SABR

Tom Miller

This article was written by Richard Hershberger.

Tommy “Reddy” Miller is remembered today, on the rare occasions when he is remembered at all, for his entanglement in 1874 in one of the contract disputes endemic to the era. His other claim to fame was his untimely death two years later.

Little is known of his early life. Even the year of his birth is uncertain. The SABR Encyclopedia lists it at 1850. His death certificate, as well as newspaper accounts at the time of his death, lists his age as 24 years, placing his birth around 1852. The cemetery records list his age as 25, putting his birth around 1853.[1] A later date is more likely given the course of his career. He first attracted notice in 1871, when he likely was still a teenager. Playing with older men, he claimed to be older than he actually was. His age, as published in newspaper accounts, advanced more slowly than that of those around him, finally catching up in time for his death.

He was born in south Philadelphia. Virtually nothing is known of his family life. He was survived by a brother, William.[2] The occupation given on his death certificate was “basket maker.” In fact he was a professional baseball player with the National League St. Louis club when he died. It is tempting to suspect that this was judged too discreditable to put on the certificate, but he in fact was honored with a very public and widely reported baseball funeral. Most likely he actually was a basket maker in the offseason.

Miller began his baseball career in various junior clubs, beginning with the Logan Junior club, followed by the Keystones and the Olympics (both junior clubs, not to be confused with the more famous clubs of the same name). He first appeared in a senior (i.e. adult) club in the spring of 1871 as the catcher for the Experts, one of the best amateur clubs in Philadelphia. That summer he was recruited to the Marion Club, which was being organized by one Jack Smith, a young pitcher who set out to collect the best amateur talent of south Philly. He gathered together a group of future professionals (the most famous being James Devlin, who in 1877 would be banned from baseball for throwing games). Miller was the obvious choice for catcher.

A sketch of the Marions published the following December gives a picture both of the social character and athletic attributes sought in the day: “Personally, Miller is very quiet and gentlemanly. He is an excellent person to carry around with a club, as he is possessed of a rich tenor voice, and is au fait in the falsetto....He is an active player, being quick as a cat behind the ash, and takes fly tips in style. He is a hard, straight thrower, and an excellent batsman.”[3]

The Marion club had only a fleeting existence. That winter Smith was recruited by the Easton, Pennsylvania club. He went on over the next three years to replicate on a grander scale his accomplishment with the Marions, building the Eastons into one of the strongest (nominally) amateur teams in the country. He would recruit many of his old players, but Miller did not immediately follow him. 

Miller played the 1872 season with the Olympic Club of Philadelphia. The Olympics were an old and eminently respectable organization, but this was a troubled time for them. The old model of a baseball club was a group of young men gathering to take their exercise together playing baseball in a social setting. The days were long past, however, when such a club could also field a competitive team. They had to recruit members on the basis of playing ability. The best players were in demand, which inevitably led even supposedly amateur clubs to pay their players. The role of money with the Marions is not clear, but it is certain that Miller was a paid player for the Olympics, as were most if not all of the other players on the team. This resulted in a strong team, but the actual members longed for the old ways. The Olympics withdrew from competition after the 1872 season, continuing as a “social” club. 

Smith happily snapped up Miller, who spent the next two seasons of 1873 and 1874 in Easton. This brought him wider recognition, leading to his move to fully professional. It also paired him with pitcher George Bradley, another recruit from the Philadelphia amateurs. Bradley was brought onto the Eastons in 1874, with Smith wisely removing himself to the outfield. Bradley went on to have three years as a dominating pitcher. Miller was his battery mate the first two. 

The position of catcher was particularly difficult in the 1870s. In the early years of baseball the pitcher’s role was to deliver the ball for the batter to put in play. The pitching style was soft underhand tosses similar to modern slow pitch softball. As baseball became more intensely competitive, pitchers sped up their delivery. In the 1870s pitchers began raising the release point of their deliveries to a side arm, which resulted in faster pitches and the development of the true curve ball. The catcher had to handle these pitches barehanded, with no protective equipment beyond a rubber mouth guard. The catcher’s mask was not invented until 1877, followed by the rest of the panoply. Bradley was a fast ball pitcher, and having a reliable catcher was critical to his success. They would be recruited together, with controversial results.

