SABR

Vinegar Bend Mizell

This article was written by Mike Jaffe.

The small community of Vinegar Bend, Alabama, provided an unusual nickname to major-league pitcher and US Congressman Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell. Contrary to the belief that he was born in Vinegar Bend, Wilmer was born in neighboring Leakesville, Mississippi, and graduated from high school there in 1949, but the little town of fewer than 200 people on the other side of the state line offered a better moniker.1 The town of Vinegar Bend got its name when a train passing through the area careened off the tracks and spilled its load of vinegar there. Mizell was born on August 13, 1930, to Walter David and Addie Turner Mizell, and routinely received his mail in the Washington County, Alabama, town his nickname made famous.

Walter Mizell died when Wilmer was only 2 years old and his mother became sick shortly thereafter, so he was raised by his grandmother and uncle. Young Wilmer’s throwing motion was so wild that his older brother couldn’t play catch with him. He improved his control by throwing at a knothole in the side of the family’s smokehouse until he knocked the door down. He further refined his skills throwing rocks while hunting squirrels. The family earned their living as subsistence farmers raising cattle and hogs as well as growing fruits and vegetables. Wilmer also earned money tapping pine trees for turpentine, logging, and hauling hardwood from the swamps along the Escatawpa and Chickasawhay Rivers.

Mizell started playing baseball when he was 16 years old and pitched in Sunday leagues around Vinegar Bend, which became his adopted home. In 1948, when he was 17, he attended a St. Louis Cardinals tryout camp in Biloxi, Mississippi, and the left-hander struck out the only three batters he faced before the camp shut down due to a rainstorm. Buddy Lewis, a Cardinals scout, took note of the youngster and made a point to watch him pitch again the following spring. When Lewis returned on Mizell’s high-school graduation day to watch him pitch, Vinegar Bend showed up barefoot, having just returned from a swimming hole. He pitched for the scout barefoot and his fastball had such great movement that Lewis offered to sign him after graduation for $500. Later that evening, Mizell received his high-school diploma, signed his contract, and left on a train for Georgia after the graduation without even returning home from the ceremony.

Mizell was first assigned to Albany, Georgia, of the class D Georgia-Florida League. Having never been more than 50 miles from home, he became homesick and did not unpack his suitcase for a month after arriving. His debut was inauspicious, with his first professional pitch landing 20 feet above the backstop. After his nerves settled, he went on to go 12-3 with a 1.98 ERA, striking out 175 batters in 141 innings as Albany won the league pennant.

In 1950 Mizell pitched Winston-Salem to the championship of the Class B Carolina League, where he compiled a 17-7 record and a team-leading 2.48 ERA despite a 1-6 start. He struck out 227 and walked 81 in 207 innings. In the final game of the season, against Burlington, Mizell hit the only home run of his professional career in a 3-2 victory. The crowd passed the hat and he collected $220. He later commented, “I would have liked for my homer to win the game 1-0, and referred to the home run as his “$220 homer.”2

Moved up to the Houston Buffaloes in 1951, Mizell led the Texas League with 257 strikeouts in 238 innings (18 in a game against Dallas tying the league record), and was 16-14 with a 1.96 ERA. For one game the ballclub sponsored a Vinegar Bend Mizell Night and brought in more than 30 members of his family and friends from Vinegar Bend (a good percentage of the town’s population) by bus. Mizell responded by striking out 15 Shreveport batters but taking a 3-1 loss. During the Cardinals spring training in 1952, sportswriter Red Smith described Mizell as a “left-handed Dizzy Dean,” comparing his delivery to Dean’s “loose, easy motion” with “a singing fastball.”3

On February 14, 1952, Mizell’s local draft board ordered him to report for induction into the Army. He applied for and was granted a deferment because he was supporting his ailing mother and grandmother. With that out of the way, Mizell stuck with the Cardinals in 1952, and made his major-league debut on April 22, in Cincinnati. He gave up two runs on three walks and a triple by Joe Adcock in the first inning, then held the Reds scoreless for the rest of the 2-1 loss. Before the game Mizell had complained of a toothache and the team doctor found that he had a wisdom tooth cutting through the gum line.

Mizell also lost his second start, 6-3, to the Cubs on April 27. His first major-league victory came in his next start, on May 2, as the Cardinals defeated the Phillies, 3-2, a complete-game four-hitter for Vinegar Bend. (After the win he celebrated by happily parading around the Cardinals’ humid locker room and steamy shower-room until a fellow Redbird reminded him that he still had his red windbreaker on.)

