Throughout the history of baseball, there are very few Cardinals who are actually underrated, at least among the players who’ve been among the best in the league at one time or another. The Cardinals have been in at least one World Series in most decades of baseball since the 1920s, and as such, nationally great players tended to get nationally recognized as a consequence of being on the national stage.
But there are always exceptions. And it’s very easy to see why this particular player, in my view, is underrated. There’s no great mystery at work. He played for three different teams in his career, he was never truly an important element on a World Series winning team, and three whole years of his career are vacuumed out of existence thanks to World War II. Allow me to introduce you to Johnny Mize.
Here’s how naturally good at baseball Johnny Mize was. When he was 15-years-old, he played for the Piedmont College varsity baseball team. He played for a college baseball team at 15-years-old, and he was able to do this because Piedmont College didn’t belong to any athletic conference and there weren’t rules for eligible players. Piedmont College was likely not playing anybody good, but this is one of those insane facts that doesn’t need the competition to be good to be impressive. He was FIFTEEN.
It’s there where he caught the attention of Branch Rickey. In two seasons playing for Piedmont College, while attending high school, Mize batted .400, so actually you know what? I’m a little afraid of what he’d do against high school competition. Rickey sent his brother Frank to look at him, and Frank only saw him play once before signing him. He just had that mature of a plate approach that early in his life.
Annoyingly, Mize entered the Cardinals farm system at the exact wrong time. He was sent to a low level minor league team shortly after signing in the middle of 1930 and after a rough 12 games to finish the season (he joined the team late in the year), he basically crushed the competition from the next season on wherever they sent him. And he didn’t make the majors until 1936, because minor league teams were the toilet paper and hand sanitizer of the 1930s to the Cardinals.
He batted .337 in 1931 at Class C Greensboro at 18 and .326 at Class B Elmira at 19-years-old in 1932. And then they sent him back to Greensboro in 1933 for some reason, where he batted .360 with 22 homers in 98 games. They sent him to the top level farm team at the end of the year in Rochester where he batted .352 with eight homers.
In defense of the Cardinals at the time, he didn’t stay in the minors until 1936 for no reason. He was very limited defensively - it became obvious he could only play 1B very quickly in his professional career and he wasn’t exactly considered Albert Pujols defensively there either. He was also blocked by Ripper Collins, who broke out in 1933 with a 3.4 bWAR season and was about to have a 6.1 bWAR season in 1934. He was also only 21-years-old in 1934 and well, we’re basically doing the same thing to Dylan Carlson now, except Dexter Fowler is no Ripper Collins.
And then there was the career-threatening injury. He had a severe groin injury that limited him to just 90 games in 1934 - 90 games where he batted .339 with 17 homers in Rochester - and the Reds purchased Mize from the Cardinals even knowing about the injury. But they purchased him only if he was healthy enough to play. And from straining his groin, he had spurs in his pelvic bone, so the Reds sent him back to the Cardinals after determining he was not healthy enough to play.
Nonetheless, the Cards team surgeon gave the go ahead that he WAS healthy enough to play, but that didn’t last long. Mize couldn’t swing a bat without wincing, couldn’t dig out throws, and ran slower than his normal slow self. He still batted .317 in 65 games, but ended up going on the voluntarily retired list at the age of 22 due to the pain. His career was over.
And then the same team surgeon performed surgery on him in what Sabr calls “a daring bit of surgery” and the gamble paid off immensely. In 1936, he was able to make the Cardinals roster out of spring training. Ripper Collins, coming off consecutive 5+ bWAR seasons, ended up with less games played and less plate appearances than the 23-year-old rookie in 1936. He was immediately out of the gate incredible at hitting. He had a 156 wRC+ in 126 games with 19 homers.
Which is great, right? He bested that wRC+ for the next seven seasons, equaled it in the 8th, and then had a 155 wRC+ right after that. Not all of those seasons were with the Cardinals and it’s split up by three missing years due to serving in World War II. As good as he was, he was never better than from 1937-1940, when he batted .341/.424/.618 with a 1.042 OPS and a 176 wRC+. He led the league in slugging, OPS, and total bases in three of those four years. He led the league in batting average once, homers twice, and OPS+ twice. He finished 2nd in the MVP voting twice and somehow also led the league in triples one year despite his speed. He inexplicably did not make the All-Star team in that second season, but did his next three years.
