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The Big Cat in Pinstripes

Three future Hall of Famers played in all five of the World Series that the Yankees won from 1949-1953. Two of those players should be relatively easy for Yankees fans to identify. Yogi Berra was the star catcher for those teams that won the championship five years in a row and the best player on the Yankees during that run. Phil Rizzuto was the starting shortstop for those years, providing solid defense, an impressive .368 on base percentage and scoring almost 100 runs a year while frequently batting at the top of the powerful Yankees lineup. The third of those Hall of Famers is harder to remember. Joe DiMaggio retired after the 1951 season, which was also Mickey Mantle’s rookie year, so neither of them were there for all five years. Whitey Ford was a rookie in 1950 and missed all of the 1951 and 1952 season due to military service.

Johnny Mize was a Hall of Fame first baseman who had his best years in the National League. He was a big man standing 6’2” and weighing around 215 pounds, but was agile and quick enough to earn the nickname “The Big Cat.” Despite his nickname, Mize’s was in many respects a prototypical big slugging first baseman, but he was one of the best. During his first seven years in the big leagues, from 1936-1941 with the Cardinals and 1942 for the Giants, Mize made five All Star teams, finished in the top ten in MVP voting four times, led the National League in home runs and RBIs twice, total bases and OPS three times and slugging percentage four times.

After slashing .305/.380/.521 with the Giants in 1942, Mize, like many players of his generation, went into the military. He spent three years serving his country during World War II, missing the seasons when he would have been 30-32 years old. When the war was over Mize had three more great years with the Giants averaging 38 home runs and a 165 OPS+ from 1946-1948. However, the Giants struggled during those years finishing 8th, 4th and 5th in what was then an eight team league. In mid-August of 1949, when Mize was having, by his standards, an off year, the Giants, looking to get younger and faster, sold him to the Yankees for $40,000.

The Yankees were in first place when they acquired Mize, but they were only 2.5 games ahead of the Red Sox and did not want to pass up the opportunity to acquire another potent bat. Mize played decently the rest of the season for the Yankees managing one home run, one double, four singles and four walks in 28 plate appearances. By 1949, Tommy Henrich had moved from the outfield to first base and was having a good season, so Mize was the backup after the Yankees got him.

In the World Series that fall Mize singled as a pinch hitter in the second game, the only one the Yankees lost. The next day, Mize had his first great Yankees moment. With the score tied 1-1 and the bases loaded with two outs in the top of the ninth, Mize delivered a two run single to give the Yankees the lead. They went on to win that game 4-3 and wrap the series up a few days later.

Mize remained with the Yankees for the rest of his career, which lasted through 1953. He was never a full time player with the Yankees. The most he ever played was when in 1951 when started 91 games at first base out of a total of 113 in which he appeared. Nonetheless, he was generally a valuable player with an OPS+ of 117 and 43 home runs in 946 plate appearances with the Yankees. Those 43 home runs boosted his career total to 359, which was sixth on the all time list when Mize retired.

The Big Cat played in all five of the Yankees World Series between 1949-1953, but the 1952 match against the Dodgers was his best. The World Series MVP was first awarded in 1955, but had it been around in 1952, Mize probably would have won it. His three home runs, .400 batting average and three walks in only 18 plate appearances helped the Yankees defeat the Brooklyn Dodgers in a hard fought World Series that went the full seven games.

Mize retired after a mediocre 1953 season that included going hitless in three at bats in the World Series. Mize spent five years with the Yankees, but the team won the World Series every one of those years. Mize’s timing was good, but his contributions to the team, as one of the all time greats with a little gas left in the tank, were real. Modern metrics are kind to Mize as well. His 70.9 career WAR are 11th among first basemen, just behind Jim Thome and Rafael Palmeiro and just ahead of Miguel Cabrera and Eddie Murray. He is also tied with Hank Greenberg for seventh in OPS+ among first baseman. Despite those numbers and being a five time World Series winner had to wait until 1981 when the Veterans Committee elected him to the Hall of Fame.

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