RIP to Bob Miller, who jumped directly from high school to the big leagues as a 17-year-old bonus baby pitcher. He died on May 24 in St. Charles, Ill., at the age of 86. Miller played for the Detroit Tigers (1953-56), Cincinnati Reds (1962) and New York Mets (1962).
The Bob Miller who is the subject of this piece is not to be confused with Bob J. Miller, also a pitcher, who died on November 27, 2020. There have been a total of five Bob Millers to play baseball between 1890 and 1974, and three of them (Bob G., Bob L., and Bob J.) were pitchers whose careers overlapped. Two of them — Bob G. and Bob L. — both pitched for the 1962 Mets, to add to the confusion.
Robert Gerald Miller was born in Berwyn, Ill., on July 15, 1935. He played sandlot ball there before attending Morton High School. In three years on the baseball team, the left-handed pitcher accumulated a 23-6 record with 317 strikeouts. He threw three no-hitters and six 1-hitters in that time. In 1952 and ’53, Miller was named to the Suburban League All-Stars. By the time he was ready graduate, he was offered a four-year scholarship to Yale University.
The Ivy League wasn’t the only league that was after Miller, though. More than a dozen major-league ballclubs were interested in signing him, and they were willing to pay much more than the $4,000 that would qualify him as a “bonus baby” — meaning that Miller would have to spend two seasons in the majors before he could report to the minors. Nine days after graduating from Morton High, he signed a contract with the Detroit Tigers for a bonus reported to be $60,000. George Moriarty, the scout who recommended Miller to the Tigers, didn’t seem worried about how the 17-year-old would fare in the majors. “The kid had a blazing fastball. There’s no doubt in my mid that he will stick. He can throw that ball, and he has control. He’ll need experience, of course, but he’s got everything it takes.”
Frank Miller, Bob’s father, said that they were impressed by the team, the people and the stadium — maybe not their record, though. When Bob Miller took a look at the standings, he saw the last-place Tigers and said, “We’re kind of deep down there, aren’t we?” The young ballplayer himself was understandably nervous about his rapid ascent to the majors. “I sure hope I can help them,” he said. “I hope they don’t have to cut anyone to make room for me.”
As luck would have it, the Tigers had two open roster spaces, one for Miller and one for another bonus baby they were after. That other player ended up being Al Kaline. The two teenagers made their major-league debut in the same game, in fact. It was June 25, 1953 against the Philadelphia Athletics. Kaline flew out as a replacement for center fielder Jim Delsing. Miller entered the game in the eighth inning, with the A’s leading 5-0. He zipped through the inning, retiring Gus Zernial on a fly to right and Pete Suder and Loren Babe on ground balls to second base.
The bonus baby rule damaged a good number of young careers, as the teenage ballplayers who were subject to the rule frequently wasted away on the bench or bullpen for two seasons while they could have been honing their skills in the minors. Kaline played little and batted .250 in 1953. He ended up alright — in fact he ended up in Cooperstown — but he was an exception to the rule. Miller pitched in 36-1/3 innings over 13 games in ’53, and was unscored upon in just two of them — his debut and 3-1/3 scoreless innings against the Yankees on July 26, which resulted in his first major-league win. Aside from those two performances, he gave up 24 earned runs on 43 hits and 21 walks, with just 9 strikeouts. Typically, bonus baby pitchers hardly ever saw the mound, but given the state of the Tigers pitching staff, the inexperienced Miller wasn’t a worse choice than many of the team’s veteran pitchers. So manager Fred Hutchinson let the kid take his lumps frequently, like a 5-inning relief outing against Washington where he walked 7 batters. At year’s end, Miller had a 1-2 record and 5.94 ERA.
The 1954 Tigers were marginally better than the sixth-place 1953 team — they finished in fifth place with a 68-86 record. Kaline had adjusted enough to get a starting role in the outfield. Miller, for his part, became the most reliable reliever the Tigers had. In 32 games, the 18-year-old fashioned a 1-1 record and led all regular pitchers with a 2.45 ERA. However, he seldom ever had the chance to show his development in a situation that actually mattered. Miller was used almost exclusively as a mop-up reliever, sent into the game when it was out of reach. Of his 32 games, the Tigers won a grand total of three of them. Miller picked up his only career save against the Baltimore Orioles on September 20. When relievers Al Aber and Ray Herbert couldn’t retire the Orioles in the ninth inning, Miller came into the game with the Tigers leading 4-2 and the bases loaded. He retired Dick Kryhoski on a sacrifice fly to make the score 4-3 before he retired Don Larsen (who was pinch-hitting for Clint Courtney) on a force play at second to preserve the win.
The Tigers, now managed by Bucky Harris, originally planned on making Miller a spot starter in 1955. However, he struggled through some early-season games, giving up a couple of home runs to Mickey Mantle in the process. The one on May 13 came after Mantle had already hit two long balls off righty Steve Gromek, making him the first American Leaguer and third major leaguer to hit a home run from both sides of the plate in the same game. The second one, on June 6, sailed more than 440 feet over the center field screen, and was believed to be one of the longest homers ever hit at Briggs Stadium. The Tigers, as soon as Miller had passed the two-year waiting period required of bonus babies, sent him to the minor leagues. It came as no surprise to Miller.
