, "I was playing with Greensboro in the Piedmont League. I hit .360, I had over 100 RBI and I scored 100 runs.

"Then Art Shires, the first baseman at Rochester, got hurt and the Cardinals brought me up to that club and I hit .350 there. And the next year I didn't even get invited to spring training."

When Mize was married, the Cardinals owner, Sam Breadon, slipped John an envelope containing $500. Mize thanked him for his generosity.

But when Mize received his next paycheck it was $500 short.

"That," explained Rickey, "is the $500 you got when you got married."

"I thought that was a wedding present," Mize said.

"It was, but it still comes out of your pay," Rickey said.

Mize understands inflation and the value of the dollar then and now. He could teach a course in it.

"In 1942, I looked at a Cadillac in Savannah. It was a big ol' Cadillac with a trunk on it. The dealer wanted $1,805.

"I gave him $500 for a used Cadillac with 4,000 miles on it," Mize said. "I put a bale of hay in the back seat for the bird dogs and drove it three years and sold it for $1,100."

Mize is part of the answer to one of the great sports trivia questions:

Who are the only three players to hit three home runs in a game in both major leagues?

Mize is one. Predictably, Babe Ruth is another.

"Ruth did it in Pittsburgh when he was playing for the Boston Braves in '35," Mize says. "Ruth said he should have quit that night."

And the third? Give up? Sure you do. It was Claudell Washington. He did it with the White Sox in '79 and with the Mets in 1980.

"I don't think today's players are as good as we were," Mize says, "but I have no way of knowing. I watch television, but I'm not facing these pitchers.

"As far as money goes, I tell these young guys today, 'Get everything you can, kid, because when they're through with you they'll release you.' There's no love in staying with a club now."

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