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A First-Base Prize That Got Away: JOHNNY MIZE

         

When Johnny Mize, the hulking slugger who was known as "The Big Cat," was named to the Hall of Fame in March 1981, it revived memories of how close he came to being a Cincinnati Reds first baseman instead of a St. Louis Cardinal.

 

After the 1935 season, the Reds were looking for a first baseman to replace the aging Jim Bottomley. Bottomley was a Hall-of-Famer himself, but way past the best days of his career. His successor appeared to be George McQuinn, whom the Reds had plucked out of the New York Yankees farm system.

 

General manager Larry MacPhail wasn't satisfied and he hoped to find a better player.

 

During spring training of 1936, MacPhail brought a 23-year-old Georgia native into camp. Johnny Mize, a slugger of tremendous minor league reputation, was sent to the Reds by the St. Louis Cardinals on a look-and-see proposition. If MacPhail liked what he saw, Mize would play for the Reds. If not, MacPhail could return Mize to the Cardinals.

 

The Reds took a long, hard look. They liked what they saw. But there were two problems:

The Cardinals wanted $55,000 for Mize's contract, a huge sum during the Depression.

Mize had a knee problem, and MacPhail was worried about what might happen in the future.

 

At the end of spring training, the Reds shipped Mize back to the Cardinals and put McQuinn at first base.

 

It would prove to be a big mistake.

 

Although McQuinn was a good fielder, he couldn't hit and he played only 38 games in 1936, batting .201. He was sent to the minors for more work. He returned to the major leagues in 1938 as a .300 hitter with the St. Louis Browns.

    To replace McQuinn in 1937, the Reds went to Les Scarsella, a product of the Cincinnati farm system. He was a better hitter than McQuinn, batting .313 his first year with the Reds.

 

    The Cincinnati first base position, however, remained unsettled until Frank McCormick took over in 1938. That spot in the Reds lineup would remain in good hands until 1946 when McCormick was traded to Philadelphia.

 

Meanwhile, Mize returned to the Cardinals and broke into the majors with a bang. His knee came around without surgery. In his rookie year Mize batted .329. He hit .364 the next year. For nine consecutive seasons, he batted at least .302. Like many of the game's best players, he missed three years because of World War II.

 

When he ended his career in 1953, Mize owned a .312 lifetime average, had hit 359 home runs and enjoyed one of the highest slugging averages of anyone who ever played.

 

He might have compiled those records in a Reds uniform had Larry MacPhail and the Reds taken a chance.

 

         
       

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