Hall of Famer slugger Mize dies at 80 BASEBALL 'Big Cat' owned discerning eye for strikes, balls

June 03, 1993|By Bill Madden | Bill Madden,New York Daily News

NEW YORK -- Johnny Mize, a Giant who hit 51 homers in one season and a Yankee who won five world championship rings, died in his sleep yesterday at his Demorest, Ga., home. He was 80.

Nicknamed "The Big Cat," the hulking 6-foot-2, 215-pound first baseman broke into the majors in 1936 with the Cardinals but spent the final 11 seasons of his 15-year career with New York teams across the Harlem River from each other.

Despite a .312 career batting average and four home run titles, it took Mize 28 years to get elected to the Hall of Fame -- and then it was by the Veterans Committee. But at his induction ceremony in 1981, Mize expressed no bitterness at waiting so long.

"I've been asked if being elected by the Veterans Committee means going in the back door," Mize said."To that I say: 'Look who's on it -- ex-players, managers and executives, most of whom are in the Hall of Fame themselves. Who else would you want to pick you?' They were my peers."

So grateful and honored was Mize by his election that he never failed to appear at all the induction ceremonies after his own. Every year he would drive from his home in Demorest all the way to Cooperstown in his Cadillac with the "Big Cat" Georgia license plates.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete yesterday.

Of all his slugging feats -- he is the only player in history to hit three home runs in a game six times -- it was Mize's career strikeouts-to-at-bats ratio (1 every 12.3) that ultimately got him elected to the Hall. It was cited that Ted Williams, regarded as having one of the keenest batting eyes ever, struck out once for every 10.9 at-bats over his career.

Indeed, in 1947, the year Mize hit 51 homers for the Giants, he struck out only 42 times. The most strikeouts Mize ever had in one season was 49.

The one knock on Mize as a player was his slowness afoot and lack of range at first base. But he more than made up for that with his bat.

In his first six years with the Cardinals, he never hit lower than .314 and won his only NL batting title with a .349 mark in 1939. Then in December 1941 -- four days after Pearl Harbor -- he was traded to the Giants for three players. After a three-year hitch in the Navy, he shared back-to-back home run titles with Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner in '47 and '48.

His 1947 season was probably his best. In addition to the 51 homers, he led the league in RBI (138) and runs (137) while batting .302.

Cecil Fielder, for one, might take solace in the fact that Mize did not win the MVP that season. Bob Elliott of the pennant-winning Braves did.

When his average slipped to .263 in 1949 and it looked as if his playing days were about at an end, the Giants sold Mize to the Yankees for $40,000 that August.

As a Yankee, Mize led the AL in pinch hits three straight seasons from 1951-53 and was the World Series MVP in 1952, when he hit .400 with three home runs in the seven games against the Dodgers.

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