This article was written by Kellen Nielson
Johnny Mize, a country boy from Demorest, Georgia, had been given the nickname of Big Cat because of his defensive prowess, but it was Mize’s offense that made him a star early in his career. Mize had a fine pedigree, being a distant cousin of Ty Cobb and a relation to Babe Ruth through marriage. But in 1938, his third year, Mize had been struggling. Just eight days earlier Mize showed a spark of his power returning when he blasted three home runs in a loss to the Boston Bees at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, becoming the first Cardinal to accomplish the feat since George Watkins did it in 1931.
The three-homer game was about all Mize had to celebrate in the first half of the 1938 season. The young Cardinals slugger had been mired in somewhat of a slump, especially considering his extraordinary first two seasons in the majors. In his rookie year, 1936, Mize had clubbed 19 home runs and driven in 93 runs with a .329 batting average. The next campaign was even better as the left-handed hitter avoided the sophomore jinx, hitting .364 with 25 home runs and 113 RBIs. The Cardinals expected more of the same from Mize in ’38, but after 81 games Mize was batting .278 with eight home runs (three in that one game) and 38 runs driven in. Mize’s power outage had continued in the six games since he belted three home runs. He hit .280 in that stretch with just two extra-base hits — a double and a triple — and two RBIs. On this day, Mize was to regain his form.
A crowd of 8,404 came out for the Wednesday doubleheader in St. Louis. Manager Frankie Frisch’s Redbirds beat Bill Terry’s Giants, 7-2, in the opener behind lefty Clyde Shoun’s complete game. Mize went 0-for-4 with two RBIs on a groundout and an error.
Frisch was having his worst season as manager. His team came into the game with a 33-45 record. He had never had a team finish below .500 in his previous five years heading the Cardinals. This was also Frisch’s first year as a nonplaying manager, after he had spent the previous five years as a player-manager. Frisch had enjoyed some success early in his managerial tenure. He had won more than 90 games in each of his first two full seasons, including a World Series title in 1934; but the Cardinals had had little success since then, with their win total decreasing every year since that championship. The team’s declining fortunes led somewhat of a rift between the Cardinals’ owner, Sam Breadon, and their general manager, Branch Rickey. Rickey had wanted to replace Frisch, but Breadon won out and Frisch stayed on.
The embattled manager had been facing calls from the media for his removal. Frisch said of the tough ’38 campaign, “This is the toughest season I ever had in baseball. Sure I have worried. One can’t take the failure of the Cardinals with a happy-go-lucky smile. But I believe our team will cause a lot of trouble before the season is over.”1
The Giants were the two-time defending National League champs and had gotten off to a hot start. They had won 12 of their first 13 games, including 11 in a row. But they had been struggling lately. In first place for most of the year, they had lost the lead to the Pittsburgh Pirates on July 14. After a few days of lead changes, the Giants came into the second game of the doubleheader with a 50-32record, 1½ games behind the Pirates. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that according to the New York Betting Commission the Giants were no longer the odds-on favorite to win the National League pennant.2
For the second game the Cardinals started another lefty, Bob Weiland. Weiland had arguably been the club’s best pitcher. Coming into the game he was 8-7 with a 3.54 ERA. He had not fared well versus the Giants, however. In four previous games against New York Weiland had gone 1-3 with a 4.45 ERA. Clydell “Slick” Castleman got the start for the Giants. The young right-hander was 4-3 so far with a 4.30 ERA and had beaten the Cardinals twice, both in complete games.
The Cardinals continued where they left off in the first game. Mize came up in the first inning with two men on and delivered a three-run bomb to give the Cardinals a lead. He followed with a solo in the fourth off Castleman and another in eighth off Bill Lohrman. The Cardinals tacked on another two runs with RBIs from Jimmy Brown and Herb Bremer. Weiland scattered nine hits in the complete-game, 7-1 victory, with the lone New York run coming on Mel Ott’s 21st home run of the year. Castleman surrendered only four home runs in 1938, half of them to Mize in this one game.
With the two victories and the offensive outburst newspapers, across the country heralded the return of the Gas House Gang. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle lamented, “The Giants appeared to be coming apart at the seams,” and added that this was “the cruelest blow the club has had to take all season.”3
The two defeats were disastrous for the Giants. New York Times writer John Drebinger aptly described the effects of the twin bill: “The Giants’ desperate dash in the wake of the pace-setting Pirates suffered something of a compound fracture today as Onkel Franz Frisch’s deflated Gas House Gang, apparently steaming along on borrowed gas, rode right over Colonel Bill Terry’s band wagon in both ends of a double header.”4 The Giants never recovered and never came closer to retaining the National League title. They finished in third place, five games behind the Chicago Cubs.
The Gas House Gang days did not last and Frisch was fired with 16 games remaining in the season. Third-base coach Mike Gonzalez was named the interim manager. Gonzalez, a native of Cuba, became the first Latino to manage in the majors.
Mize’s game was overshadowed by the news that the third-place Chicago Cubs had fired their manager, Charlie Grimm, and replaced him with Gabby Harnett.5 Mize, however, was the real story of the day, becoming the first man to have two three-home run games in a season. Mize would set a torrid pace for the remainder of the year. In his final 74 games, Mize hit .390 with a .486 on-base percentage and a .708 slugging percentage. He blasted another 16 home runs while driving in 59 runs. Before his career was over, Mize had a record six three-home-run games. This one was the only one of the six his team won; it lost four and tied one.
Mize’s slump in the early part of 1938 proved to be an aberration; he hit 27 home runs in 1938. In 1939, his 28 homers led the National League and in 1940 his 43 homers led both leagues. In both 1947 (51) and 1948 (40), Mize also led the majors in home runs. He finished his career with 359 home runs. He was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1981.
This article appears in “Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis: Home of the Browns and Cardinals at Grand and Dodier” (SABR, 2017), edited by Gregory H. Wolf. Click here to read more articles from this book online.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted Baseball-Reference.com, Retrosheet.org, and SABR.org.
1 Dick Farrington, “Frisch Says Players Forget Camp Stuff,” Sporting News July 28, 1938: 3.
2 “Giants No Longer Odds-on Favorite to Win the Pennant,” St. Louis Post Dispatch, July 21, 1938.
3 Ed Hughes, “Terry Machine Coming Apart at All Points,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 21, 1938: 14
4 John Drebinger, “Double Loss to Cards Drops Giants Game and a Half Below Leading Pirates,” New York Times, July 21, 1938.
5 Hartnett would lead the Cubs to the National League pennant. They lost to the New York Yankees in the World Series.