Mizell finished the 1952 season with a 10-8 record and a 3.65 ERA, giving up 171 hits, striking out 146 batters, and allowing a league-leading 103 walks in 190 innings (he led the league in strikeouts per nine innings pitched). After the season, on November 16, he married Nancy Ruth McAlpine.

Wildness (114 walks in 224 innings) continued to be a problem for the 6-foot-3 Mizell in 1953, as he won 13 games and lost 11 with a 3.49 ERA. The highlight of his season was a two-hit shutout against the Pittsburgh Pirates on May 4, and his 6.9 strikeouts per nine innings pitched led the league again. A week after the end of the season, after two deferments, he was inducted into the Army. Stationed at Fort McPherson, Georgia, he continued to pitch. In two seasons of service ball he compiled a record of 36-2 (22-0 in 1955 with four no-hitters and 16 shutouts in all). He pitched his team into the All-Army championship in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, in 1955. Working on his curveball and slider, he struck out 324 strikeouts and walked only 48 (mostly against GIs who had never played professionally). He was discharged as a sergeant on October 5, 1955.

After his discharge Mizell played winter ball in the Cuban League, and showed that he had lost very little in his two years away from the professional game. In Havana he struck out 206 batters, a league record, and fanned 15 strikeouts in a game, also a record. He finished second in the league’s MVP voting with a 12-9 record and a 2.16 ERA. In February 1956, while he was still in Cuba, Nancy gave birth to their first child, Wilmer Jr. When he heard the news of his new son, legend has it, he was so preoccupied that he stepped to the plate with his glove instead of a bat.

Mizell returned to the Cardinals for the 1956 season. St. Louis was about a .500 club (76-78), and so was Mizell, at 14-14, with a 3.62 ERA. His 14 victories were his major-league high. (He won 14 again in 1960.)

In 1956 Mizell seemed to have lost something off his blazing fastball, and that continued in early 1957; it seemed even flatter, and his control was not sharp. He was also giving up more home runs than before he went in the service (20 in 1956 and 18 in 1957). There were concerns over Mizell’s weight and his exaggerated windup motion. After 97 starts for the Cardinals, he was sent to the bullpen for the first time in his career. Pitching out of the bullpen, making an occasional start, and watching films of his delivery (a new concept at the time), Mizell finally regained his control in midseason and finished with an 8-10 record. His strikeouts were down, but so were his walks. At one point the Cardinals tried to option Mizell to Houston in hopes that he could work out his control problems there, but they couldn’t get waivers on him

Mizell spent the offseason before the 1958 season working out with a steel ball to keep his arm strong, and doing other exercises. When he signed a $17,000 contract for the 1958 season (the same as his 1957 contract) he proclaimed that he was 12 pounds lighter than his spring reporting weight in 1957. He showed up to spring training early, determined to improve his performance. Pitching primarily as a starter (only one relief appearance) Mizell finished the season with a 10-14 record and a 3.42 ERA (the eighth lowest in the league). His walk ratio increased again, to 4.3 per nine innings, and his strikeout ratio dropped to 3.8. His high point may have been a duel with Joe Nuxhall of the Reds on Labor Day. Mizell won, 1-0, but walked nine batters, setting a National League record for the most walks allowed in a shutout. At the end of the season, the Cardinals embarked on a goodwill tour to Japan; Mizell pitched well in those games.

Mizell continued to stay in shape during the offseason, working out at a YMCA across from Busch Stadium. He was a holdout but eventually signed another $17,000 contract. Vinegar Bend looked good as the season started and seemed to have his fastball back to his pre-Army velocity. He finished with a 13-10 record for the seventh-place Cardinals. His walk ratio was down and his strikeout ratio was up, but his earned-run average rose to 4.20. Mizell was named to the National League All-Star team for the only time in his career, but had back troubles and was replaced on the All-Star roster by Don Elston. The first half of the season Mizell was 9-3 with a 3.05 ERA. After the All-Star Game his fortunes changed, with a 4-7 record and a 5.94 ERA in the second half of the season.

Mizell’s career with the Cardinals ended in 1960. On May 28 he was traded with infielder Dick Gray to the Pittsburgh Pirates for infielder Julian Javier and right-handed pitching prospect Ed Bauta. The Cardinals were in need of a second baseman and the 23-year-old Javier was blocked at that position in Pittsburgh by Bill Mazeroski. The Cardinals felt that Mizell had never lived up to his potential. Javier remained a fixture in the St. Louis lineup for the rest of the season, starting in every game after the trade. Mizell was 1-3 for the Cardinals and had been hit hard in his nine starts, allowing 10.4 hits per nine innings despite an impressive strikeout rate of 6.8 that nearly matched his pre-military days. But his acquisition was critical to Pittsburgh’s pennant run, as he started 23 games for the Pirates, going 13-5 with a 3.12 ERA. He had one impressive stretch of 30 consecutive scoreless innings, the longest such stretch in his career, and cut his walk rate nearly in half. The trade benefited the Pirates in other ways; they no longer had to face Mizell, who owned a 14-6 record against the Bucs to that point. Mizell’s high point of the season came on July 29 when he tossed a two-hit shutout in defeating the Cubs 4-0. He also threw a three-hit shutout against the Reds in a 1-0 victory on September 18.

