Grave Story: Larry Miller (1944-2009)

Here lies Larry Miller, a Utah businessman who became a sports mogul as well. While he’s primarily known in the sporting world as the owner of the NBA’s Utah Jazz, he also acquired Salt Lake City’s minor-league baseball team and renamed them the Bees, a nod to the city’s long baseball tradition.

Utah may not be thought of by most a hotbed of baseball, but there has been pro ball in the state for well over a century. There have been clubs in places like Ogden, Logan and St. George, but the center of Utah baseball has been Salt Lake City. For the majority of the past 100 years, SLC has had the Bees, in one form or another. The first version of the Salt Lake City Bees began operations in 1915, when the Pacific Coast League’s Sacramento Solons was bought by a local businessman and relocated to Utah. That team lasted until 1925, when it moved to California and became the Hollywood Stars.

Source: Orem Geneva Times, April 27, 1994

Why bees? Utah is the Beehive State, after all. The honey bee is the official state insect, and Utah itself was called “The Provisional State of Deseret,” a Book of Mormon word meaning honey bee.

Back to the Bees. There were still teams called the Salt Lake City Bees from 1926-1957, but the PCL version of the Bees came back to the hive in 1957. This iteration of the team (Bees 2.0 if you’re keeping track) lasted until 1965, and then The Salt Lake City Bees 3.0 played from 1970-1984, though they were called the Angels (after the parent team) and Gulls for most of that time.

Salt Lake City was without a PCL team until 1994, when the Salt Lake Buzz came to town. The team formerly known as the Portland Beavers was owned by Joe Buzas, a former major-league shortstop for the Yankees. He owned more than 80 minor-league teams in his lifetime and would own the team, which he renamed the Stingers, until his death in 2003.

This is where Larry Miller steps into the picture. Miller was an auto racer and a fast-pitch softball player as well as a parts manager for a Utah car dealership. He parlayed that job into an auto dealership empire that stretched across the western U.S. He bought 50 percent of the Utah Jazz in 1985 (and the other 50 percent in 1986) and kept the team in town, despite offers to move it to Miami or Minnesota. He was a passionate sports fan; he once got into an altercation with a Denver Nuggets fan in 1994 when the two teams were playing in the NBA finals!

Larry Miller and a Denver Nuggets are separated during a Jazz-Nuggets finals game, 1994. Source: The Daily Spectrum, May 19, 1994.

Miller encouraged Buzas to bring AAA baseball back to Salt Lake City. Following Buzas’ death, he bought the team from the man’s daughter, Hillary Drammis, in January 2005. They continued as the Stingers for a short time, but Miller officially changed the team’s look and name on October 27, 2005. The team was renamed the Salt Lake Bees, and the team’s colors were changed back to black and gold. The team used to be the minor-league affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, so the colors were an old-school throwback as well as an appropriate choice for a team named the Bees.

“We are excited to bring Salt Lake baseball back to its roots,” Miller said in a press release. “The Bees are a significant part of baseball history in Utah and it’s our hope that the change will bring with it the nostalgia baseball is known for.”

(If you haven’t been to see the Bees at Smith’s Ballpark, I highly recommend it. It’s a very nice minor-league stadium, and the view of the Wasatch Mountains from behind the outfield wall is absolutely stunning. It’s the most picturesque venue for baseball I’ve ever seen.)

Not many ballparks where the scenery alone is worth the price of admission.

The Larry H. Miller Group of Companies today includes more than 60 car dealerships, the sports teams, a radio station, Megaplex Theatres, an advertising/p.r. agency, a financial services company and a real estate business, to name a few divisions. There are also several philanthropic arms, including the Larry H. Miller Charities and the Larry H. & Gail Miller Family Foundation.

Miller unintentionally helped make “Brokeback Mountain” a hit. The drama about two gay cowboys was barred from airing in his movie theaters; he later said in an interview that he feared getting away from “traditional families.” The move backfired, as the notoriety of his action only increased interest in the movie, which went on to become a financial as well as a critical hit.

Miller suffered a heart attack in June 2008 and had to be hospitalized for almost two months. He was confined to a wheelchair after his release, and problems with type 2 diabetes led to the amputation of his legs below the knee in January 2009. He died from further complications of diabetes on February 20, 2009. He was 64 years old. He is buried in Salt Lake City Cemetery.

Today, the Salt Lake Bees are owned and operated by his widow, Gail. They were married for almost 44 years and had five children.

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