Just the other day, responding to Pete Abraham's Hall of Fame ballot that omitted Jeff Bagwell, I argued (without any specific evidence) that Bagwell was the greatest first baseman between Jimmie Foxx and Albert Pujols. This elicited a short missive from (ever vigilant) Dan Rosenheck: "You'd put him over Mize? I thought Mize was the consensus #3 retired post-1900 1B."
I wouldn't have guessed that I would ever be accused of underrating Johnny Mize.
I would guess that a great number of baseball fans today would rank Mize behind Tony Perez, Orlando Cepeda, and any number of other lesser lights. Mize might be less famous in some quarters than Ted Kluszewski, perhaps less famous than even Mickey Vernon.
Mize was a truly great hitter, though. Hall of Fame voters, though, weren't particularly impressed. In his first try, in 1960, Mize appeared on only 17 percent of the voters' ballots. Mize's support increased later, but topped out just a bit above 40 percent, which means he never came close to election by the BBWAA. For all the harm the Veterans Committee has done to the Hall of Fame over the years, one injustice was addressed in 1981 when the VC elected Mize to the Hall.
An injustice, I say, because Mize was a phenomenal hitter, the best in the National League from 1936 through 1942. He would have been the best from 1946 through 1948, too, if not for Stan Musial. Mize's production did tail off quite a bit after that, as he just couldn't stay real healthy in his late 30s. Still, Mize ranks fifth on the (post-1900) WAR list: Gehrig, Foxx, Pujols, Bagwell, Mize. That's the list that inspired me to suggest that Bagwell is the greatest first basemen between Foxx and Pujols; the list that made me feel comfortable placing Mize behind Bagwell.
I'm still not at all sure that Mize was the better player, and I certainly don't know what Rosenheck means when he suggests that Mize is the "consensus" No. 3 first baseman since 1900. Mize wasn't Bagwell's equal as a baserunner, probably not as a fielder, either. Mize spent his entire career in major leagues that had been barely integrated, or not at all.
But Mize lost three entire seasons to World War II, and was at the top of his game when he entered the service. With the war, Mize is roughly 10 Wins Above Replacement behind Bagwell. Without the war, Mize would be roughly 10 WAR ahead of Bagwell. Without the war, we might still place Bagwell ahead of Mize. But it wouldn't be easy.
Then again, without the war Bagwell might not exist. I wouldn't exist, and many of you wouldn't, either. We can take these things only so far.