In the World Series –Mizell’s only trip to the postseason –a the Pirates faced the New York Yankees in the World Series that year and Mizell pitched in two games. He started Game Three in New York and didn’t last long, lasting just a third of an inning and allowing four runs on three hits and a walk. Mizell took the loss as the Yankees won, 10-0. In Game Six, a 12-0 laugher for the Yankees, Mizell came on in relief in the fourth inning. He pitched two scoreless innings, allowing one hit and a walk and striking out Roger Maris. (Roger was the only batter Mizell had retired in his Game Three loss.) Vinegar Bend’s pitching line for the Series was an 0-1 record, 2⅓ innings pitched, four hits, four runs (all earned), a 15.43 ERA, two walks and one strikeout. The Pirates won the Series on a dramatic walkoff home run by Bill Mazeroski in Game Seven.

Mizell remained a Pirate in 1961. He started 17 games and relieved in eight. His 7-10 record and 5.04 ERA were career worsts for him, highlighted perhaps by his 4-3 vistory over his former Cardinals teammates on May 17. Mizell had twice lost to the Cardinals since his trade. (For his career, Mizell did best against his own Pirates, with his 14-7 record against them before he was traded to the Bucs. At one point Mizell was 14-3 against the Chicago Cubs, but the Cubs rebounded, against him winning 12 of the next 16 decisions.)

In 1962 Mizell reported to spring camp three days late because of the birth of his second son, James Daniel Mizell, in St. Louis. In his first start of the season he shut down the brand-new New York Mets, allowing one unearned run in seven innings. After going 1-1 in three starts and four relief appearances, Mizell was traded to the Mets for first baseman Jim Marshall on May 7. The trade was not well received among Pirates fans, who appreciated Mizell’s efforts in the run to the 1960 championship, and by his teammates, among whom he was popular because of his good nature and strong religious beliefs.

The 31-year-old Mizell pitched in 17 games for the lowly Mets (two starts) and was 0-2 with a 7.34 ERA. The Mets released him on August 4. The defeat of the Mets early in the season turned out to be Mizell’s 90th and final major-league victory. Mizell accepted an offer to pitch for the Columbus Jets, the Triple-A affiliate of the Pirates. Until roster room could be cleared for him, he agreed to serve as an instructor. Mizell pitched in four games for the Jets, starting three. He compiled a 2-1 record with a 3.27 ERA.

After the season Mizell worked out in the Arizona Instructional League in hopes of re-gaining his form. But no team offered him a job for the 1963 season, and at 32 he retired as a player. In May he became a broadcaster for Winston-Salem, one of his old minor-league teams. That same year he took a job with the Pepsi-Cola Co. as a sales manager and public relations executive. In the fall he was elected to the board of county commissioners for Davidson County, North Carolina. In 1966 he was the board’s chairman. Mizell left Pepsi-Cola in 1967, and in 1968 he was elected to the US House of Representatives from North Carolina. A Republican, he spent three terms in the House and was defeated in 1974, an election in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal in which many Republican lawmakers were unseared.

In 1975 President Gerald Ford named Mizell the assistant secretary of commerce for economic development. In 1976 Mizell made another run for Congress but was defeated. In 1981 he was appointed assistant secretary of agriculture for governmental and public affairs in the Reagan administration. In the administration of George Bush the elder, he was deputy assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs in the Department of Veterans Affairs. He also served as executive director of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.

Nancy Mizell died on November 30, 1990. In 1991 Vinegar Bend married Ruth Cox, whom he had met in Washington at a prayer breakfast. They worked through the ensuing years promoting prayer study.

Mizell died of a heart attack on February 21, 1999, at the age of 68, while visiting family in Kerrville, Texas. He was buried in Faith Missionary Alliance Church Cemetery, Winston-Salem. He was survived by Ruth, his two sons, and four grandchildren.