Miller played a few games with the professional Athletics of Philadelphia as a late-season replacement in 1874, but his real break into the pros was that winter. A new club was forming in St. Louis. They recruited heavily from the Eastons, as the best source of unsigned professional grade talent. 

What followed involved accusations and counter-accusations, with different newspapers taking positions. It is impossible to be certain what really happened, but it appears that on October 14, 1874, Miller and Bradley were approached by a representative of the new St. Louis club. They both signed a single contract, each also signing as a witness. A few weeks later, Miller was approached by Robert Ferguson, manager of the Hartford club. Ferguson was looking to hire a change (i.e. backup) catcher. Miller told him he had already signed with St. Louis, and showed him the contract. 

Ferguson judged it flawed due to being improperly witnessed. The National Association, the governing body of professional baseball, required a witness for each party signing a contract. In Miller’s account of events, Ferguson told him

... that it was not a valid contract; that the St. Louis Club could avoid it if they wished; that if I would let him have it he would ascertain whether it was valid; that I would be a fool to go to St. Louis; that the St. Louis Club was irresponsible, and would amount to nothing; that if I went to St. Louis I would get in with a lot of roughs and thieves; that it would be very pleasant for me in Hartford; that the Hartford club would give me thirteen hundred dollars; that he would assume the responsibility and shoulder all the blame, if any should attach to me, for breaking with the St. Louis; and much more to the same purport. Believing Mr. F. to be all right and well posted to ball matters, I yielded to his persuasion and (unhappily for me) signed a contract with him for $1,300, and received an advance of $50.


Underlying the situation were two factors. First, Ferguson was an experienced baseball manager with a famously strong personality. Second, Miller was young and unsophisticated, and allowed himself to be bullied. This much is likely substantially true, but the letter goes on to more lurid matters:

Immediately thereupon the cloven foot of the tempter showed itself; for it then appeared that it was necessary to get back my St. Louis contract. To effect this purpose, I was to proceed to Philadelphia, under Mr. F’s instruction, and interview Mr. Wright, who was the Eastern agent of the St. Louis club, and to him I was to tell a pack of falsehoods coined by Mr. Ferguson and furnished me for the purpose. Mr. Wright, however, was not to be so easily beguiled, and a talk with him convinced me of my error, and showed me how craftily I had been betrayed into a disgraceful act.[4]


St. Louis attempted to remedy the flawed contract by executing a new one in the proper form, dated to November 2, before the Hartford contract. The club later claimed that they had standard printed contracts dated November 2 which all their players signed, and that this was done before they had any knowledge of Hartford’s involvement. It is possible that they regarded the original contract as a temporary placeholder, but at the very least this betrays sloppiness in the paperwork.[5] Miller, in his account, attempted to return the 50 dollars to Ferguson but it was refused. The most serious accusation was that Ferguson offered a contract backdated to October 1. In the end Miller insisted he was going to play in St. Louis. The Hartford club refused to acquiesce and determined to bring charges to the judiciary committee of the National Association:

The club intend [sic] to bring charges against Miller for the violation of the contract by singing another one with the St. Louis people, after signing a legal paper with the Hartfords, and the same time receiving fifty dollars hand money from said organization. If there be any justice in the Rules, he will be thrown out, and it is about time that there was an example made of such players.[6]


The conclusion was anticlimactic. The judiciary committee ruled that the initial contract with St. Louis was invalid and Hartford had the rights to Miller. The question of disciplinary action against Miller was dropped. In the meantime, Hartford had been looking for another suitable backup catcher having made the reasonable judgment that having a disaffected player would do them little good. They found one at the same time as the judiciary committee made its ruling. They signed William Harbridge, a Philadelphia amateur, and released Miller. He went to St. Louis, who forwarded to Hartford the $50 advance money.[7]

This dispute is characteristic of the era. It took place contemporaneously with the more famous Davy Force dispute between the Athletics and the Chicago club, and which was a contributing factor to the replacement of the National Association by the National League in 1876. The League would forestall this sort of dispute by requiring clubs to forward copies of all contracts to the League secretary, removing any questions of priority.

