Grave Story: Ralph Miller (1873-1973)

Here lies Ralph Miller, who pitched for two unremarkable seasons in the end of the 19th Century. What was remarkable about Miller was the fact that he lived to celebrate his 100th birthday – he was baseball’s first centenarian. Miller played for the Brooklyn Bridegrooms (1898) and Baltimore Orioles (1899).

There have been three “Ralph Millers” to play in the major leagues, and this Ralph Miller was the first. Ralph Darwin Miller was born on March 15, 1873, in Cincinnati. He came from a very well-respected family. His father, Samuel A. Miller, was a Civil War veteran and a renowned lawyer, scientist and politician. He was the author of North American Geology and Paleontology and also wrote numerous other works on geology and fossils. When he died of liver cancer in December 1897, the Cincinnati Enquirer mourned him as one of Cincinnati’s brightest lights. Samuel’s brother, Ike Miller, was a police commissioner in Cincinnati as well.

The Miller family memorial in Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati. The petrified log at the top represents Samuel Miller’s scientific work.

Ralph Miller found a knack for baseball at a pretty young age. He played on several of Cincinnati’s top amateur teams and a YMCA ballclub before leaving town to play ball in Kentucky and Michigan in the early 1890s. He married Mary Grimes in 1893 when he was 20 (and she was 17) and started his professional baseball career in 1895. His first couple of seasons, spent in the Interstate League for teams in Ohio and Michigan, have no available statistics, but he was a pitcher and outfielder.

Miller spent the first part of 1897 playing for a team in Portland, Maine. When that team folded in July, he joined the Fall River Indians of the New England League and quickly became known as the best pitcher in the league. In 19 games, he turned in a 12-6 record and a 1.02 ERA, completing every one of his 17 starts. It was an amazing season and helped to bring a little respectability to an otherwise mediocre team. However, the absurdly low ERA does require a little explanation, as only 18 of the 66 runs he allowed were earned. He was also charged with 65 walks in 159 innings. It was a good season, but he was the “beneficiary” of some poor defense behind him.

Gus Abel, owner of the Brooklyn Bridegrooms of the National League, paid a visit to Massachusetts and bought the right-hander for the sum of $500. Abel’s team had finished in seventh place in 1897 and was 10 games under .500, and he planned to draft enough talent to make Brooklyn a success. Getting the man generally considered to be the fastest pitcher in the New England League seemed to be a good start.

“In Miller, Brooklyn has secured a fine young pitcher, a man who is a perfect gentleman on and off the field and who knows how to handle a ball,” reported the Fall River Daily Herald.

Nothing went according to plan for Brooklyn in 1898. The signings didn’t result in any great gains, as the Bridegrooms went 54-91 to finish in tenth place in the 12-team league. The team went through three managers (Billy Barnie, Mike Griffin and team president Charlie Ebbets), and three pitchers (Brickyard Kennedy, Jack Dunn and Joe Yeager) lost 20 or more games. As for Miller, he pitched in 23 games, with 21 starts, and finished 4-14 with a 5.34 ERA. He gave up 161 hits and 86 walks in 151-2/3 innings (1.629 WHIP) while striking out a mere 43 batters.

Source: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 28, 1898.

Miller’s season was not without its highlights. Brooklyn played Cincinnati in Miller’s hometown on May 24, 1898, and the pitcher was treated like a conquering hero. Before the game started, Miller was given a flower bouquet, a cane and a diamond stud. A partner in the mayor’s law firm gave a speech in his honor. (Mayor Gustav Tafel was supposed to do the honors himself but was apparently unable to attend.) The crowd was filled with friends and well-wishers and cheered him on, even though he was the visiting pitcher. Miller rose to the occasion, defeating the Reds 6-3. He allowed 8 hits, but as the Enquirer noted, “At least half of the hits ‘tabbed’ against Miller belonged in that class known as flukes.” He also drove in a couple of runs on hits and would have beaten out a bunt for another hit but was called out for running outside the baselines. When he retired the last Red to get the win, his friends jumped onto the field and carried him off on their shoulders. That evening, Miller stood outside the Gibson House hotel for hours, adorned with the cane and diamond stud, accepting congratulations from friends.

Miller faced the Reds again a week later in Brooklyn. This time, Miller no-hit them until the fifth inning, when Cincinnati exploded for 6 runs. Part of it was the poor fielding of shortstop Candy LaChance and second baseman Bill Hallman, both of whom committed key errors. Miller, though, had poor command and gave up some hard hits, including an RBI triple to opposing pitcher Bill Dammann.

Prior to the 1899 season, Miller was assigned to the Baltimore Orioles. This was part of baseball’s brief “syndicate baseball” era, where a baseball magnate could own two teams at once. Inevitably, the owner put all his good players on one team, leaving the other to wither away with the leftovers. In this case, Baltimore owner Harry Von der Horst acquired a majority share of the Brooklyn Bridegrooms and sent top players like Willie Keeler, Joe Kelley, Hughie Jennings, Bill Dahlen, Al Maul and Doc McJames to Brooklyn, along with manager Ned Hanlon. Miller was one of the players sent to the depleted Baltimore Orioles.

Brooklyn won 101 games in 1899 and the NL pennant, as you might expect, but Baltimore ended up in fourth place with a surprising 86-62 record. That showing was thanks to manager John McGraw, who was determined to rebuild Baltimore into a winning ballclub. Just to name a couple of his developmental triumphs, he coached Jimmy Sheckard into a quality outfielder and discovered Joe McGinnity.