Mizell was best known in baseball for his Southern drawl and country-boy wit. His laid-back walk and style were a hit with fans and teammates as he was often compared to the comic strip character Li’l Abner. He was once asked why he never swore. Vinegar Bend’s simple reply was, “Son, I decided a long time ago swearin’ was a waste of words. You cain’t get a man out by cussin’ him out.”4 Never at a loss for a good story, Mizell once recalled, “The worst thing that happened to us back home in Vinegar Bend was the time we had the fire. It started in the bathroom. Fortunately, we were able to put it out before it reached the house.”5

Mizell’s pitching motion was a bit unorthodox; he was known for hiding the ball well before he delivered his pitch. Teammate Ken Boyer once commented that “the guy shows you his glove, his rear, and somebody tells you it’s a strike.”6 Mizell never reached his potential, as many believed that he would someday be a 20-game winner. His two-year service in the military at the peak of his career hurt his statistics. Despite this, he was remembered by teammates as a great clubhouse presence who always had a smile on his face. His abilities on the mound in his prime were noted by players widely for his dominance at times.

 

This biography is included in the book "Sweet '60: The 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates" (SABR, 2013), edited by Clifton Blue Parker and Bill Nowlin. For more information or to purchase the book in e-book or paperback form, click here.

 

Sources

Newspaper and Magazines

Mercer Bailey, “Mizell Will Get To Finish Season,” Tuscaloosa (Alabama) News, September 10, 1953.

Bob Broeg, “’Vinegar Bend’ Strikeout Star of the Texas League,” The Sporting News, April 23, 1952.

Bob Broeg, “Mizell Cuts a Molar, Loses in Debut by Skin of Teeth,” The Sporting News, April 30, 1952.

Bob Broeg, “Vinegar Visions Win Bulge With Trimmed Torso,” The Sporting News, January 15, 1958.

Richard Goldstein, “Vinegar Bend Mizell, Pitcher, Is Dead at 68,” New York Times, February 23, 1999.

Harry Grayson, “Vinegar Bend Acting Like Anything But A Dizzy Dean,” Gastonia (North Carolina) Gazette, March 15, 1956.

Milton Gross, “Want Color? Here Comes Mizell,” Baseball Digest, November 1951.

John Malmo, “Mizell Prepares to ‘Sharpen Up’ in Winter Ball,” The Sporting News, October 12, 1955.

Red Marston, “Cards Count on Vinegar to Catch Fans,” The Sporting News, March 28, 1956.

Red Smith, “Views of Sport,” Youngstown (Ohio) Vindicator, March 21, 1951.

“Board Defers Cards’ Vinegar Bend Mizell,” St. Petersburg (Florida) Times, March 16, 1952.

“Cardinals Sign Wilmer Mizell In Youth Move,” Tuscaloosa (Alabama) News, January 1, 1952.

“Chiefs-Asheville Tangle at Stadium,” Rock Hill (South Carolina) Herald, September 8, 1951.

“From Cracker Barrel to Top Comes Vinegar Bend Mizell,” Lawrence (Kansas) Journal World, March 6, 1951.

“Mizell Receives Orders To Don Army Khakis,” St. Petersburg (Florida) Times, February 1, 1952.

“Mizell Will be Released by Mets,” Bonham (Texas) Daily Favorite, August 1, 1962.

“Mizell Yields Spot to Elston,” Kingsport (Tennessee) Times, July 5, 1959.

“‘Vinegar Bend’ Inks Cardinal Contract,” Telegraph-Herald (Dubuque, Iowa), January 1, 1952.

“‘Vinegar Bend’ Mizell Running For Congress,” Times-News (Hendersonville, North Carolina), February 6, 1968.

“Vinegar Bend to Pittsburgh,” Leader Post, Regina, Saskatchewan, May 28, 1960.

Bill McCurdy, “Wilmer David Mizell: The Buff from Vinegar Bend!,” http://bill37mccurdy.wordpress.com/2009/09/02/wilmer-david-mizell-the-buff-from-vinegar-bend/, accessed January 30, 2011.

 

Notes

1 Richard Goldstein, “Vinegar Bend Mizell, Pitcher, Is Dead at 68,” New York Times, February 23, 1999.

2 Milton Gross, “Want Color? Here Comes Mizell,” Baseball Digest, November 1951.

3 Red Smith, “Views of Sport,” Youngstown Vindicator, March 21, 1951.

4 Red Marston, “Cards Count on Vinegar to Catch Fans,” The Sporting News, March 28, 1956.

5 Bill McCurdy, “Wilmer David Mizell: The Buff from Vinegar Bend!,” http://bill37mccurdy.wordpress.com/2009/09/02/wilmer-david-mizell-the-buff-from-vinegar-bend/, accessed January 30, 2011.

6 Red Marston, “Cards Count on Vinegar to Catch Fans,” The Sporting News, March 28, 1956.

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