Obituary: John Miller (1941-2020)

RIP to John Miller, who won a World Series championship with the 1966 Orioles before shoulder injuries brought his career to an early end. He also worked for nearly three decades in the Baltimore Fire Department. Miller died on June 5 from congestive heart failure at Carroll Hospital in Winchester, Md. He had recently celebrated his 79th birthday. Miller pitched for the Baltimore Orioles from 1962-63 and 1965-67.

John Miller was born in Baltimore on May 30, 1941. He was 12 years old when the Baltimore Orioles, formerly the St. Louis Browns, came to town. According to his obituary in the Baltimore Sun, he was part of the crowd of 350,000 people who attended the parade welcoming the Orioles at the start of the 1954 season. Six years later, he signed with them.

Before that could happen, he had to get through school. Miller attended Edmondson High School in Baltimore and played high school ball there. He wanted to be an outfielder, but the Orioles scout Walter Youse liked his arm and felt he could be a pitcher. Miller also pitched for Leone’s, an amateur team that Youse managed for almost 50 years. Over two seasons, he had a 34-3 record and struck out 161 batters in 117 innings in 1960. The team played at an annual sandlot baseball tournament in Johnstown, Pa., and Miller led all pitchers in strikeouts. It was a good thing he did so well there, too. A sore arm in his senior year of high school caused him to pitch so badly that his career almost ended before it had a chance to start.

Miller signed with the Orioles on September 10, 1960. He rocketed through the minor league fairly quickly, along with a host of other young and talented pitchers in the team’s system. In 1961, Miller won 6 games and lost 7 with a fine 2.43 ERA for the Class-B Fox Cities Foxes. He made a handful of appearances in the AA Texas League at the end of the season. He also was summoned by Orioles manager Paul Richards to face the Los Angeles Dodgers at the Hall of Fame Game in Cooperstown. He was turning some heads in the organization.

“Miller’s a quiet boy, but he has a lot of poise and confidence. You’d be surprised how much he knows about pitching for a kid,” said Earl Weaver, who managed Miller in his first instructional league. He recalled an instance where he brought the pitcher into a game with the bases loaded and nobody out. “He wasn’t shaking a bit. He just took the ball out of my hand and started throwing strikes. And he had good stuff, too.”

Miller split 1962 between Class-A Elmira and AAA Rochester, making a total of 14 appearances. It’s possible his shoulder was starting to bother him even then, which would account for the limited playing team.

Source: The Baltimore Sun, April 23, 1966.

Baltimore brought Miller to the majors in late September, along with fellow pitching prospect Dave McNally. Miller’s first appearance came on September 22 in Baltimore, against the Minnesota Twins. Starter Milt Pappas departed after 2 innings, having allowed a 3-run homer to Harmon Killebrew in the first. Wes Stock worked a scoreless inning, and Miller entered the game down 3-1. He walked the first batter he faced, Bob Allison, on four pitches, but he was erased on a caught stealing attempt. Miller got of that inning by fanning Earl Battery and Zoilo Versalles and worked two more innings of shutout ball. He walked 3 batters but didn’t allow a base hit. Two of those walks came after he bunted a ball off his own foot, leaving a bruise that affected his pitching mechanics. Meanwhile, the Orioles scored 3 runs in the bottom of the sixth with home runs by Jim Gentile and Dave Nicholson, and Dick Hall worked the final 3 innings for his 6th save. Not a bad debut for Miller — three hitless innings and his first major-league win.

“I was aiming the ball,” he said of that four-pitch walk that kicked off his career. “After I walked Allison, I threw one hard ball to Battey. After I got started, I felt better.”

Miller’s last game of the year was almost as good, though he was tagged with his first loss. He threw 7 innings of 2-hit ball against the Twins on September 30, losing 1-0. That left him with a 1-1 record and 0.90 ERA in the majors, and he was contender for a pitching job with the Orioles in 1963.

Injuries started to pile up for Miller after that. He didn’t make the ’63 Orioles out of spring training but got off to a great start in Rochester, going 8-4. He then pulled a muscle in his back and had elbow problems, which threw off his delivery, and he lost 11 straight decisions. The Orioles gave him another September recall, hoping that he’d straightened himself out. In 3 games, two of which were starts, he went 1-1 with a 3.18 ERA, with 16 strikeouts and 14 walks in 17 innings. His win came against the Tigers, and he allowed 4 hits and 9 walks in 7 innings before giving way to another Miller — Stu, who made his record-setting 71st appearance of the year.

Miller spent that offseason on a six-month stint in the Army at Fort Knox, and he was sent to Rochester to regain his rhythm. He ended up spending the whole season in the minor leagues, as he was very up-and-down with the Red Wings. When he was good, he was unhittable. Literally; he threw a 7-inning no-hitter as the Red Wings swept Columbus in a doubleheader.

After a couple seasons of uneven results, Miller found himself while pitching for Indianapolis in 1965. He threw 4 shutouts and went 6-2 before getting brought back to the Orioles on June 17 for his first extended pitching assignment in the majors. About a month Miller arrived, the Orioles cut veteran starter Robin Roberts, giving Miller a rotation spot for the rest of the year. In 16 starts, Miller had a 6-4 record and a 3.18 ERA. He only completed 1 game, but the Orioles had an excellent bullpen that included Hall, Stu Miller, Don Larsen and 19-year-old Jim Palmer.

“You talk about a quiet guy — John hardly ever said anything,” Palmer told the Sun about Miller. “We had so many different characters … and John was just genuinely nice and good-hearted. He could pitch, he had a great slider and I looked at him as somebody I wanted to emulate.”

Miller earned his first extended stay in the major leagues with a dominant performance in Indianapolis. Source: The Indianapolis Star, June 13, 1965.

Miller spent all of 1966 with the Orioles as the team won the AL pennant and then swept the Dodgers to win the World Series. Miller fought hard to gain the #4 spot in the starting rotation, but he struggled in 16 starts, with a 2-7 record and 4.79 ERA. He was a little better in the bullpen and ended the year with 23 appearances and 100-2/3 innings pitched, to go with a 4-8 record and 4.74 ERA. He did not appear in the postseason, as the Orioles needed just four pitchers (Palmer, McNally, Moe Drabowski and Wally Bunker) to shut down the Dodgers.

Miller ended up with a sore arm again in training camp in 1967, and that hurt his chance to make the rotation. He made two relief appearances, allowing 5 earned runs in 6 innings, before being sold to the New York Mets, who sent him to the minors. After spending a couple of seasons trying to get back to the majors, he retired from the game after the 1968 season at the age of 27.

In parts of five seasons with the Orioles, Miller had a 12-14 record and a 3.89 ERA. He appeared in 46 games, including 35 starts. He struck out 178, walked 138 and had a WHIP of 1.436 in 227 innings.

“Those were good times,” Miller said in a 2011 interview. “I just wish I could have survived [the injuries]. Back then, you threw as hard as you could and you took your chances that your arm would hold out. Some did. Mine didn’t.”

Miller almost immediately jumped into his next career as a Baltimore fireman. He held that job for 28 years, driving Truck 13 out of the Westview station, according to the above interview. He retired in 1999, and golf and fishing were his favorite pastimes. He played his last round of golf eight days before he died.

“He was a super-humble guy,” his son John Miller III told the Sun. “He would tell you stories if you asked him, but you would never have known he played pro baseball. He was proud to have been a fireman for 28 years; he pitched for the Orioles for five. I don’t think he had any regrets.”

For more information: Baltimore Sun

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