There's finally a niche for the Big Cat

It slipped by virtually unnoticed amid talk of the strike settlement and the "new season," but baseball finally rectified one of its most glaring oversights this week with the induction of Johnny Mize into the Hall of Fame.

For more than a decade in the 1930s and '40s, the Big Cat was one of the most feared hitters in the National League. Later on, his high-arching home runs and phenomenal pinch- hitting helped the Yankees win five straight American League pennants and World Series. When he finally retired after the 1953 season, he had established an array of statistics that looked like an automatic ticket to Cooperstown if ever there was one.

Despite his .312 lifetime batting average, 359 homers, and numerous other imposing marks, however, Mize fell victim for more than a quarter of a century to the unfathomable ways of the baseball writers and other authorities who decide these things.

Johnny's early years of eligibility were in the late 1950s and early '60s -- which turned out to be a time when the writers were acting even more recalcitrant than usual about opening the doors to the shrine. There are always some voters who seem to think the elections should have begun and ended with Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb, and this group appears to have been in the ascendancy at that time.

Elections were held only biennally in those days, and in both 1958 and 1960 the writers declined to name any new Hall of Famers despite the presence on the ballot of numerous players who would eventually make it. They started coming to their senses after that, but by then there were more recent and more glamorous names in the forefront of the eligible ranks -- such as Bob Feller, Jackie Robinson, and Ted Williams.

Anyway, for whatever reason, Mize never did get many votes even in those years when his name should have meant something. And of course as time went by there were more and more writers casting ballots whose memories didn't go back to his glory days -- and who apparently didn't pay much attention to the record books.

Mize hit .329 as a rookie first baseman with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1936, batted a career high .364 the following year, and went on to hit over .300 for nine consecutive seasons (with three years out for military service in World War II). He led the league in batting once (.349 in 1939), in slugging and in RBIs three times each, and in home runs on four occasions, including 1947 when he blasted 51 roundtrippers for the New York Giants.

Moving to the American League in 1949, Johnny spent the latter part of that season and all of the next four as a part- time first baseman and pinch-hitter par excellence for a succession of Yankee powerhouses.

And if anyone still needs more evidence that Johnny belongs in Cooperstown, he might consult the rather exclusive list of players who combined the skill to hit over .300 for an entire career with the power to slug 350 or more home runs. Only 10 have done this in the history of major league baseball, and in addition to Mize the names are Aaron, Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Williams, Musial, Mays, Foxx, and Ott.That's pretty rarefied company any way you look at it.

A lot of big names are missing from this list including Al Simmons, Rogers Hornsby, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Roberto Clemente, and Al Kaline, who was elected last year the very first time he was eligible. Then there was Ralph Kiner, who certainly wasn't chosen for his fielding, but whose overall batting statistics don't match Mize's. And there are a lot of other Hall of Famers who don't even come close.

Mize had to wonder all those years just what criteria the writers were using to put some of these people in and leave him out. And in the ceremonies and Cooperstown last Sunday, he admitted that he had expected to make it a long time ago.

"After I retired, writers told me I was a cinch, so I prepared a speech," he said. "But somewhere along the 28 years, it got lost."

The way these things work, five years after his retirement a player's name goes on the ballot for election by 10-year members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. If he doesn't make it in 15 years, his name goes off that ballot, then after another five-year waiting period he becomes eligible for consideration by a Veterans' Committee.

Some people think the decision of the writers should be final, and Mize said one writer had asked him if being elected by the Veterans' Committee meant he was entering "through the back door."

"'No,' I told him," said Mize. "'Look who's on the committee -- writers, managers, players -- most of 'em Hall of Famers. Who would you want to pick you? If you're picked by your peers, you know you belong.'"

Certainly the Big Cat belongs -- no matter who picked him and how long it took.

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