NY Mets from 1962 you’ve never heard of: Vinegar Bend Mizell

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 29, 1962: A general view of the stadium as workers prepare the Polo Grounds on March 29, 1962 for the Opening Day game for the New York Mets in New York, New York. (Photo by: Kidwiler Collection/Diamond Images/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 29, 1962: A general view of the stadium as workers prepare the Polo Grounds on March 29, 1962 for the Opening Day game for the New York Mets in New York, New York. (Photo by: Kidwiler Collection/Diamond Images/Getty Images) /

The 1962 New York Mets featured many players with colorful names. There was Choo-Choo Coleman, “Marvelous” Marv Throneberry, Joe Pignatano, and Hobie Landrith, just to name a few. With their 40-120 record, the team practically had more colorful characters than wins. But if you scroll through the “1962 Mets roster” page on Baseball-Reference, one name sticks out just a little more than the rest.

In 1962, there was a 31-year-old pitcher named Vinegar Bend Mizell who tossed 38 innings for the Mets. Yes, you read his name correctly.

When looking into Mizell’s baseball history, his intrigue only grows. The left-hander was originally named Wilmer David Mizell and was born in Leakesville, MS. He got his baseball nickname from the neighboring town of Vinegar Bend, AL, which was just a few miles away from Mizell’s hometown. Mizell’s baseball career began with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1952, after he had tried out for them as a high school student four years prior.

While in the Cardinals’ Minor League system, he stayed true to his small-town origins, once quipping, “I walked behind more mules than I walked batters — and that’s saying a lot.”

Mizell began his Cardinals career on the same team as Hall of Famers Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter, and Red Schoendienst, and made 30 starts for a decent St. Louis team that ended up finishing third in the National League. For the first and only time in his career, Mizell led the NL in walks with 103, and also led the league with 6.9 strikeouts per nine innings.

Mizell played another year for the Cardinals in 1953 before missing two years of his baseball career due to military service, in 1954 and 1955, for the United States Army. Though he wasn’t active in the big leagues, he did continue playing military baseball, even pitching his team into the All-Army championship in 1955.

From 1959 through 1962, MLB scheduled two All-Star games per year. Though he finished the season with a not-quite-elite 4.20 ERA, Mizell represented St. Louis in both 1959 All-Star Games, which were the only two All-Star appearances of his career.

After that, Vinegar’s career took a bit of a Bend. On May 28, 1960, the Cardinals traded Mizell to the Pittsburgh Pirates, along with INF Dick Gray, in exchange for RHP Ed Bauta and 2B Julian Javier. On a powerhouse, postseason-bound Pirates squad that also included workhorse pitchers Bob Friend and Harvey Haddix, as well as future Hall of Fame position players like Roberto Clemente and Bill Mazeroski, Mizell was a crucial piece.

He pitched well through the summer and down the stretch for Pittsburgh, logging a 13-5 record with a 3.12 ERA, eight complete games, and three shutouts after coming over from the Cardinals. Mizell did not have a signature moment in that year’s Fall Classic vs. the New York Yankees, allowing four runs in 2 1/3 innings over two appearances (one start), but it didn’t stop the Bucs from winning their first World Series title since 1925.

Almost two years to the day after St. Louis traded him to the Pirates, he was involved in another swap that led him to the Big Apple. On May 7, 1962, the recently christened New York Mets sent utility man Jim Marshall to the Pirates in exchange for Mizell. By that point, Mizell’s starting days were mostly behind him, and he made only two starts in 17 appearances for the Mets over the rest of the season.

The 1962 Mets, as everyone knows, were historically bad. They did not have a single starter with an ERA under 4.40. Their team ERA, including both starters and relievers, was 5.04, which ranked dead last among the 10 NL teams. The Mets’ pitching staff was also last in the NL in hits allowed, runs allowed, home runs allowed, strikeouts, saves (the entire pitching staff had only 10 saves all year), and wins.

Unfortunately, Mizell didn’t exactly help matters. He pitched to a forgettable 7.34 ERA that year with the Amazins, allowing 10 home runs in just 38 innings and recording zero wins. From the highest highs of winning a World Series title in walk-off fashion, to the lowest lows of playing for the worst team in MLB history, Mizell had truly seen it all.

The Mets released Mizell in August 1962, evidently believing that they could get that elusive 41st win without him. For two-plus months, Mizell was an original Met, and just like that, his career was over. His last MLB appearance came on July 25, 1962, against the Milwaukee Braves. He pitched 2 1/3 innings of relief, allowing six earned runs on three hits and five walks. Certainly not the way any former All-Star and World Series champion wants to go out.

However, Mizell’s time in the spotlight was far from over once he hung up his cleats for the final time. Soon after retiring from playing Major League Baseball, he embarked on a career in politics that spanned the next several decades. In the fall of 1963, Mizell was elected to the board of county commissioners in Davidson County, NC. Five years later, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Many of his former MLB teammates were surprised to see Mizell embark on a political career during his retirement. Former Pirates teammate Dick Groat once noted, “As a ballplayer he wasn’t political — players didn’t really talk politics.” Former Cardinals third baseman Billy Johnson also remarked that Mizell “was a tall, good ol’ country boy, so quiet that you would never know he would go on to become a politician.”

For many years, there has been a tradition in Congress of an annual baseball game between Republicans and Democrats. Mizell, naturally, had an unfair advantage in this department. In 1969, he started the game for the Republicans and struck out the first six Democrats who came up to bat, including an immaculate first inning. He was quickly deemed “too good” by the opposition, and was removed from the game after the opposing manager declared, ”If this guy throws one more pitch, we walk off the field.”

“Republicans, in their first recorded acquiescence to the principle of reverse discrimination, banished Mizell to the outfield, where he could do no harm to Democratic egos and batting averages,” wrote columnist Charles Krauthammer of the event.

In 1974, Mizell lost his seat in the House of Representatives following the Watergate scandal, along with many other Republican congressmen. His political career soon rebounded when President Gerald Ford named him the assistant secretary of commerce for economic development in 1975. Mizell went on to add another prestigious political title to his resume when President Ronald Reagan named him the assistant secretary of agriculture for governmental and public affairs.

Finally, under President George H.W. Bush, Mizell became the 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.

Mizell died in 1999 of a heart attack at the age of 68. He never lived to see the 40th or 50th anniversaries of the original Amazin’ 1962 Mets, but his former teammates all across baseball fondly remembered the colorful Southern character and the expansive career he carved out for himself. Ken Boyer, who played with Mizell on the Cardinals, once spoke about how well Mizell disguised his pitches, noting that “the guy shows you his glove, his rear, and somebody tells you it’s a strike.”

Friend, who pitched with Mizell on the Pirates, also spoke highly of his former teammate: “He was a big man with a big windup. He was a good old boy from down South. He had a good overhand curveball and pretty good control, and he knew how to pitch.”

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Mizell finished his baseball career with a 90-88 record, a 3.85 ERA, 918 strikeouts, 1528 2/3 innings pitched, one World Series title, and half a season as an original Met. He also brought attention to the tiny town of Vinegar Bend, AL, that it might never have otherwise received. Mizell may not be remembered by many Mets fans today, but he will always have a place among the “lovable losers” that burst, or rather, limped onto the National League scene in 1962.

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