One hundred years ago today Johnny “Big Cat” Mize, was born in Demorest, Ga. Mize, above, played 15 seasons in the majors between 1936 and 1953, winning five World Series titles and being elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Mize, a 10-time All-Star, was a keen hitter and a smooth fielding first baseman who cracked 359 home runs, registered an overall .312 batting average and knocked in 1,337 runs during his career.
But perhaps his most astounding feat came in the 1947 season, when he hit 51 homers for the then-New York Giants while striking out just 42 times. Compare this with, say, Cecil Fielder, who hit 50 home runs for the Detroit Tigers in 1990 but struck out more than 180 times.
Fact is, free-swinging sluggers are part and parcel of major league baseball today. Mize had 524 career strikeouts in 15 seasons. By comparison, Sammy Sosa broke that figure in a little more than three seasons with the Chicago Cubs between 1998 and 2002.
Managers back 75 or even 50 years ago would have had a hard time tolerating a player who struck out 150 times a season. And players wouldn’t have let it happen, either.
Back then, a batter would often shorten his swing in order to make contact once a pitcher got two strikes on him; today they just let ‘er rip. The end result is a few more home runs and a lot more strikeouts.
As an example, look at what Babe Ruth accomplished: In the seasons in which Ruth hit 50 or more homers he never came close to striking out even 100 times. He demonstrated remarkable control, hitting for power and average, and also accumulating a sizeable number of bases on balls.
In 1920, Ruth’s first truly big home run year, he registered 54 round-trippers for the New York Yankees while striking out 80 times. The following year, he hit 59 home runs and tallied 81 strikeouts.
In 1928 Ruth hit 54 homers again and struck out 87 times, while in 1927, his best season with 60 HRs, he struck out 89 times.
Other sluggers of that era were similarly disciplined:
- Hack Wilson of the Cubs hit 56 home runs in 1930 and struck out 105 times;
- Jimmie Foxx hit 58 homers for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1932 and 50 for the Boston Red Sox in 1938. He whiffed 96 and 76 times, respectively; and
- Hank Greenberg tallied 58 home runs for the Tigers in 1940 while striking out 93 times.
The next generation of long ball hitters were also adept at keeping down the strikeouts.
The Pirates’ Ralph Kiner, playing on horrible teams in the late ‘40s and ‘50s when opposing hurlers didn’t have to throw him anything decent because there was hardly anyone else in the Pittsburgh lineup worth pitching to, topped 50 twice (51 in 1947 and 54 in 1949) and still only struck out 81 and 61 times, respectively.
Willie Mays managed two 50-plus home runs seasons, 51 in 1955 for the New York Giants and 52 in 1965 for the San Francisco Giants, but whiffed just 60 and 71 times.
Even free-swinging Mickey Mantle of the Yankees wasn’t too much worse, hitting 52 round-trippers in 1956 and K’ing 107 times, and knocking 54 taters in 1961 while striking out 112 times.
Mantle’s teammate during that incredible ’61 season, Roger Maris, displayed remarkable control. In a season in which Maris hit 61 home runs and was under incredible scrutiny, he struck out just 67 times.
It’s unlikely anyone will ever again hit that many home runs with that few strikeouts, particularly when one looks at the numbers put up by sluggers over the past half century.
Today, there are more 50-homer seasons being notched, but here are also far more strikeouts to go along with them.
Take recently retired players such as Sosa and Mark McGwire, who both broke home run marks set by Maris and Ruth (albeit during the so-called Steroid Era), but struck out in far higher amounts.
In 1998, what would be Sosa’s best year for round-trippers, he hit 66, but struck out 171 times. The next year, he hit 63 HRs, but again whiffed 171 times. In 2000, his home run total dropped to an even 50, but his strikeouts were relatively constant at 168, while in 2001, he blasted 64 round-trippers and K’d 153 times.
Mark McGwire, Sosa’s rival during the late ‘90s and early part of this century, also tended to strike out a lot, though not quite at Sosa’s pace. In 1996, he hit 52 home runs for the Oakland Athletics and struck out 116 times. Traded in the middle of the following season to the St. Louis Cardinals, McGwire piled up 58 taters and 159 strikeouts.
In 1998, when McGwire broke Roger Maris’ long-standing single-season home run record by hitting 70 round-trippers, he whiffed 162 times. The next year, McGwire blasted another 65 homers and struck out 133 times.
Ken Griffey Jr., another recently retired heavy hitter, managed back-to-back 56-home run seasons in 1997 and 1998 for the Seattle Mariners, but also struck out 121 times each year.
Greg Vaughn of the San Diego Padres hit 50 HRs in 1998 to go with 120 strikeouts.
Griffey and Vaughn, however, looked like control freaks compared to Fielder, who managed an even 50 homers in 1990, but whiffed 182 times, a ratio of more than 3.5 strikeouts for every homer.
The only recent 50-home run hitters to display any control are the Baltimore Orioles’ Brady Anderson (who hit 50 taters in 1990 and registered 106 K’s, but also never came close to the hitting 50 again), George Foster of the Cincinnati Reds (52 four-baggers in 1977; 107 strikeouts), Albert Belle of the Cleveland Indians (50 HRs in 1995 and just 80 K’s) and Barry Bonds of the Giants (73 home runs in 2001; 93 whiffs).
Mize played in an era when there was no “SportsCenter” to put a disproportionate value on home runs, when fundamental baseball was the name of game and moving runners along played a crucial part in team strategy.
Mize died in 1993 at the age of 80, but fortunately he’d already been enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame for a dozen years at that point.
That he was elected by the Veteran’s Committee rather than by the Baseball Writers Association of America is unsurprising.
The veterans were able to recall an era when the home run wasn’t the end all and be all of major league baseball, and when player salaries were of a level that making the World Series represented a serious boost in earnings and, hence, playing for a win during the year was more important than going for the long ball.
Many an argument has been had over which era was better – but there’s no doubt that the period Mize and his counterparts played in was a decidedly different one than that of today.