SABR

Frank Miller

This article was written by Bill Lamb.

Amiable but tough-minded, Frank Miller was a World War I-era pitcher who valued his own worth. At the height of his career, the hard-throwing right-hander sat out two full seasons when the Pittsburgh Pirates would not accede to his salary demands. Even a visit to the pitcher’s dairy farm in Michigan by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis could not get Frank back into uniform. Only poor milk yields and a handsome contract offer from the Boston Braves persuaded Miller to return to the majors. The re-engagement was a brief one. Two seasons later Miller retired from baseball for good, returning to the farm where he would spend the remaining 51 years of his life.

Frank Lee Miller was born in Salem, Michigan, a farming community in Allegan County not far from the shores of Lake Michigan, on March 13, 1886. He was the second of six children born to German immigrant farmer Charlie Miller (born Karl Charles Mueller in Baden-Wurttemberg, 1852-1937) and his wife, the former Caroline Slagel (1861-1940).i Frank attended the local grammar school through eighth grade and thereafter worked full-time on the family farm. A strapping youth (eventually 6 feet tall and near 200 pounds), Miller began his baseball career pitching for an amateur nine sponsored by the general store of nearby Burnips. He then pitched for Michigan sandlot clubs in Allegan, Cheshire, and Grand Rapids.ii Records conflict regarding the commencement of Miller’s professional career. Most authorities, including Frank Miller himself, place his professional debut in the Class D Northern Country Copper League, where he posted a 12-20 record for the Houghton Giants in 1907.iii Signed by scouts for the Chicago White Sox, Miller was farmed to the Green Bay Tigers of the Class D Wisconsin-Illinois League, where he went 15-8 for the 1908 season.iv

Miller began to attract serious notice after his promotion to the Des Moines Boosters of the Class A Western League. Behind yeoman work by its two hurling Franks (Frank Lange, 29-12, and Miller 24-16, over more than 600 innings combined), Des Moines captured the 1909 league crown by a .003 eyelash over the second-place Sioux City Soos. Purchased by the San Francisco Seals of the Class A (AA in 1912) Pacific Coast League, Miller spent the next three campaigns going a combined 60-58 for losing San Francisco teams, while pitching over 1,000 innings and averaging 237 strikeouts/season during those grueling 200-plus-game PCL campaigns.

After a five-season minor-league apprenticeship, Frank Miller had qualified for a shot to show his stuff – including the fastball that had earned him the nickname “Bullet,” a sweeping curve, and a knuckleball – in the big time. He also had an effective half-balk move that kept would-be basestealers glued to first base. With his contract reacquired by Chicago, Miller was making ready for his rookie season when disaster struck. Over the winter of 1912-1913, he was stricken by diphtheria and almost succumbed to a negative reaction to the administration of antitoxins.v Thereafter, Miller attempted to pitch during the White Sox’ spring camp, but the exertion only weakened his condition. At the direction of club physicians, Miller was sent home to Michigan to regain his health. After a long, but incomplete, recuperation Miller rejoined the White Sox in July. On July 12, 1913, 27-year-old Frank Miller made his major-league debut as the White Sox starter in the second game of a doubleheader in Boston. Still far from his normal self, he did not last long. In less than two innings, Frank surrendered four hits and three walks, and threw a wild pitch. By the time he was yanked by manager Jimmy Callahan, the White Sox were trailing by five runs, on their way to a 9-0 loss. Following this debacle, club management wanted to send Miller back to San Francisco to pitch himself into shape, but Miller balked. Instead, he returned home and spent the remainder of the summer regaining his strength and pitching the occasional game for a semipro team in nearby Allegan.vi