And then he fell off just a tiny bit. His numbers fell to a .317/.406/.535 number for a measly 160 wRC+ in just 126 games. The Cardinals barely missed the playoffs in 1941, finishing just 2.5 games out, and also saw the appearance of the little known Stan Musial, who appeared in the last two weeks. Mize grumbled that they might have won the pennant if they brought him up sooner. With Mize forced to miss the last couple weeks due to his leg and possibly due to his grumbling, Mize was traded in the offseason.
Branch Rickey was known for trading players in the middle of their prime before they hit their decline, but this was an all-time cheap trade. Trading someone too early rather than too late is a fine concept, but they traded Mize for literally nothing. Bill Lohrman was a not very good starting pitcher who was immediately purchased back by the New York Giants in May of next year. Johnny McCarthy played in 14 games in 1941 at the age of 31 and never played an inning for the Cardinals. And Ken O’Dea was a 30-year-old bench player who at least stuck around for a few seasons. And $50,000. Which is entirely why he was traded. I don’t even know why they bothered with the players they were so useless.
Not only is the trade absolutely awful, it also inexplicably didn’t cost the Cardinals at all. The Cardinals did not suffer from this blatantly terrible trade. The Cardinals won the World Series in 1942, Mize left for three years, the Cardinals won the year he came back in 1946, and well they could have benefited from having him in 1947 and 1948 I’m sure. Musial played 1B in 1947, but could have easily kicked out the outfielders not named Enos Slaughter while Mize slotted into 1B. But even then, as far as consequences go, maybe paying for a trade six years later is not exactly punishment.
If you want to play the “What if?” game, Mize is a good one. In his last season before World War II, Mize hit for a 158 wRC+ with 26 homers and 5.8 fWAR - his sixth straight season with 5+ fWAR while also being his third worst season. He missed the next three years. And when he came back, it was like Zeus himself inhabited his body. Mize only played in 101 games but what a 101 games it was. He came to the plate 445 times, hit .337/.437/.576 for a 184 wRC+. He then hit 51 homers in 1947, easily a career high. There was some talk throughout the season that he could beat Ruth’s 60 homers, but obviously he fell way short. In 1948, he hit for a 160 wRC+ with 40 homers.
The possibilities with those three missing seasons are endless. That’s his age 30, 31, and 32 seasons. In 1949, Mize was batting a career low .263 in 106 games and was traded to the Yankees in August for $40,000. Which the Cardinals traded him for $50,000 at the height of his powers, I can’t imagine the currency of baseball changed that much in eight years. And then, as a part-time player at the tail end of his career, he won five World Series with the Yankees. You read that right. That is some serious karma, getting traded right before the Cardinals explode into winners only to win a bunch as a not that important player.
Well he was an important player one year and that was 1950, when he hit 25 homers in 305 plate appearances for 2 fWAR, but after that he put up bench player numbers. He also hit 3 homers in 5 games in the 1952 World Series, which pretty much singlehandedly propped up his career playoff numbers.
Some players, you say they’re underrated, you might struggle to come up with reasons why. Mize has an overload of reasons. He should have been up earlier to help pad his career total. He missed three seasons to war. He never did make the playoffs when he was at the top of his career. He suffered injury problems which limited his ability to play while with the Yankees. I’m not exaggerating when I say if he comes up when he should, he doesn’t miss three years, he’d approach 100 career WAR.
Now THAT is a truly underrated player. No he couldn’t do anything but hit. But to use another Hall of Fame example, Edgar Martinez had a 147 wRC+ over his career. Mize had a 157 wRC+. (And just for kicks, David Ortiz has a 140. And didn’t play 3B half his career like Martinez. Just making an early push against him for the Hall of Fame. Can never be too early with this.)
It’s actually pretty weird. The Hall of Fame is filled with first baseman power hitters and yet it took until 1981 for the Veterans Committe to vote him in. I guess I could have just led with that. He was on the Hall of Fame ballot 14 times and didn’t get voted in once. Mize, with three missing seasons, had 68.6 career fWAR. I rest my case.