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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: December 6, 2022 8:46 pm PDT
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John Miller’s Major League career spanned 32 games across two seasons for two of the game’s most storied franchises – the Yankees and Dodgers. That his career stat line is non-descript combined with the fact that his appearances with both teams came at a time when each franchise was on a bit of a downturn only lends to his career largely being overlooked by even the most ardent baseball fans.

Miller, however, holds a special place in baseball lore, having accomplished something that only one other player has done – hitting a home run in both the first and last at-bat of his Major League career. The California native cracked a home run on Sept. 11, 1966, at Fenway Park in his big-league debut and went deep again on Sept. 23, 1969, at Crosley Field in his final at-bat, joining Paul Gillespie who accomplished the feat while playing for the Cubs during World War II.

While Miller would go on to have a successful three-year stint in Japan, during which he would hit 79 home runs, following that final at-bat with Los Angeles, it was his short stay in the Major Leagues that continues to provide one of the game’s most unusual storylines.

“Without question, it’s special,” Miller, 77, said. “It’s unique and something that only one other person did and I’m proud of that. I’m proud that I made it to the big leagues because that was my goal all along. Everyone says it’s easy to get there and hard to stay, but I think it was harder to get there. I’m proud of that fact that I reached that goal.”

Miller was also happy to sign with the Yankees in 1962, a move that put him on a path to baseball history. His journey to the Bronx, however, started long before he put his name on a contract.

WHEN THE PCL WAS THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN

While Major League Baseball had yet to hit the West Coast during Miller’s childhood there was no shortage of professional teams which he could follow. The Triple-A Pacific Coast League, often considered a third major league during the first half of the 20th century, was in its waning days as an equal to its East-Coast counterparts when Miller became familiar with baseball.

He grew up in the Los Angeles area and was a fan of the Angels, watching the likes of slugger Steve Bilko and future Major League manager Gene Mauch. He also followed the Hollywood Stars but when it came to the Major Leagues, the Yankees were his team.

“I was very young, probably nine or 10 when I first started watching the Stars and Angels,” he said. “The first game I went to, I was probably 12 years old. I was an Angels fan but then the game of the week started up and the only game they ever had on every Saturday was the Yankees. It was more like the Yankees’ Game of the Week and I got hooked on the Yankees.

“I was a Dodger fan growing up but I was more of a Yankee fan before the Dodgers moved out here. The first televised game I remember watching was the 1954 World Series and Willie Mays making the catch. I got hooked on baseball in 1955 when my parents took me to an Angles game at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles. I just fell in love with baseball and that’s all wanted to do. It was my total focus from that day forward.”

Miller said that once he concluded that his goal was to play in the Major Leagues he set about learning how he could get scouted and signed. It didn’t take much time. He was a star infielder at Rosemead High School, earning All Southern California Interscholastic Federation Class AA honors as a senior, playing in an area that featured future Major Leaguers Jay Johnstone, Ed Kirkpatrick and Bill Singer.

“But all the players the Yankees had, Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle and it’s some kid from Rosemead who is the first to hit a home run his first time up at bat.”

“High school baseball was huge out there at the time,” Miller said. “We had quite a few players that signed and quite a few made it to the big leagues. Three people from the school I went to signed though I was the only one to make it to the big leagues. We had a lot of talented people in our [high school] league; Southern California was huge.”

The Yankees apparently thoughts so, signing Miller upon his high school graduation. He was sent to Harlan of the Class-D Appalachian League, which was at the time a shared affiliate with the Chicago White Sox. That Miller arrived in Harlan when he was supposed to also proved to be a bit of an adventure.

“My Uncle Ted took me to LAX for a flight to Knoxville two weeks after I graduated from high school,” Miller said. “When I got to Knoxville, I was supposed to get on a Trailways bus to Harlan. It was a 3 p.m. bus and I got there shortly after that. I checked to see when the next bus would be and it was one or two in the morning.

“Before I left California I went to the see the scout [Gordon Deacon Jones] who signed me at his apartment in Pasadena. He told me where I was going, what was expected of me, what he thought I should expect. He also gave me $50 out of his own pocket. When I missed the bus I took that $50, went into the street and went to the cab stand. I asked him how much it would cost to get to Harlan and he asked how much did I have? I said $50 and he said it would cost $50 and away we went. When I finally got to Harlan that night I pulled up in the cab in front of the hotel with all the players and they must have thought I got a $10,000, $20,000 bonus. That’s how it all began.”