Frank resumed his professional career in 1914, going 9-13 for the seventh-place (60-89) Montreal Royals of the Double-A International League. The highlight of his year occurred in the postseason. On December 7, 1914, Frank was married to Clara Haley at her parents’ home in Chicago and began the 59-year marriage that would sustain him to the end of his life. Miller returned to Montreal the following season, posting a sparkling 15-6 record for a sub-.500 Royals team. With his minor-league record now standing at a cumulative 135-121 (.527), Miller received another chance to pitch at the game’s premier level. Auditioned by the Pittsburgh Pirates, he secured a roster spot by performing “a mighty feat” in a March 30, 1916, spring exhibition against his major-league-debut tormentors, the Boston Red Sox. Summoned to protect a one-run lead with the bases loaded and no outs in the bottom of the eighth, Miller held Boston scoreless, striking out Tris Speaker and Dick Hoblitzel to close the inning.vii Alternating between the rotation and relief work, Miller posted a 7-10 record for the 1916 season, with a fine 2.29 earned-run average and 1.064 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) in 173 innings for the sixth-place (65-89) Pirates. The next year he became a full-time starter (as well as an intermittent reliever) for a woeful (51-103) Pittsburgh club that sank to the National League cellar. Miller’s subpar 10-19 record was deceptive, as it featured five shutouts and a decent 3.13 ERA in 224 innings pitched. In the offseason, meanwhile, Frank and Clara made their home on an 80-acre dairy farm he had earlier purchased in Cheshire, Michigan.

In 1918 the fortunes of both the Pirates and Frank Miller improved, with the club (65-60) and the pitcher (11-8) each bettering the break-even mark during that World War I-shortened season. With the season ending on September 2, Frank pitched 170⅓ innings and posted an excellent 2.38 ERA and threw two shutouts. The 1919 season was much the same for Pittsburgh (71-68) and Miller (13-12), but the bond between the two was about to rupture. The end of hostilities in Europe and the return to prewar normalcy had been a boon to baseball. Fans flocked through the turnstiles in 1919 and the game stood on the verge of a decade of unprecedented popularity. To a hard-working pitcher-farmer like Frank Miller with a newborn daughter (Grace, born 1919) at home, now was the time for a generous increase in wage. Having worked the past four seasons for $3,000 per year, Miller now demanded a $5,000 salary for 1920. “I felt I had pitched well for the four years with the Pirates and deserved a raise,” he explained years later. “When they didn’t give me one, I quit and went home to my farm.”viii The Pirates then sold the defiant hurler’s contract to the Boston Braves. But Miller refused to sign with them as well, and ended up on the ineligible list.

For the next two years Miller busied himself tending his herd of dairy cows and keeping the farmhouse and various outbuildings in good repair. During the second year of his holdout, Miller received a telephone call from newly installed Commissioner Landis, who summoned him to Chicago to discuss the situation. Miller coolly informed the commissioner that if he wished to speak to him, Landis would have to come to the farm. Several days later, Landis showed up unexpectedly, hitching a ride the last ten miles from the train station on the mailman’s horse-drawn cart. Playing “Dutch uncle,” Landis tried to induce Miller to return to the game, even offering to hire workmen to perform his farm chores while he was away.ix All to no avail. But soon thereafter problems on the farm had the Millers in dire financial straits. With Landis promising reinstatement and the pitching-strapped Braves dangling a $7,500 contract, Miller ultimately capitulated and returned to the game.

Now 36 years old and pitching for another NL tail-ender, Miller went 11-13 for the 1922 Braves. He topped the beleaguered Boston staff in ERA (3.51), strikeouts (65), and wins (11, tied with Rube Marquard), while his 200 innings pitched trailed staff leader Mule Watson by only one. The following season, Miller, hampered by age and injury, got off slowly, not making his first appearance until May 29. By this point, there was little left in that once flame-throwing right arm and Miller was generally ineffective. With his record standing at 0-3 with a 5.17 ERA, Miller earned a save in his final major-league appearance, a 2⅓-inning stint against the Cubs on July 30, 1923. The Braves then released him, bringing his baseball career to an end. In parts of seven major-league seasons, Frank Miller had gone 52-66 (.452), with a 3.01 ERA in 1,010 innings pitched. He struck out 359 batters while walking 254, and hurled 14 shutouts. All in all, Miller had had a respectable career, particularly given the dismal teams he had often been obliged to pitch for.