The irony of the Miller dispute was how low the stakes turned out to be. Hartford read the situation correctly: Miller was a backup catcher. Like today, the difference between a starting and a backup catcher often is hitting ability more than defense. No one ever complained of Miller’s defense, but his batting average in 1875 of .164 was unacceptably low. For 1876 St. Louis signed the veteran catcher John Clapp, who would bat a far more acceptable .305. Miller was retained as a backup catcher and utility infielder.

He never got into a regular season game in 1876, and so is absent from the standard encyclopedias for that year. But he was on the payroll and he traveled with the team. They were in New York in May when he took ill. He took the train to Philadelphia, where the team was headed next, to recuperate at his brother’s house. A few days later, on May 29, he died. In another characteristic of the era, the wide range of illnesses blamed included disease of the kidneys, inflammation of the bowels, and malaria.

The team had reached Philadelphia in time for his funeral. This provided the best opportunity for a baseball funeral since James Creighton in 1862. They took advantage, accompanying the body with a wreath and, in yet another characteristic act of the era, meeting to pass a resolution:

Whereas, the Ruler of the universe has seen fit to remove from our midst our late associate and fellow member, Thomas P. Miller, therefore, be it

Resolved, That we bear testimony to the manliness, honesty and courtesy that ever stamped his intercourse with us, and that it is with genuine sorrow we record his early demise.

Resolved, That we express to the grief-stricken relatives of the deceased our deep and earnest assurance of sympathy with them in their hour of affliction, and that we, his fellow-members, are admonished,

      “We too shall come to the river side,
                  One by one;
      We are nearer its brink each eventide,
                  One by one.”

Resolved, That we, his late associates, wear a badge of mourning for thirty days as a token of respect for his memory; that the secretary forward of copy of these resolutions to the family of the deceased.[8]


A less florid evaluation–one surprisingly honest about this batting–was printed in the St. Louis press:

Miller, by his unabtrusive [sic] and gentlemanly demeanor in private, and his skill on the ball field, had endeared himself to all, and the announcement of his death is all the more painful from its suddenness. Tommy was a natural ball player. As a catcher he had no superior in the profession, and his throwing to bases was superb. Were it not for his weakness at the bat, Clapp would never have superceded [sic] him. He was an especial favorite with the Directors of the St. Louis club, who admired him for his honesty, and for the faithful way in which all his duties were performed. The brilliant manner in which the plucky little fellow supported Bradley last season is a matter of records. The success of the Browns last years was due in great measure to Miller’s catching. He will be remembered as long as the National game has an existence, for his skill; and will never be forgotten by the thousands who were honored by his friendship.[9]               

The coda to Miller’s baseball career came a year later, when an audit of the club books showed that he had salary outstanding. A check was promptly forwarded to his brother for $22.50.[10]

November 17, 2011






[1] Death certificate from the Philadelphia City Archives.  Lafayette Cemetery records located in the Pennsylvania Historical Society.


[2] Death notice Philadelphia Public Record May 31, 1876.


[3] Philadelphia Sunday Dispatch December 31, 1871.


[4] Philadelphia Sunday Mercury February 14, 1875.  The “Mr. Wright” was Al Wright, the sports editor of the Sunday Mercury and an officer of the Athletic Club of Philadelphia, as well as the eastern agent for the St. Louis club.


[5] New York Clipper December 12, 1874, December 26, 1874.


[6] Philadelphia All-Day City Item January 31, 1875.


[7] Brooklyn Eagle March 2, 1876, Philadelphia All-Day City Item March 4, 1875, March 8, 1875.


[8] Philadelphia Sunday Mercury June 4, 1876.


[9] St. Louis Globe May 30, 1876.


[10] Philadelphia Sunday Republican April 22, 1877.
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