SABR

Otis Miller

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

Otis Miller’s father, Henry Miller, may have mellowed with age; he started with the hard stuff, and then moved over to softer beverages. Henry’s parents both had come to the United States from Germany. Henry was the proprietor of a saloon in Belleville, Illinois, according to the 1910 census, but ten years later he was listed as a dispenser of soft drinks. (Of course, by then Prohibition was in effect, so the aboveboard selling of alcoholic beverages was illegal.)

Otis had been born in Belleville on February 2, 1901, to Ellen (Frick) and Henry Miller, the fifth of six children with an unusual array of first names: Stella, Lilly, Hobart, Dewey, Otis, and Lester. By 1920, Otis was working as a timekeeper in a foundry and playing amateur or semipro baseball on the side. That year, all the Millers besides Ellen and Lilly had jobs: Stella was the manager of a lumber company, Lester worked as chauffeur for a lumber company, Hobart was the chauffeur for a grocery, and Dewey was a commercial traveler for a grocery. Otis had attended the Belleville public schools for eight years of elementary study and three years at Belleville Township High.

Otis’ professional baseball career began in 1922; he had five years in the minor leagues before he made the big time. He started out as a shortstop for the Saginaw Aces in the Michigan-Ontario League, a Class B, eight-team league in which Saginaw finished third. Miller played in 130 games and hit for a .322 average, with 11 home runs. For the next four years, he played under manager Dan Howley with the Toronto Maple Leafs, in the Double A International League. The team was competitive each of Miller’s first three seasons, and then won the I.L. pennant by eight games in 1926, with a 109-57 record. Miller’s average had been an up and down affair: .240 in 1923, then .328, 258, and finally .345 (which still ranked him only third on his own team among players who appeared in 75 or more games). He drove in 120 runs in 1926. Miller had switched to second base in 1923, but played shortstop from 1924 through 1926. He was right-handed, stood 5-foot-10 (perhaps – some contemporary sources have him two inches shorter, and his widow listed him as one inch taller), and weighed between 156 and168 pounds. In February, 1925, Miller married Viola Neubarth.

In 1927, the St. Louis Browns, who played about 20 miles northwest of Belleville, signed Miller. Toronto manager Dan Howley also made the trip; 1927 was his first year as manager of the Browns. Miller appeared in 51 games mostly at shortstop, but he also played third base in 11 games. It took him a long time to collect his first major league hit. Used primarily in pinch situations, his first game was on April 17, but he didn’t get that first hit until June 11 at Boston’s Fenway Park, in what was already his 19th game. That first hit was a double though, and he came around to score his first run. Two days later, he appeared in the starting lineup for the first time (and was 0-for-3, bringing his average down to .045). Hitting against major-league pitching was more difficult for Miller, and his average for 1927, in 76 at-bats, was .224. He drove in eight runs and scored eight runs. He had five doubles, but neither triples nor home runs.

A Christmas Eve trade sent Miller and Spencer Adams, another infielder, to the Milwaukee Brewers (American Association) for shortstop Chick Galloway, who was immediately passed from the Browns to the Detroit Tigers to complete another trade made earlier.

Miller spent 1928 and 1929 with Milwaukee. Both years were full seasons and he tabulated over 1,000 at-bats, hitting for a .314 average in 1928 and .347 in 1929 (ranking sixth in the league). He even played 17 games in the outfield in 1928, but was used exclusively at second base in ’29.

At the annual draft meeting held in Chicago on December 7, Miller was drafted by the Boston Red Sox. The “lowly Red Sox” (as they were often called at the time, reflecting the fact that they had crept out of last place just once in eight years) were under command of a new manager, Heinie Wagner, who’d taken over after three discouraging years with Bill Carrigan at the helm. The group of young Boston recruits who gathered in Pensacola for spring training in 1930 made some favorable impressions: “[W]ith a little luck the team in the making will annoy the other American League clubs to no end, and dare to hope for a baseball machine capable of restoring to Boston the glory that was hers when the Red Sox not only dominated pennant races, bit world series as well.”i Thinking the team would have any chance to be other than an annoyance was indeed a daring hope. Carrigan had led the Red Sox to two world championships in 1915 and 1916, but those days were long gone.

