COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — He possessed a great glove, he could hit for average and he never struck out more than 60 times in any season.
But it was Johnny Mize’s power that defined his major league career.
Seventy years ago this week, the St. Louis Cardinals’ first baseman smashed three home runs in the first game of a doubleheader against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The three-homer performance was the fourth of Mize’s career, making him the first player in National League history to accomplish such a feat.
Although he did not play much baseball growing up in Georgia, the Cardinals signed Mize after he played at Piedmont College. Known as “The Big Cat” because of his poise and stature, the left-hander hit .329 and belted 19 home runs during his rookie campaign in 1936.
Mize created a lasting legacy in only six seasons in St. Louis. During his time as a Redbird, he never batted less than .314 and totaled 158 home runs. He finished second in the MVP race twice, and his 43 dingers in 1940 were the most by a Cardinals player until Mark McGwire hit 70 in 1998.
He possessed great hitting discipline, averaging just 45 strikeouts per season. In 1947 with the New York Giants, Mize had more home runs (51) than strikeouts (42).
“He can pull the ball, but he also has power in all directions. He owns sharp eyes and enough ‘plate intelligence’ to be a consistent hitter,” Newsweek sportswriter John Lardner said. “The pitchers in the league fear no man as much, and that is the ultimate tribute.”
The Cardinals dealt Mize to the Giants before the 1942 season. He played five years for the Giants but, like many players, lost three full seasons to World War II.
On April 24, 1947, Mize smacked three long balls off of the Boston Braves’ Johnny Sain for his fifth career three-homer game.
In 1949, the Giants sold the slugger to the New York Yankees. Used mostly part-time in the Bronx until his 1953 retirement, Mize contributed mightily to the Yankees’ five-straight World Series Championship teams from 1949-1953 -- making an All-Star team and garnering Most Valuable Player votes in two seasons.
He would hit three home runs in a single game once more on Sept. 15, 1950, against the Detroit Tigers. Mize’s six career three-homer games were the most in major league history until Sammy Sosa equaled the mark in 2002.
Lou Gehrig was the first player to have four three-homer games. On June 3, 1932, Gehrig hit four home runs for the Yankees, his fourth American League game with three-or-more home runs. Babe Ruth had three three-homer games for the Yankees -- two in the World Series and one in the regular season -- and one for the Boston Braves.
In 15 major league seasons, Mize tallied 2,011 hits and compiled a .312 batting average. The 10-time All-Star swatted 359 home runs while striking out only 524 times.
He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee in 1981.
Mize died on June 2, 1993.
Cody Eding was the public relations intern in the Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program Class of 2010 at the Baseball Hall of Fame