Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Stu Miller, 1927-2015

Sometimes, an athlete gets a reputation he doesn't deserve, because of one bad moment. This is particularly true in baseball.

Bill Buckner got over 2,700 hits, but is remembered for one error he made in a World Series game where his team had already blown the lead without his "help."

Willie Davis was a fine outfielder and a good hitter, but is remembered for 3 plays in a World Series game where his misjudged fly balls, costing his team the game and possibly the Series (which they wouldn't have gotten into without his help).

Henry "Heinie" Zimmerman played on 4 Pennant winners and was credited with a Triple Crown (which a stats check decades later discovered was incorrect), but is remembered for a fielding blunder that cost his team a game and possibly a World Series.

And while Dennis Eckersley is a Hall-of-Famer and was considered by many to be the best relief pitcher ever until Mariano Rivera came along, people still talk about that World Series homer he gave up to Kirk Gibson.

Stu Miller's "bad moment" wasn't all that damaging, and it wasn't even in a game that counted. Still, people remember that more than his achievements.

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Stuart Leonard Miller was born on December 26, 1927, in Northampton, Massachusetts, about 100 miles west of Boston. He was born the same day as comedian Alan King. A righthanded pitcher, he was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1949, and made his major league debut on August 12, 1952, at the age of 24. Wearing Number 36, he pitched a complete-game 6-hit shutout of the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, striking out 4 and walking only 2. A 1st-inning single by Hal Rice gave him an early lead, and he gutted it out, winning 1-0.

He went 6-3 in just one-quarter of a season. In spite of this, the next season, the Cards began using him mainly in relief. He spent the 1955 season with the Triple-A Omaha Cardinals, winning 17 games, but the St. Louis brass were apparently not impressed. In 1956, the Cards traded him to the Philadelphia Phillies. At the end of that season, the Phils traded him to the New York Giants, who moved to San Francisco after the 1957 season.

It was by the Bay, where he began wearing the Number 37 that he would wear for most of his career, that he blossomed. In 1958, starting half his games and relieving another half, he used a fine changeup to compile a 2.47 ERA, pitching enough innings to qualify for the National League ERA title. He nearly led the League in ERA again the next season.

"One catcher said he could catch my stuff with a pair of pliers," Miller told The Baltimore Sun in 2009. "Really, my fastball was in the mid-80s, at most, and the changeup was a good 8 mph less. But both pitches looked the same, which was the secret to my deception."

In 1961, he was named to the NL All-Star Team, in a brief period when there were 2 All-Star Games in the season. He appeared in the 1st, at his home field of Candlestick Park in San Francisco. It was in this game that he had his moment of infamy. In the 9th inning, Rocky Colvatio of the Detroit Tigers batted against him for the American League. His Tiger teammate Al Kaline was at 2nd base, and the Yankees' Roger Maris, in the middle of his 1961 season, was at 1st.

That's when the already-infamous wind that blasted in off San Francisco Bay, chilling Candlestick Park, came into play. A gust caused Miller to sway slightly, and plate umpire Stan Landes called a balk, moving the runners over. The way the story is usually told, the wind blew Miller, 5-foot-11 and just 165 pounds, completely of the pitcher's mound. It remains the most famous balk in baseball history.

"Just as I was ready to pitch," he later said, "an extra gust of wind came along, and I waved like a tree. My whole body went back and forth, about 2 or 3 inches. The AL bench all hollered, 'Balk!' I knew it was a balk, but the umpires didn't call it at first. I went ahead and threw the pitch and Colavito swung and missed. The umpire then took off his mask and motioned the runners to second and third."

Colavito then hit a grounder to 3rd, which Miller's former Cardinal teammate, Ken Boyer, booted, allowing Kaline to score with the tying run. The wind wrought havoc on the next play, as the Yankees' Tony Kubek hit a popup in foul territory, which Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Smoky Burgess dropped. Miller got Burgess off the hook by string out Kubek, but another Yankee, Yogi Berra, hit a grounder to Cincinnati Reds 2nd baseman Don Zimmer (yes, that Don Zimmer), and Zim made an error that allowed Yogi to reach base. For whatever reason, pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm, ten with the Baltimore Orioles, was allowed to bat for himself, and Miller ended the threat by getting him to fly out. The game went to extra innings.

Conditions beyond his control continued to plague Miller, as Nellie Fox of the Chicago White Sox walked, and Kaline hit a grounder to Boyer, and he booted this one, too, allowing Fox to score all the way from 1st. Miller was about to be the losing pitcher, through little fault of his own. But in the bottom of the 10th, Hank Aaron of the Milwaukee Braves singled, Miller's Giant teammate Willie Mays doubled him home to tie it, and Roberto Clemente of the Pirates singled to plate Mays with the winning run, making Miller the most dizzying winning pitcher in All-Star Game history.

