The truth is, Johnny Mize was always supposed to be first. The other truth is, I’m really glad that he wasn’t.
Last year on April 1st, an appropriately foolish day, my first book, The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton, was released by the University of Georgia Press. I worked long and hard on that book, like the labor of love that it was, because I loved Bruce. He was my friend.
Now, that wasn’t by intention, in spite of Bruce’s well-known directive about doing everything with intention. Some of the most enjoyable friendships feel like a complete accident when the universe doesn’t share its plans with you ahead of time. This seemed like one of those happy accidents.
I met Bruce when he was performing here in my neighborhood, after having heard of him for many years. I’d never seen him perform before, had rarely even heard his music. But this was Col. Bruce Hampton, and without belaboring that point and its implications, let’s just say that Bruce set my storyteller’s sense tingling. I was a journalist, built to gather tales and share them, and here was the keeper kingfish.
A rotating series of lunches, gatherings, whimsical texts, and countless phone calls ensued, and with Bruce’s blessing, even after he departed the planet, a book emerged. It isn’t the book that I expected, but it’s a book that I’m proud of, even if Bruce’s life and career deserve so much more. That said, I’m glad to have played my bit part as some kind of dime store Boswell.
All of that completely cuts out the scenic route. It’s the short version to get us back to the original point about Johnny Mize.
Long before meeting Bruce Hampton, I’d begun work on a book about Johnny Mize, the baseball player who lived in Demorest, a few miles from my home. This would have been in 1999 or so. I’d recently moved here to this area and was slogging away as editor for one of the local newspapers when Johnny’s daughter, Judi Mize, called one day to pitch a story about her father, who had died six years earlier.
It turned out, Mize was one of 75 athletes being featured on the back of boxes of Wheaties, the Breakfast of Champions. It was part of a contest for the cereal’s 75th anniversary. Customers were asked to vote on their favorite stars, and the winners would be featured on the cereal box front, as in days of old. Johnny didn’t win, but I got really interested in him.
Legends in uniform. Johnny Mize (right) played baseball for the Great Lakes team in the U.S. Navy. His manager was Mickey Cochrane, Hall of Fame catcher for the Athletics and Tigers.
I’ve been a baseball nerd longer than I’ve been a music nerd. I’ve always wanted to write about baseball. And Mize? He’d been a part of my mental orbit for decades. My father, who is responsible for my baseball affliction, was a Yankees fan and a Mize fan. He thought of the legendary Big Cat as something of a rare jewel that not many people knew about. And he was right. Mize had flown under the proverbial radar of baseball history for many years, even though he’d been a bona fide superstar in his day. “The strong, silent type,” Dad would say. He liked that type. Lou Gehrig was his favorite player. Mize wasn’t far behind. Funny that both men played first base.
Anyway, I started researching Mize, even interviewed some of his old teammates (men who have since departed the world for parts unknown). I wrote a couple of chapters and mailed them off to a publisher of baseball books. To my great surprise, they were interested in what I had to offer. Soon, a contract arrived in the mail.
But I never signed it. Life intervened.
Our son Joe was born on August 1, 2001, three months premature. Before too long we also discovered that Joe was developmentally delayed, eventually diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Our beautiful, tiny little boy had some monumental challenges that would require both of his parents to be on point. These were scary times for us as a new world and new kind of existence took hold.
My interests and intentions had been diverted. Very quickly, the idea of writing a book about anything felt like speaking a dead language. How many times in the years since Joe burst on the scene have I thought of John Lennon’s words, “life is what happens when you’re making other plans?” I’ve never actually counted, but probably hundreds, at least.
So, my attention was spent elsewhere. On work, on community, on family. On Joe. I string words together in sentences and paragraphs for work, so you’d think writing a book would be kind of easy. Not so. Writing for magazines to earn a paycheck is nothing like writing books, which for someone like me, is an extracurricular activity, not a full-time job. It was something I didn’t have time for, and I had to tell the publisher, ” no thanks.”
But time is an interesting thing. It keeps moving even if we don’t. As Joe grew older and our family evolved, we became more involved in local events and volunteering, and part of that was helping the local community center present live entertainment. One of the things we learned about Joe early on was this: He LOVED live entertainment, particularly music.
He was thrilled by live music, particularly high-flying music played by bands that could really jam, taking their performances to the very edge of the cliff, threatening to spiral down into a mangled mess, but then reeling it all back in, with the audience in tow. For a boy whose ability to physically move was hampered by his own body, these sonic flights of fancy transported him, and me, to wonderful places.
I always loved music, but my tastes were limited. Joe unlocked something in me that felt profound. Combine all of that with meeting Col. Bruce Hampton. By the time I was ready to write again as an extracurricular activity, I knew exactly what and who to write about. Bruce always knew that Mize was supposed to be first. We talked often. He shared my baseball affliction. He appreciated it. He said, “I’m honored to be hitting ahead of Johnny Mize. Hope I get some good pitches to hit.”
Now the Bruce book is in the books. So, it’s Mize’s turn at bat. I dusted off my old notes, scrapped the old chapters, and about a year ago (not long after the Bruce book was published), started a new round of research. And while I don’t want to give too much away right now, I’ll just say that the Johnny Mize biography I’m writing as we speak will blow away the book I’d originally intended to write.
There is just so much more information available to a writer whose life situation has to keep him close to home. Like, I may not have to actually travel to the Baseball Hall of Fame, or the Library of Congress. I can do almost all of the research right here, at home, a few feet away from my now 20-year-old son Joe.
The best part of it is, the Mize book will feature stories about the Big Cat (his nickname – I should have explained that sooner) that almost no one has heard before. Really fascinating stuff (and not just to the baseball nuts among us) about his time away from the conventional (i.e., white) world of pro ball.
And, unlike previous stories or books that have been written about Mize, I’m not planning a longwinded account culled from old newspaper sources and outdated statistics. My book includes actual interviews with baseball legends like Whitey Ford and Carl Erskine, and renowned authors like Donald Honig and Peter Golenbock. My book delves into Mize’s family life in old Demorest – what happened to his parents, to his brother (who also played professional baseball)? What was it like growing up in a small mountain town, and being discovered, against all odds, by Major League Baseball?
We’ll explain how he was related to both Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth, and relive his experiences playing baseball with the best Black and Latin players at a time when the “organized” game was segregated. We’ll see Mize during World War II, when he played for some of the best Armed Services baseball teams every assembled. We’ll assess Mize’s place in the pantheon of heroes, how he stacks up, who he is most similar with from the contemporary game. And we’ll meet Johnny Mize the complex human being, and ultimately wrap it all up by intertwining baseball history with a tale of true love, like strands of DNA.
This has been a fun book to write so far, and there are plenty of chapters yet to make. Then, in time for Baseball Opening Day, 2024, my friends at the University of Nebraska Press will release the book, tentatively titled, Big Cat: The Life and Times of Baseball Hall of Famer Johnny Mize.
I’m so thrilled that U of N Press is publishing this, because I’ve read their baseball books, and they are truly first class, top of the line – hardcover and everything! Two recent titles that I highly recommend are Loserville: How Professional Sports Remade Atlanta – and How Atlanta Remade Professional Sports, by Clayton Trutor; and The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife, by Brad Balukjian.
I’m really happy that my book about the Big Cat will be part of that all-star catalog. Please stay tuned. Promise it’ll be worth the wait.