One hundred years ago today, one of the greatest first baseman in National League history was born: Johnny Mize.
If you read much in sabermetric circles, and especially if you read much about Hall of Fame arguments, you’ll hear some talk about how Mize might be the best Hall of Famer the BBWAA ever took a pass on. Oh, you can find some 19th-century or early-20th-century players who were better, but that hardly counts, as those guys generally predated the BBWAA electorate itself. Mize might be the best player to retire during the Cooperstown era to get into the Hall of Fame via the Veterans Committee.
When I first heard those points being made, I checked his stats at Baseball-Reference.com, and my initial reaction was one of bewilderment. At the very least, I can understand why he got passed over.
First off, he had a very short career, with just 15 seasons in the majors, and he played over 130 games in fewer than half of those season. He was a good hitter with one batting title and one 200-hit season, but that’s not enough to overcome a short career. He had 359 homers, which is nice but less than Gil Hodges or Rocky Colavito (or even Gary Gaetti). Mize had some big home seasons, most notably 51 in 1947, but ultimately topped 30 just three times.
So how come he’s considered such a clearly deserving Hall of Famer? Well, just looking at black ink and a few obvious, cursory stats doesn’t tell the whole story.
First, let’s start with the career length. Yup, he played in just 15 seasons. Then again, he missed three full campaigns in the middle of his career due to World War II. They were ages 30-32 for him, which is typically a bit past a player’s peak but Mize’s big 51-homer season came at age 34, and then he hit 40 more at age 35. Those were three prime years Mize lost.
Players normally get war credit, so give Mize around 400 more games and three more seasons. Suddenly, his career numbers look more respectable. That might give him 100 more homers, giving him over 450. And while 359 doesn’t look so hot to our 21st-century eyes, it’s worth noting that when Mize retired in 1953, he was No. 6 on the all-time homer list. Ahead of him? Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio. That’s a nice group of players. Heck, all the guys just behind Mize were Hall of Famers, too: Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg, Ralph Kiner, Al Simmons, Rogers Hornsby, and Chuck Klein.
300 homers was a lot more impressive back then, and by rights Mize should’ve had 400.
And as noted, Mize could hit. He batted .300 in each of his first nine seasons. He played in the NL in the 1930s, and in those days the AL was the hitter-friendly league, not the NL.
What’s more, Mize also had a good eye at the plate. He often drew 70 or more walks in the season, helping him to a .397 career on-base percentage. Mize also led the league in OPS three straight times, from 1938 to 1940.
The best modern comp for Mize would be Jeff Bagwell. On a per-year basis, Bagwell might be a bit better, but then again, Bagwell doesn’t get the wartime credit Mize did.
Frankly, a good case can be made for Mize as best NL first baseman of the 20th century. His main competition is Bagwell and Willie McCovey. Admittedly, it helps that guys like Foxx and Gehrig played in the AL, but still Mize was a legitimately great player. And today is his 100th birthday.
Aside from that, many other events today celebrate their anniversary or “day-versary” (which is something that happened X-thousand days ago). Here they are, with the better ones in bold if you’d prefer to just skim.
1,000 days since Florida Marlins player Jorge Cantu becomes the first person in baseball history to get an RBI in each of his team’s first eight games.
6,000 days since the Atlanta Braves end a 17-game, 20-day road trip necessitated by the 1996 Summer Olympics.
9,000 days since Dave Stewart sets a major league record by committing his 12th balk of the season. He’ll end the year with 16.
15,000 days since Baseball-Reference.com founder Sean Forman is born.
25,000 days since the Dodgers hire Walter Alston to manage their minor league team in Trenton.
Also, at some point today it’ll be 1,000,000,000 seconds since Tim Raines his hit first career homer, which was a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 13th inning. It’s the latest he ever homers in a game and one of just two career walk-off shots.
1875 Kitty Bransfield, first baseman for the Pirates and Phillies in the 1900s, is born.
1890 The Phillies make a great move, purchasing future Hall of Fame centerfielder Billy Hamilton from the Kansas City Cowboys for either $5,000 or $6,000.