“The next day,” he said, many years later, “in the paper, the banner headline was, 'Miller blown off mound.’ You’d think I was pinned against the center-field fence.”

Miller pitched in the year's 2nd All-Star Game, too -- at his "hometown" field, Fenway Park in Boston. He pitched the 7th, 8th and 9th innings for the NL, striking out 5: Yankees Mickey Mantle ad Elston Howard, Luis Aparicio and Roy Sievers of the Chicago White Sox, and Johnny Temple of the Cleveland Indians. But it rained, and the game was called, tied 1-1 after 9, the 1st tie game in All-Star history. And it was his 1st All-Star Game of the year that everybody remembered, not his 2nd.

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The next season, 1962, Miller was mentioned in a song by Danny Kaye, who went from Brooklyn to Hollywood long before the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. In "The D-O-D-G-E-R-S Song," Kaye imagined a game at Dodger Stadium between the Dodgers and the Giants, the rivalry transplanted from New York City to Southern and Northern California, respectively. The climactic play involved a surprise bunt by Dodger slugger Frank Howard, misplayed into a Dodger win from a Giant loss by Miller, 2nd baseman Chuck Hiller and catcher Tom Haller: "And that's the Miller-Hiller-Haller Hallelujah Twist!"

But the Giants had the last laugh: As they had in New York in 1951, they beat the Dodgers in the final game of a best-2-out-of-3 Playoff for the NL Pennant. Miller didn't have a very good season, individually speaking, but without his 19 saves, the Giants wouldn't have won. He pitched in 2 games in the 1962 World Series against the Yankees, without allowing a run, but the Yankees won in 7 games.

As Dodger baserunning star Maury Wills said in 2007, "He was a fabulous pitcher. Miller could throw a changeup off a changeup. You knew it was coming and you still couldn't hit it."

Giants teammate Mike McCormick remembers Miller as a "good teammate, a good friend," and a crossword-puzzle fanatic. McCormick also remembered his variety of changeups: "He had the ability to change speeds probably better than anybody in his time. We always had the funny stories about Frank Howard and the other big sluggers who couldn’t hit him with a tennis racket."

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Game 7 of the 1962 World Series, in which Miller did not appear, was the end of his time with he Giants. At the end of the year, they traded him to the Baltimore Orioles. He saved 27 games in the 1963 season, making him (as far as I can tell) the 1st pitcher to lead both Leagues in saves, having done so in the NL in 1961.

He was a key figure as the O's, managed by former Yankee right fielder Hank Bauer, made their 1st serious run at a Pennant in 1964, and again as they won their 1st Pennant, and 1st World Series, in 1966 -- like the Giants in the 1962 Playoff, they beat the Dodgers, in part because of the aforementioned fielding miscues by Willie Davis. Miller did not appear in the '66 Series -- Moe Drabowsky pitched great in relief in Game 1, and then complete-game shutouts were pitched by Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally -- but he did get a World Series ring.

"He had three to four speeds on his fastball," said Eddie Watt, also on the '66 Oriole staff, "and they were all slow. He had three to four speeds on his curveball, and threw them on any count. He had just tremendous deception. If he was going to throw a changeup, you knew he was going to throw a changeup, and you still weren't ready. He had just tremendous deception, and no fear at all."

Palmer, a Hall-of-Famer who was very early in his career in 1966, said, "He was a phenomenon. Out of all the guys I’ve had a chance to see over my career as a reliever -- and that’s no disrespect to the Marianos [Rivera] and [Jeff] Reardons and Ecks [Dennis Eckersley] -- if you loaded the bases up with nobody out, I’d take Stu Miller because the chance of hitting the ball out of the infield off him were minimal. He was just one of a kind."

On April 30, 1967, Steve Barber faced the Tigers at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, and took a no-hitter and a 1-0 lead into the 9th inning. But he walked Norm Cash to lead off the inning. Dick Tracewski pinch-ran for the chunk, slow Cash. Then Barber walked Ray Oyler, the Tigers' great-field-pathetic-hit shortstop. Tiger pitcher Earl Wilson, who had a shutout himself until he previous inning, bunted the runners over. One out. Jake Wood was sent in to pinch-run for Oyler, and slugging Willie Horton to pinch-hit for Dick McAuliffe, the Tigers' good-field-not-so-good-hit 2nd baseman. Now the concern wasn't so much the no-hitter, but just winning the game.Barber got Horton to pop up. Two out. It looked like Barber might get out of the jam and keep the no-hitter. But he threw a wild pitch, scoring Tracewski with the tying run and sending Wood to 3rd base. Then he walked Mickey Stanley.