Harlan, for a short time, was the home of future Cy Young and MVP Award winner Denny McLain. The hard-throwing McLain was a national prep star at Mount Carmel High School in Chicago and had signed immediately following his graduation. He, too, had been heavily scouted by the Yankees but signed instead with the White Sox when his mother did not like quality of clothing worn by the New York scout.

McLain tossed a no-hitter on June 28 in his first professional start for the Smokies. While he and Miller did cross paths, Miller was not there to see McLain pitch. McLain had been moved to Clinton [Iowa] of the Class-D Midwest League after two starts before Miller got into the Harlan lineup.

“I remember him being there but I can’t remember him pitching in a game,” Miller said. “I just saw him in intrasquad games. We had all these intrasquad games; you couldn’t even tell how many players there were. I don’t know how they could make a sensible decision on who they kept and who they cut. It was a madhouse.

“I was one of the lucky ones who spent the whole year there. It was mostly high school players and one or two college players, 18-years-old. It was not what you would call easy, but you had to start somewhere. I made it through the season and survived. Not knowing anything about pro ball I had a pretty decent season.”

One of the things that stood out the most about playing in Harlan – the uniforms. New York farmhands at the time were given old uniforms of former Yankee major leaguers. Miller’s first uniform was an old woolen affair that was worn by one of the Bombers 30 years earlier.

“That thing was hard to get off after playing nine innings during a Kentucky summer,” Miller said. “It was hot and muggy and it just stuck to you. We also only had two showers and the water barely trickled out. Your locker was a nail, but it was fun and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.”

It’s a good thing Miller was having fun because the Smokies were a miserable team, finishing in last place, 20 games under .500 and 22 games out of first on the six-team circuit. Miller, however, led the team with seven homers and was fifth in RBIs [22]. He hit .257 in 144 at-bats over 47 games, which was good enough to earn him a promotion to Ft. Lauderdale of the Class-A Florida State League for the 1963 season.

MOVIN’ ON UP

Miller was originally ticketed for Shelby of the lower Class-A Western Carolinas League. However, Ft. Lauderdale’s new manager, Pinky May [father of future Major Leaguer Milt May], took notice of the strong spring training Miller put together and told him he wanted him in Ft. Lauderdale with him. So, Miller spent the bulk of the season in South Florida, hitting .280 with five homers and 50 RBIs over 390 at-bats before earning a late-season promotion to Greensboro of the Class-A Carolina League. He appeared in eight games for Greensboro and went 3-for-19 with a pair of RBIs.

The Yankees also sent him to Idaho Falls for two weeks in September and Miller helped that club win a Pioneer League title with several key base hits in the championship series victory over Billings.

“I learned a lot that year,” Miller said.

While the Yankees would embark on a decade of missed playoffs and mostly mediocrity – The Horace Clarke Era – beginning in 1965, they were still the Bombers in 1964 and would reach the World Series for the 14th time since 1949. That rich history was on full display during Spring Training as Yogi Berra took over the managerial reigns in New York.

Berra, who had been there for each of those World Series appearances, wanted to get a jump on Spring Training and see what the Yankees had coming up the pipeline. So, he and Joe DiMaggio, who was on hand as an instructor that spring, headed to Hollywood, Florida early to inspect the minor league masses of which Miller was a part.

“Yogi was there, Whitey Ford was there, DiMaggio was an instructor; it was unbelievable to get that kind of experience and exposure,” Miller said.

The excitement of the spring stayed with Miller through the regular season as he put forth a strong effort at Greensboro. Miller hit .276, was tied for third in the league with 24 homers and tied for sixth with 74 RBIs. He also recorded career highs in steals [23] and walks [94] before heading back to Florida in the fall for Instructional League, where he hit .279 in 48 games.

That fall would also prove to be a turning point in Miller’s career.

“Going into 1965, I was thinking I’m on the right road,” he said. “I was looking at the organization and what I had to do to get to the next level. I played third base in 1963 and ’64 but they had another third baseman in Mike Ferraro. When I went to instructs, Ralph Houk, who was going to be the [Yankees’] general manager in 1965, showed up. He came up to me and asked if I would consider learning a new position.

“So, I started learning to play first base and the outfield. It might have been the first time I played there [at first] when a throw came to me and instead of having my foot on the edge of the bag I had it on the bag and I tripped the runner. Luckily, no one got hurt. From that point on I was playing first base, left field and right field.”