After being released, Frank got home to the farm just in time to be greeted by a domestic calamity. A tramp sleeping in one of the barns had dropped a match while trying to find his way out. The ensuing blaze destroyed the barn along with the hay and grain stored inside, and killed three cows.x On a happier note, the birth of son Melvin that year made the Miller family complete. In time, Frank would change his farming operation, switching from dairy cows to the easier-to-manage and more lucrative chicken eggs production. By 1940 he had a flock of 300 White Leghorns and brought as many as 75 cases of white cherries to market each year as well.xi

In later years, Frank divided his time between farm work and his favorite pastimes: fishing, hunting, and trapping small game. He also spent time coaching son Mel, a capable high-school and semipro pitcher, and followed the major-league scene closely via the newspapers, radio, and, eventually, television. Meanwhile, Clara Miller became a part-time journalist, writing copy at 5 cents a column inch for the South Haven Daily Tribune and other local newspapers for decades.xii Frank retired from farming in 1961 but the Millers remained on the farm into old age. In late-life interviews, Frank regaled local sports reporters with stories recalled from his playing days, remembering fondly defensive plays that Honus Wagner had made behind him, naming Rogers Hornsby as the toughest batter he ever faced, and designating Hippo Vaughn, Chief Bender, Christy Mathewson, and Grover Alexander as his most formidable pitching opponents.xiii Frank remained in visible good health until stricken by a heart attack while at the farm on February 14, 1974. He was dead on arrival at Allegan County Hospital. Frank Lee “Bullet” Miller was 85 years old. Following funeral services, he was interred at Rowe Cemetery in Cheshire. Survivors included his wife, Clara Haley Miller; children Grace Miller Mount and Melvin Miller; his younger brothers, Lon and Ernest; sisters Clara Ann Kehoe and Flossie Brower; three grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.xiv All told, Frank Miller had led a long, interesting, and useful life.

 

Notes

i Sources for the biographical information contained in this profile include material from the Frank Miller file maintained at the Giamatti Research Center, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, New York; US Census data; and certain of the newspaper articles cited below. Frank’s siblings were Henry (born 1883), Clara Ann (1888), Flossie (1891), Alonzo (Lon, 1892), and Ernest (1899).

ii As per late-life profiles of Frank Miller published in the Allegan County (Michigan) Photo-Journal, December 15, 1971, and the South Haven (Michigan) Daily Tribune, January 22, 1972.

iii An unidentified statistical record for Frank Lee Miller contained in his file at the Giamatti Research Center traces Miller’s professional career to 1905, where he is credited with posting a 12-3 record for the Duluth White Sox of the Class D Northern League. For the 1906 season, this same document gives Frank Miller an 8-13 log with the Wausau Giants of the Class D Wisconsin State League. But Baseball-Reference attributes this 8-13 record to a Wausau pitcher named Jacob Miller, not Frank. To further complicate matters, Baseball Reference and The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball (2nd ed., 1997) both posit an otherwise unidentified Frank Miller of Wausau as the pitching percentage leader (14-2, .875) of the 1907 Wisconsin State League. According to our subject Frank Miller (and most other baseball authorities, including the Giamatti Research Center record), he spent the 1907 season pitching for the Houghton Giants of the Class D Northern Country Copper League.

iv As per the Giamatti Research Center record for Miller. Baseball-Reference agrees that Miller pitched for Houghton in 1907 but provides no statistical data on his pitching performance. Baseball-Reference additionally places Miller with the rival Rockford Reds of the Wisconsin-Illinois League for part of the 1908, again providing no data on his pitching but crediting Miller with a .143 BA in 38 games combined between Green Bay and Rockford.

v As reported in Sporting Life, April 5, 1913. See also Sporting Life, April 15, 1916.

vi As recalled by Miller in the South Haven Daily Tribune, January 22, 1972.

vii Sporting Life, April 8, 1916. More than 55 years later, Miller would remark, “Everything good for me started with that Red Sox game in spring training.” See South Haven Daily Tribune, January 22, 1972.

viii South Haven Daily Tribune, January 22, 1972.

ix As recounted in an undated letter by Clara Miller contained in the Miller file at the Giamatti Research Center.

x Letter by Clara Miller, Giamatti Research Center.

xi As per a circa 1940 article from the Grand Rapids Press contained in the Frank Miller file.

xii Letter of Clara Miller to Hall of Fame research assistant Christy Zajack, dated June 13, 1988.

xiii South Haven Daily Tribune, January 22, 1972.

xiv As per the obituary published in the Allegan County News and Gazette, February 21, 1974.

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