“I’m only sorry I wasn’t able to contribute more this year,” he said as he departed for Class-A Augusta of the Sally League. “I wish I could have been used more.”
Miller quickly dominated the Sally League. He won 8 of 10 decisions with a 1.73 ERA, and he threw a no-hitter, a 1-hitter and two three-hitters among his 19 appearances. He returned to the Tigers in September to work as a starter. He struggled in his first start against the Yankees, but he beat Cleveland in two starts to finish the season with a 2-1 record and a 2.49 ERA. His 1956 season followed a similar pattern. Miller started the year with Detroit and was sent to the minors after a couple of mediocre performances. He returned to the Tigers in July but struggled to an 0-2 record and 5.68 ERA in 11 games. He started 3 games and failed to make it past the second inning in two of them.
Miller’s career was sidetracked for a time, as he lost the entire 1957 season to military service. He returned to the Tigers in 1958 but was assigned to the Birmingham Barons of the Southern Association, where he was used as a starting pitcher. He won 14 games for Birmingham in 1959 and struck out 130 batters in 183 innings, but his performance didn’t earn him a trip back to Detroit. But on the bright side, Miller was able to play for a contender for the first time in his pro career. The 1958 Barons won the Southern Association pennant, and he noticed the difference in atmosphere.
“You go along, losing maybe three out of five, and, honest, it just gets to be a job,” Miller said about his experiences in Detroit. “Sure, you try as hard as you can. But you lose, so what? You’re accustomed to it, and it doesn’t particularly matter. You learn to accept it. But this season, here, every game is a big game… I have never played on a team with the spirit and aggressiveness this club has.”
Along the way, Miller suffered a broken wrist trying to dodge a fastball at his head. He underwent surgery and returned to pitching, though he was no longer the fastball pitcher he had been. After the 1959 season, he was drafted into the Cincinnati organization. The Reds didn’t rush him to the majors either, as he spent all of 1960 and ’61 in the minors. He was part of the Havana Sugar Kings team that had to quickly relocate in 1960 to Jersey City because of the Castro revolution in Cuba. Miller himself noted that the Cuban people were treating him wonderfully, but the International League was afraid of sending other teams to Havana during the political upheaval. Miller was converted back to a reliever, and in 1961, he had a 7-6 record in 49 appearances for Indianapolis of the American Association. He had a particularly effective screwball, which allowed Indianapolis manager Cot Deal to pitch him against right-handed and left-handed batters, and Miller was equally effective against them both.
Miller started the 1962 season with the Reds. On Opening Day on April 9, he gave up 4 runs on 1-2/3 innings, including a 2-run homer by Don Demeter. Miller gave up 13 earned runs in 5-1/3 innings over 6 outings, for an ERA of nearly 22.00. The Mets, in need of left-handed pitchers, acquired him on May 7, along with third baseman/outfielder Cliff Cook in exchange for infielder Don Zimmer. The move gave the Mets two pitchers named Bob Miller — one lefty and one righty. They even ended up as roommates on the road. Miller explained, per Vintage Detroit: “At first, I roomed with Joe Pignatano, but I had to be switched to room with the other Bob Miller because any time a phone call came to the hotel, the caller would say, ‘Let me talk to Bob Miller.’ The operator would ask, ‘Which one?’ They’d say, ‘The pitcher with the Mets.’ It got to be a little crazy.”
Both Bob Millers made it into the same game on August 4, against the Reds. Righty Miller started the game and gave up 2 runs in 7 innings. The Mets scored 2 off Reds starter Joe Nuxhall, sending the game into extra innings. The Mets got scoreless relief from Willard Hunter and Ken MacKenzie before lefty Miller entered the game in the top of the 14th inning. He retired the side in order, and then Frank Thomas led off the bottom of the inning with a homer off reliever Moe Drabowsky to give the Mets the 3-2 win. It gave Miller his first win as a Met. He ended the year with a 2-2 record as a Met, with a 7.08 ERA in 17 relief outings. It would be his final season as a professional pitcher.
In parts of 5 seasons in the majors, Miller had a 6-8 record and 4.72 ERA in 86 games, including 8 starts. He threw 1 complete game and had 1 save. In 188-2/3 innings pitched, he walked 92 and struck out 75.
When Miller began pitching professionally, he enrolled at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Like many ballplayers, he worked on his degree a semester at a time over the offseason. Miller eventually earned his degree from Northwestern and became a successful businessman, working as the director of sales and marketing at Barton Brands. According to the Morton High School Athletics Hall of Fame, Miller was instrumental in introducing and marketing Mexican beer in the United States. He and his wife, Carol, donated millions of dollars to Northwestern Hospital and other charities. He began working with the Major League Baseball Alumni Association in 1989, eventually rising to the role of Chairman and CEO, through 1994. He participated in celebrity golf tournaments across the country and was widely known for his fundraising skills. One of his specialties was collecting and donating autographed baseballs — though not his own, he joked. “I never sign baseballs because I don’t want to devalue them,” he said.
In an interview with The Daily Herald in 1999, Miller reflected on his experience as a fund-raiser and the trust that others placed in him. “You develop a good reputation, and people know that the things they’re going to be giving me are going to be used to raise money for a good cause. It’s truly a wonderful and fulfilling experience.”
Miller is survived by his wife, sons Jeffrey, Bob and Scott, and their families.
For more information: Yurs Funeral Home