Miller’s fielding miscues in instructs did little to alter his career path, though. He was moved up to Columbus of the Double-A Southern League in 1965 and was touted in the pre-season by The Decatur [Ala.] Daily as the Yankees new power-hitting first baseman that “clubbed 24 homers last year at Greensboro”.

While Miller didn’t club 24 homers again he did put together another solid season, hitting .262 with 10 homers and 55 RBIs. He flashed some of that power in a July 8 victory over Knoxville in which he hit two homers and drove in five. Ultimately the Yankees, who were a team with great pitching and a somewhat limited offense, finished in first place .001 percentage points ahead of Asheville. Roy White hit exactly .300 while Miller was one of only three other players to hit higher than .250.

“Playing in the Southern League was tough,” Miller said. “I noticed a big difference in the pitching. There were more experienced players and the pitching was definitely a lot better than it was in A-ball. They could throw and mix pitches. They could throw a curve or a slider on a 3-1 count and you couldn’t just sit there and look fastball. That was a big adjustment and probably took half a season. The second half I did well. It was a tough year but a good year.”

It also set the stage for Miller’s Major League debut in 1966.

A LOT OF MOVEMENT AND A SEPTEMBER TO REMEMBER

Miller continued his climb up the organizational ladder in 1966, at least at the beginning when he was assigned to Toledo of the Triple-A International League. However, because the Yankees had Ferraro at third and Mike Hegan at first, Miller was limited mostly to pinch-hitting and pinch-running duty before he was told he’d be heading back to Columbus to get more playing time. Though he would return to Toledo in September, overall, he appeared in only 20 games there and hit .206 in 63 at-bats.

“My wife was with me and we had to pack up and drive back to Columbus,” Miller said. “On the way, we stopped outside Crosley Field [in Cincinnati] went to the phone booth and I called the Minor League director. I told him I don’t have anything to prove in Columbus and he gave me a $100 a month raise. I thought that was very magnanimous of him. That didn’t happen a lot in the minor leagues back then but that’s how the Yankees were back then.”

Miller may not have had anything to prove at Columbus but he played like he did, hitting .312 with 12 homers and 52 RBIs in nearly 150 fewer Southern League at-bats than he had the year before. New York scout Mayo Smith, who would take over as the manager in Detroit the following year before winning a World Series in 1968, went to Columbus and watched Miller shine. Ultimately, Miller said Smith played a big role in his getting called up to the Major Leagues.

“I was staying in a hotel in Toledo when they called me up and when I got the call I was on cloud nine,” Miller said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Miller was called up on Sept. 6 and on Sept. 11, a Sunday, he found himself in the starting lineup at Fenway Park. He was batting seventh and playing left field. He handled one chance on the field, a Tony Conigliaro fly ball in the seventh.

“I had never played left field in Fenway Park, which is a tough field to play,” Miller said. “So, Wally Moses, who was the hitting coach, got to the park early hit fly balls to me and balls off the wall. He showed me where to play and what to expect and that was a big help.”

The real excitement, however, came in the top of the second after first baseman Joe Pepitone led off with a single. Steve Whitaker struck out and Bill Bryan popped up to second, bringing Miller to the plate to face Lee Stange, a serviceable backend-of-the-rotation pitcher who arrived in Boston via a mid-season trade with Cleveland.

“The clouds were coming and they would cover the plate and then move and it was tough to see,” Miller said. “He threw a slider low and away and I flicked my wrists at it and it went right down the left field line over the Green Monster and into the netting. It was an unbelievable experience. Unfortunately, they didn’t recover baseballs back then. I would love to have it but it was still a phenomenal experience.”

Miller, who would later single in the sixth inning, became the first Yankee in franchise history to homer in his first at-bat. He would not get another hit in the Major Leagues for three years and his next RBI would be his last. Miller appeared in six games that month and went 2-for-23.

“I don’t think about it as much as I used to,” Miller said. “But all the players the Yankees had, Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle and it’s some kid from Rosemead who is the first to hit a home run his first time up at bat. It’s something to be thankful for. I’m lucky to have had the opportunity.”

That luck, at least in the Bronx, would run out in short order.

HEADING HOME

Miller was feeling good about how his season ended and his career in general following the 1966 season. He had reached the Majors Leagues and proven that he could be a serviceable if not dependable player on New York’s big-league roster. Miller was living in Ft. Lauderdale at the time and was prepared to head into Spring Training with the goal of breaking camp with the Yankees.

That wouldn’t happen. Miller did not have a good Spring Training and was involved in what seems like, in retrospect, a one-sided contract dispute. It all ended up with him getting dealt to the Dodgers along with Jack Cullen for John Kennedy on April 3.