1903 The war between the established National League and fledging American League is one step closer to an end. Today, the NL caves to the demands of AL czar Ban Johnson that the representatives of their upcoming peace meeting have full power to make decisions on behalf of their leagues.
1915 The Yankees purchase first baseman Wally Pipp from the Tigers for the waiver price of $7,500. Though most famous as the guy Lou Gehrig replaced in the lineup, Pipp himself was a fine player for many years.
1922 Alvin Dark, 2,000-hit player who later managed pennant winners with the Giants and A’s, is born.
1924 The Yankees purchase the contract of Earle Combs. He’ll be a fine player and the leadoff man for the 1927 Murders Row team, though he doesn’t really deserve his plaque in Cooperstown.
1933 Baseball commissioner Judge Landis announces that during the bleak economy of the Great Depression, he’ll cut his salary by 40 percent.
1935 Dick Schofield Sr., shortstop and father of a big league shortstop, is born.
1942 Jim Lefebvre is born. He’ll win the 1965 Rookie of the Year but then fizzle out.
1944 George Mullin dies at age 62. He was a workhorse pitcher for the early-20th-century Tigers, with five 20-win seasons, most notably a league-leading 29 victories in 1909.
1945 In possibly the most violent incident in Cuban baseball history, Roberto Ortiz attacks the umpire, beating him unconscious.
1945 One-time wonderkid Tony Conigliaro is born.
1947 Yankee Clipper Joe DiMaggio undergoes surgery to remove a bone spur on his left heel.
1950 Ross Grimsley is born. He’ll win 20 games for the 1978 Expos but is maybe most famous for his odd superstition. When on a winning streak, he would refuse to shower or engage in any sort of proper sanitary behavior.
1962 The 61-year-old Three-I League disbands. It had just six remaining clubs.
1962 Jeff Montgomery is born. He’s a Royals reliever who will lead the AL with 45 saves in 1993.
1970 Jumbo Elliott, heavyset pitcher who led the NL with 19 wins in 1931, dies at age 69.
1971 Reds star Bobby Tolan ruptures his Achilles tendon playing basketball. He’ll miss the entire upcoming season.
1971 Dud Lee, birth name Ernest Lee, dies at age 71. He’s best remembered for his memorable name. He hit .223 with zero homers in 253 games in the 1920s AL.
1976 Alfonso Soriano, Cubs left fielder, is born.
1976 In an amateur draft, many of the most notable players taken aren’t signed by their teams, including Hubie Brooks by the Royals, Mickey Hatcher by the Mets, and Mookie Wilson and Jeff Lahti, both by the Phillies. Among those taken who do sign are John Tudor with the Red Sox and Jody Davis with the Mets.
1976 Eric Gagne, briefly the greatest closer in the world, is born.
1978 George Burns, former AL first baseman who had over 2,000 hits in his career, dies at age 84 on the 54th anniversary of his being traded to the Indians.
1981 Until this day, 25 of the 26 teams have signed a free agent. On this day, the Reds make it 26 of 26 by signing their first free agent, Larry Biittner. Not exactly plunging into the deep end of the pool.
1982 Francisco Rodriguez, closer, is born.
1984 Jon Lester, starting pitcher, is born.
1985 The Royals trade U L Washington to the Expos. I assume the toothpick came with.
1990 Horace Stoneham, principle Giants owner from 1936 to 76, dies at age 86. He became the team president when his dad bought the team in 1936.
1991 The A’s sign free agent Vance Law to play third base.
1993 The Twins sign free agent Bert Blyleven, but his playing career is over.
1994 The Rockies sign shortstop Walt Weiss.
1997 The Padres sign what’s left of Fernando Valenzuela.
2000 The Cardinals sign free agent pitcher Andy Benes.
2002 The Reds sign free agent pitcher Jose Rijo, who is attempting a comeback.
2004 The Indians sign free agent middle reliever Bob Howry.
2005 Bud Selig announces that MLB and the Players Association will donate $1,000,000 to help last month’s tsunami victims in Southeast Asia.
2006 The minimum salary in major league baseball rises to $327,000.
2010 Boston trades Casey Kotchman to the Mariners.