The young man they were already calling Vinegar Bend Mizell arrived in Houston with the Buffs in the spring of 1951, heralded full bore as the lefthanded second coming of Dizzy Dean from twenty years earlier. Buff fans, sportswriters, club president Allen Russell, and the parent team St. Louis Cardinals all hoped the “Lil Abner Look-n-Sound-Alike” would turn out to be everything his growing legend screamed out that he was going to be: a sure-fire and consistent twenty game wins per season superstar and future Hall of Famer. Mizell wasn’t quite the young braggart that Dean had been, but he opened his mouth enough to create words that some writers ran to type as promises for use as future nails, should he fail to deliver.
Born in Leakesville, Mississippi on August 13, 1930, the still 20-year old new 1951 Houston Buffs pitching “phenom” claimed the nearby community of Vinegar Bend, Alabama as his hometown. When Cardinals superscout Buddy Lewis went to Vinegar Bend to sign Wilmer a couple of years earlier, he found him just where his mother said he was: literally up a creek in the nearby woods, killing squirrels from about sixty feet away with small thrown stones. “Wait a minte,” the observant Lewis quickly cried out, “I thought you were lefthanded! You’re killing those squirrels with righthanded throws! What’s the deal?
“I am lefthanded,” Mizell supposedly replied, “but I had to give up squirrel-huntin’ with my left hand. – It messes ’em up too bad!”
Lewis had Mizell’s signature on a Cardinals contract before nightfall.
Mizell’s first two seasons of minor league seasoning had marinated all the hope in his future to the “nth” degree. Pitching for Class D Albany, Georgia in 1949, Mizell posted an very impressive record of 12-3 with a lights out ERA of 1.98. His promotion to Class B Winston-Salem, NC in 1950 just pumped expectations all the higher, as Wilmer finished there with a record of 17-7 and an ERA of 2.48.
Mizell was critical to the success of Houston’s 1951 Texas League pennant drive, posting a 16-14 record that wasn’t altogether his fault on the short side of his wins to losses ratio. The club just had one of those seasons in which they often had trouble giving Mizell the offensive support he needed to take the win. His 1951 Earned Run Average of 1.96 still spoke volumes about his bright future as a prospect.
In appreciation of Mizell, and as a late season gate pump, Buffs President Allen Russell declared September 7, 1951 at Buff Stadium as “Vingear Bend Night.” Russell crowned the night such by picking up the bus travel and overnight room tab to bring all eighty residents of Vinegar Bend, Alabama to Houston to watch their favorite son pitch. Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of those nights I just mentioned. Mizell struck out 15 of the Shreveport Sports he faced that night, but he gave up three runs. Buff bats were absent and Mizell took the loss, 3-1.
A mysterious stomach ailment caused Mizell to be hospitalized for part of the playffs and all of the Dixie Series content with the Brimingham Barons. As a result, the Buffs lost to Brimingham, but Mizell was well and well on his majors the following spring.
The pattern from here flattened out for Mizell. He became a competent big league pitcher with a mediocre career record over nine seasons with the Cardinals (1952-53, 1956-60), the Pirates (1960-62), and the Mets (1962). He finished with areer mark of 90 wins, 88 lossess, and an ERA of 3.85 – not the kind of stuff that gets any pitcher to Cooperstown.
After baseball, Vinegar Bend Mizell had a few surprises left up his sleeve. He ran for Congress from his adopted home state of North Carolina and was then elected for several terms as a Republican.
I had the good fortune of finally meeting Wilmer David Mizell when we were seated together at the same table at the banquet hall for the Spetember 1995 “Last Round Up of the Houston Buffs.” I had a chance to ask him if the squirrel hunting story were true. “Did you like the story?” Mizell asked me in return?” “Oh yeah! I always loved it!” I told Mizell. “In that case, it was absolutely true!” Mizell shot back with a wink and a smile.
“Here’s another one for you!” Mizell said, and I will leave you toady on this Mizell story note:
“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.”
Sadly, we lost Wilmer Mizell early. At age 68, he dropped dead of a heart atack on February 21, 1999 while visiting with friends in Kerrville, Texas. We miss you, Wilmer. And we miss all your funny true stories. We will also never forget how great you once were as a member of the 1951 Houston Buffs. Thanks for the memories.