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This Day in Yankees History: "Big Cat" Johnny Mize Comes Aboard- August 22, 1949

Johnny Mize's role on the 1949-53 Yankees was very similar to what similarly aged Yankee slugger Jason Giambi now does on the Rockies.
Johnny Mize's role on the 1949-53 Yankees was very similar to what similarly aged Yankee slugger Jason Giambi now does on the Rockies.

The New York Yankees' dynasty years under Casey Stengel were defined as much by the strength of the team's bench as they were by their many All-Stars. Stengel's platoon system irritated his primary starters because their playing time was affected, but it allowed part-time players like Bobby Brown and Enos Slaughter to gain notoriety among fans. Few players were more effective in Stengel's platoon system than veteran first baseman Johnny Mize, "The Big Cat."

Like the famous Mariner Edgar Martinez would do about 60 years later, the native of Demorest, Georgia overcame a nasty injury in his minor league career (a badly strained groin that led to pelvic bone spurs) to reach the major leagues. Mize became a fixture in the Cardinals lineup from 1936-41, leading the league in homers twice (28 in '39 and 43 in '40), winning a batting crown (.349 in '39) and narrowly missing the National League triple crown in '39 with a third-place finish in RBI. He was a four-time All-Star and the runner-up for NL MVP in consecutive seasons from '39-'40. Mize also showed an unusually good batting eye, keeping his OBP above .400 every year in St. Louis while finishing with a .336/.419/.600 triple slash, 218 doubles, 158 homers, and a 171 OPS+. He was clearly one of the league's best hitters, so New York Giant player/manager Mel Ott (a formidable power hitter himself) decided to make a trade for him, surrendering three players and $50,000 to acquire him in a deal consummated four days after the attacks on Pearl Harbor. Although his Giants tenure was shortened by World War II, Mize was an All-Star each year. The big lefty took advantage of the short distance to the right field fence at the Polo Grounds and led the league in homers twice more, with a career-high 51 in '47 and 40 in '48. Mize's keen eye at the plate was showcased during his 50-homer season, as he became the only player to ever do so while striking out fewer than 50 times. By '49 though, the Giants changed managers and Mize was unhappy with new skipper Leo Durocher. The 36-year-old's health and hitting declined as well, and on August 22nd of that year, he was sold to the crosstown rival Yankees for $40,000.

Mize was no longer an everyday player, but Stengel's platoon system kept his career going for four more years. After narrowly missing out on St. Louis's NL pennant three-peat from '42-'44, Mize finally got to both play in and win a World Series with the Yankees in '49. With a World Series ring now in hand, Mize took to his new role very well, hitting 25 homers in only 90 games in '50. He added to his then major league record of five three-homer games on September 15, 1950 with his sixth such effort, an achievement that is still a record to this day. He was a big pinch-hitting threat off the bench and he could fill in at first base every now and then, giving regular Joe Collins a rest and actually becoming the primary starter for the '51 season. Mize's performance was gradually declining as he aged through his late-thirties, but he still managed to hit .264/.342/.463 with a 117 OPS+ in five seasons as a Yankee. Perhaps his finest moments as a player were near the very end when he won the Babe Ruth Award for his tremendous World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers in '52. Although he only hit four homers all season, Mize came alive in the Fall Classic with three homers and a .400/.500/1.067 triple slash in 18 plate appearances, all while three months shy of his 40th birthday. After playing on his fifth consecutive World Series-winning team under Stengel in '53, he ended his career with 359 homers and a career stat line of .312/.397/.562 with a 158 OPS+. Had World War II never happened, Mize might have had 500 homers since he missed out on three prime seasons. It took him awhile to get in, but Mize was finally voted into the Hall of Fame through the Veterans' Committee in '81.

The Yankees acquired the original "Big Cat" 63 years ago today.