“I didn’t have an agent and when the Yankees sent me a contract I didn’t sign it,” Miller said. “I sent it back. I wanted a little more money. I didn’t have anyone in my family that was giving me any guidance and I chose what I was going to do so it was on me to make that decision. It’s probably the reason I got traded. It’s probably all my fault. You get in the heat of the moment and sometimes you don’t make the right decisions and that’s what happened there.

“I knew something was going to happen when I went to work out and [coach] Johnny Neun wouldn’t let me on the field. Houk called me into the office and said, ‘We traded you to the Dodgers’. I was still only 22 and pretty happy to go to L.A. They could have traded me to Pittsburgh so I was thankful for that. I was lucky to be a Yankee and the Dodgers were another good organization. If I could have done my job in Spring Training who knows what could have happened but I didn’t.”

Miller would not get an opportunity with the Dodgers in 1967 or ’68, spending both seasons with Spokane of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. He hit .287 with 70 RBIs in 1968 and was named to the PCL All-Star team while helping the Indians earn division titles in both seasons.

“The Pacific Coast League was a good league then and they played a good brand of baseball,” Miller said. “We had good teams in Spokane, too. In ’67 I struggled for much of the year then got hot the last month and helped us win. That winter I was sent to Instructional League and was invited to Spring Training.

“I was probably on the cusp of making the team as a right-handed pinch-hitter but they went out and got Rocky Colavito [whom they purchased from the White Sox]. He had a bigger name.”

Colavito was released mid-season but Miller remained in Spokane. Still, he broke camp with the Dodgers in 1969, spending much of the season as a pinch-hitter. He was sent to Spokane late in the season to get some at-bats and responded by hitting .452 [28-for-62] with a pair of homers and 13 RBIs. Miller was recalled in September for his date with history though it was a meeting he never imagined would be history making.

Miller was hitting .189 [8-for-37] that season when he made the final appearance of his Major League career on Sept. 23 in the first game of a doubleheader at Crosley Field. Dodger manager Walt Alston sent Miller up to pinch hit for Al McBean in the top of the eighth against Cincinnati ace Jim Merritt, who would go on to win 17 games that season.

“I didn’t expect that to be my last at-bat,” said Miller, who had 18 appearances as a pinch-hitter that season. “We were losing [6-2 at the time] and if I was pinch-hitting in a game like that I asked Alston if he wanted me to take a pitch. He said no. I didn’t hit the first pitch but Merritt threw a rolling curve on the next pitch and I just golfed it over the left-field fence.”

Miller got announced into a game as a pinch-hitter on Sept. 27 against the Giants and was going to bat for Jim Brewer before Alston called him back and pinch-hit for him with Len Gabrielson, leaving Miller with two career homers and all three career RBIs coming on those blasts.

“I got a call that winter from the Dodgers and Al Campanis, the general manager, and Tommy Lasorda were on the line,” Miller said. “They said they were sending my contract to Spokane but they had another opportunity, a Japanese team wanted me to come play for them. I was 20 something at the time, and I didn’t run it through my head until after the fact. I had just finished the year in the big leagues and maybe someone would have interest in me if I went to Spokane.

“But I had played eight years and didn’t make a lot of money and I had a wife and a child. This was an opportunity to make more money and save most of it so do I decided to take the offer. I went with Jim Barbieri and I don’t regret it. It was a good experience;, they took good care of us and we were able to sock away some money that wouldn’t have if I were in Spokane.”

Miller hit .249 with 79 homers and 222 RBIs in three seasons with the Chunichi Dragons. He also had a chance to hook up with a Major League franchise in 1973 when he went to Spring Training with the San Diego Padres.

“I had a friend, Joe Moeller from the Dodgers, who was playing for [San Diego’s Triple-A affiliate] the Hawaii Islanders [of the PCL]. He contacted me and talked to the GM and said they’d like me to come to Spring Training. So, I went to Spring Training in Yuma and I was doing okay. One game I went 4-for-5 and the TV people from out in Hawaii interviewed me. The next day I went 0-for-5 and they released me.

“That’s just baseball. That’s how it worked out. They offered me a ride on the team plane to LA but I said no and took a Greyhound bus home and never looked back.”

Miller still holds his accomplishment in high regard, though. His email handle is FIRSTANDLAST and he still enjoys signing something when someone reaches out.

“That’s my career and I’m happy with it,” he said. “I’m proud that I hit a home run in my first and last at-bats.”

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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