Miller appeared in 6 games for the Orioles, with 4 starts. He had a 1-3 record and 4.38 ERA, and he walked 14 batters in 37 innings against just 3 strikeouts. He was pressed into service as a reliever on April 28 against Brooklyn and shut his old team down for three innings. The fourth one was a different story, as Brooklyn scored 3 runs off him in the ninth inning. Baltimore hung on to win the game 12-11, giving Miller a 4-inning save.

Miller’s time with Baltimore came to an end on June 7. McGraw, always looking to improve the Orioles, released him and signed “Still Bill” Hill, who had just been cut by Cleveland. “Miller has made many friends in Baltimore, who will be sorry to see him go,” reported the Baltimore Sun. “Miller needs more work in the box to make him effective than McGraw can afford to give him.”

Miller appeared in a total of 29 games in two seasons, with 25 starts. He ended up with a 6-17 record, 1 save and 5.15 ERA, with 46 strikeouts and 100 walks in 188-2/3 innings. He had a 1.617 WHIP. Miller was a fairly decent batter, with a .192 batting average over 30 games. He even spent 4 innings in left field for Brooklyn in 1898.

Miller finished the 1899 season with the Worcester Farmers of the Eastern League and won 8 games, despite giving up a large number of hits and walks. Worcester released him after one terrible start in 1900, but the Hartford Indians quickly picked him up. Miller give them two strong seasons, winning 14 games in 1900 and 13 in 1901. He gave up a good number of hits and runs, but he threw more than 260 innings each year and became a reliable workhorse.

Source: The Indianapolis News, April 14, 1902.

Miller signed with Indianapolis of the American Association for the 1902 season. He stayed there for about half the season and was released in August after some erratic results. “He twirled some good ball for Indianapolis and also pitched some miserable games,” reported The Indianapolis Journal. “His chief fault seemed to be his failure to locate the plate, and this was due to his laziness or indifference to practice.”

The St. Paul Saints signed Miller, and he won a total of 10 games between the two teams in what was his final season of professional baseball. His career was brought to an end when a line drive off his pitching arm resulted in a cracked right elbow.

Miller and his family returned to Cincinnati. He and Mary had a son, Orene (born in 1900) and a daughter, Marian (born in 1910). As late as the 1910 census, Miller still listed his primary occupation as “ballplayer.” Even if his elbow injury kept him from pitching, he was also a capable outfielder and may have played in Cincinnati’s amateur circuit. He later worked at a shipping department manager for Ault & Wiborg Co., a manufacturer of printing inks and dyes, for about 25 years.

Miller experienced some true tragedies in his life. His son Orene died in Coral Gables on March 4, 1926, at the age of 25 or 26. He was reported to have been gassed during World War I and died after a lengthy illness. His daughter died young as well, in the 1940s. According to the 1940 census, Miller was divorced and living in Cincinnati with his widowed sister and niece. By the time he turned 70 in 1943, Miller already had outlived much of his family and many of his former teammates. He continued to live in relative obscurity until late 1972, when some in the baseball world realized Miller was about to accomplish a feat that was unprecedented in the sport – he was going to turn 100 years old.

By 1972, Miller was living in the Hyde Park Villa Extended Care Center in Cincinnati. He had fallen and injured his back, and it necessitated a move to the nursing home. “That was the first time I saw a doctor since 1918 when I got the flu,” he said.

His eyesight was failing, as was his memory. “It really gets my goat that my memory fails. I must’ve played hundreds of games and I can remember just one of them. It was May 25, 1898. I pitched my first game for Brooklyn and beat the Cincinnati Reds 6-3.”

Okay, so he was a little off on the details – it was May 24, and it wasn’t his first game. But he recalled the rest with clarity. “There were thousands of people there – all my friends. I was carried off the field on their shoulders. That’s the important thing that shines out like a light. I guess it was an important thing for a young man to win his first game. It meant so much.

“I had a marvelous arm, and I had wonderful speed and control,” he added, raising his arms above his head in a pitching motion. Of his many teammates, the one he remembered the most was his Baltimore manager, John McGraw. “A fine man off the field and a hell of a man on it,” Miller recalled.

Miller celebrated his 100th birthday on March 15, 1973. He didn’t see the big deal. “I don’t give two hurrahs about it,” he told journalist John Schulian. “No one will be stopping by, and my friends will just say, ‘Old Ralph, he lived to be 100.’”

There were some remembrances on his special day. Reds manager Sparky Anderson and the Baltimore Orioles sent him birthday cards, and baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn sent him a telegram. There was birthday cake, too. One reporter who interviewed Miller asked him if he would have any pizza. Miller asked “Pizza? I never heard of it.”

Supposedly, the president of Pizza Hut read that quote and delivered Miller a 3-foot-long pizza with his name spelled out in pepperoni. Miller refused to try it.

The amount of baseball history that Miller saw is mind-boggling. One of his teammates at Fall River in 1897 was Roger Connor, future Hall of Famer and baseball’s home run king at the time. Other teammates in his career included Albert “Butts” Wagner (Honus’ brother), Wilbert Robinson, Joe McGinnity, Tommy Leach, Jim Delahanty and Miller Huggins. Miller was not the last surviving 19th-Century ballplayer (that would be Charlie Emig, who died in 1975 at 100), but he’s one of just a handful of people who started playing ball in the 1800s and lived long enough to see the game being played by integrated teams on plastic grass in domes.

Ralph Miller died on May 7, 1973 at the age of 100 years and 53 days. He is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, in the Miller family plot. You won’t find his name on the monument, but you will see a large petrified log atop it – a tribute to his father’s scientific interests.

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