The Best in ’52 Topps

More than 70 years after the 1952 Topps set was issued, any debate over the best player to appear in the set usually revolves around the participants’ views on Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle. However, this would not have been the case for kids opening packs of cards in the early 1950s. Mays and Mantle were newcomers who would not begin generating standout numbers until the middle of the decade.

Those who enjoyed reading the newly introduced statistical tables on the back of their cards would likely have seen Johnny Mize as the top offensive force. A relative of Ty Cobb by birth and of Babe Ruth by marriage, he was seemingly tailor made for the role. Mize was nearing the end of an impressive career and was the active MLB career homerun leader, beginning the season within 10 of catching the recently retired Joe DiMaggio. Despite missing several years to military service, Mize had the second highest HR total of the previous decade. At this time he was one of only five players to ever top the 50 in a single season and he held the record for most 3+ HR games.

For those that viewed championships as the ultimate arbiter of performance, Mize had grabbed three consecutive World Series rings and was on his way to another pair in his final two seasons.

Above: Mize is given special treatment in the design of his ’52 Topps card. He carries his trademark handful of bats with the Yankee Stadium facade clearly visible in the background.

70 Years Later Mize Still Stacks Up Well

Newcomers Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Eddie Mathews would all eventually surpass Mize, but he remains among the best to ever play the game. He outpaced the trio (and everyone else in the ’52 set) in generating RBIs per plate appearance. His wOBA figures are higher than anyone else in the set and are in line with Joe DiMaggio (they made MLB debuts the same season and were interchangeable at the plate throughout their careers). Mize’s WAR totals could have approached the former’s had he played a more heavily weighted defensive position than first base. His .562 slugging percentage still ranks 17th all time, ahead of Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Mickey Mantle. Only 6 players in the past 70 years have surpassed his slugging, a figure that could drop to 5 if Mike Trout ever goes into decline. He averaged nearly 6 wins above replacement per 162 games played.

Mize certainly had a reputation as a power hitter, yet he was actually a discerning presence at the plate. His career batting average is several points higher than that of Ichiro Suzuki. He logged multiple seasons in which he had more homeruns than strikeouts.

At the time of his 1952 retirement, Mize ranked 6th in career homeruns. He was 9th in WRC+, finishing within a single point of Tris Speaker, Mell Ott, and Jimmie Foxx.