Bauer had seen enough: He took Barber out, and put in Miller. Don Wert, the Tigers' good-field-lousy-hit 3rd baseman, came up. He hit a grounder to Aparicio, now the Oriole shortstop, who threw to Woodie Held at 2nd base, for what should have been the last out. But Held dropped the ball, allowing Stanley to reach safely and Wood to score. Barber got Kaline to ground out, but the damage was done. Fred Gladding relieved Wilson, and got the O's out 1-2-3 in the 9th. Tigers 2, Orioles 1. For the 1st time, a combined no-hitter had been pitched in a Major League Baseball game. For the 1st time in American League play, a no-hitter had been pitched in a losing effort. (Ken Johnson of the Houston Colt .45's -- they became the Astros the next season -- did it in the NL in 1964.)

Just 2 weeks later, on May 14, Miller was pitching against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium, and gave up Mantle's 500th career home run. Now, he was known for 3 dubious events, none of which were his fault: He didn't control the Candlestick weather, Barber had already blown the lead in the no-hitter, and Mantle had hit 499 home runs before the one Miller gave up (and would hit 36 more after it).

"In five years [with the Orioles], that's the only homer he hit off me," Miller said in 2009. "A 3-2 pitch, low and away. Only two guys ever hit that pitch out, him and Stan Musial. Now I get letters every day asking me to sign Mantle's picture."

Stan the Man and the Mick. Two guys with 6,045 career hits between them, including 1,011 home runs. It's also worth nothing that, growing up as a Cardinal fan in northeastern Oklahoma, with the Cards as easily the nearest big-league team, Mantle's favorite player was Musial. So it's kind of fitting that they were the only 2 hitters ever to hit homers off a 3-2 changeup by Stu Miller. It does, however, say something about Miller that he had the guts to consistently throw that pitch when a strike was required.

Miller went just 3-10 in 1967. Just before the start of the 1968 season, the O's traded him to the Atlanta Braves. But he got hit hard in 2 appearances, was sent down to the Triple-A Tulsa Roughnecks, didn't do well there, either, and retired at age 40. He finished his career with a 105-103 record, 154 saves and a 3.24 ERA in 704 lifetime appearances.

It's still the '61 balk that people remember the most. "I guess that's better than 'Stu Who?'" he said. "I'd rather be remembered for something."

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In 1983, the AL won the All-Star Game, mainly due to a big inning that included a grand slam by Fred Lynn, off Giants pitcher Atlee Hammaker. A joke developed that, "Hammaker is the 2nd Giants pitcher to be blown off the mound in an All-Star Game."

After retiring from baseball, Stu Miller owned a liquor store. The Orioles elected him to their team Hall of Fame, which is on display on the Eutaw Street concourse inside Oriole Park at Camden Yards. In recent years, the Giants invited him to throw out the ceremonial first ball at postseason games.


He died after a brief illness this past Sunday, January 4, 2015, in Cameron Park, California, outside Sacramento. He had recently celebrated his 87th birthday. He is survived by his wife, Jayne; daughters Lori and Kim; sons Scott, Marc, Gary and Matthew; and 5 grandchildren.

He deserves to be remembered as a very effective relief pitcher, at a time when there weren't many of those -- not just then, but in all of baseball history to that point. A pitcher like him coming along today, without a great fastball, might not be a closer, but those changeups would have made him a very effective middle reliever, long reliever, or emergency starter.

Perhaps Stu Miller came along at the wrong time. But maybe not. After all, he got to win a National League Pennant, an American League Pennant, a World Series, and an All-Star Game. He was a teammate of Stan Musial, Ken Boyer, Robin Roberts, Richie Ashburn, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Boog Powell, Jim Palmer, Hank Aaron, Phil Niekro and Joe Torre. He got to play in ballparks that had hosted players as far back as Cy Young, Nap Lajoie, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson and Babe Ruth -- and in ballparks that have hosted players as recent as Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols, Clayton Kershaw, Mike Trout, and the current pitching star of the Giants, Madison Bumgarner. He got to see baseball history in many ways, including the Giants' 3 recent titles and the Orioles' recent return to the Playoffs. He even got to make some baseball history, some dubious, some good, all of it interesting.

Stu Miller was right: It's good to be remembered. Let's remember him in totality, not just for one weird thing that happened -- in a game that, despite the strength of the opposition, he actually won.

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