The January 5, Boston Globe featured a Gene Mack cartoon depicting the “scrappy keystone sacker” Miller and first baseman Bill Sweeney as players fans in Boston could look forward to watching in 1930. Both had big-league experience and hoped to stick this time. Mack wrote in an accompanying column that Miller had performed steadily at a high level: “Day in and day out his all-around work was wonderful.” Sweeney was going up against Phil Todt in a battle for the first base job, and Miller had to try and dislodge Bill Regan, who’d lost time to injuries in 1929, but “under normal conditions is one of the steadiest second basemen in the business.”ii

Miller got plenty of playing time in 1930, though more of it was at third base than at second. Bobby Reeves had been the Red Sox third baseman in 1929; he still played in 62 games in 1930, but Miller played in 83. Reeves only hit .217 (Regan hit .266). Wagner gave a number of infielders work that year. Miller appeared in 112 games and hit .286 with 40 RBIs. Two of his best days were April 27 at Yankee Stadium (4-for-5 with two RBIs) and June 10 in Detroit (3-for-4 with three RBIs). Yet, despite his efforts, Boston finished last again.

In 1931, Shano Collins became manager of the Red Sox. He moved Miller around the diamond much as Wagner had, though Miller played more games at third base than any other Sox infielder. Through early June, he was only used in pinch situations, but by season’s end he had appeared in 107 games, and he was still solid at bat: .272 with 43 RBIs.

A spiking by umpire Emmett Ormsby cut into his playing time. Miller was sliding into second base when Ormsby inadvertently spiked him, costing him two early-season weeks on the injured list. Not long after he came back, he was playing third base and a St. Louis base runner came in hard – but it was Ormsby’s spikes that got Miller once again. He reportedly exclaimed, “I know Pres Barnard tells his umpires to be right on top of the play, but he never told them to be right on top of the players!”iii

His fielding percentage was a little better in 1931. Because 1931 was the first year the team wore uniform numbers, Miller went down in history as the first Red Sox player to wear #5.

In 1932, Collins had Urbane Pickering penciled in at third base, and Hal Rhyne at shortstop. Marty McManus made a name for himself during spring training and was a candidate for second base, or third. Relegated to back-up status, Miller was considered “a strong possibility as pinch-hitter as well as handy for third base in event of shuffling about of McManus and Pickering”.iv

He pinch-hit for the pitcher in the fourth inning of an April 16 game against the Yankees at Fenway Park, and made an out. Thirteen days later, he grounded into a force play in the top of the seventh inning during a game at Yankee Stadium. Those were his only major-league at-bats of the season, and his last two in big-league ball. On April 30, the Red Sox released him to help make room for Smead Jolley, Johnny Watwood, and Benny Tate – all received from the White Sox in a trade that netted Chicago catcher Charlie Berry.

Miller was released to the Buffalo Bisons of the International League, and he gave them an excellent year. His .981 fielding percentage in 122 games led all second basemen, and he hit.327, with ten home runs. Buffalo manager Ray Schalk was rehired for 1933, and sportswriters believed Miller would be among those who returned with him as late as the end of January. But an opportunity presented itself, and Miller instead retired from the game to enter the insurance business.v

He later worked as a steamfitter, and served eight two-year terms as a Republican representative from the Belleville area in the Illinois General Assembly.vi His vote on May 28, 1959, to defeat a measure against racket picketing may have been his last.

After a month’s illness and hospitalization at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Miller died of carcinoma of the left lung on July 26, 1959, in Belleville. Surviving him was his wife, Viola, their son, Otis Jr., three brothers, and a sister.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Miller’s player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.

 

Notes

i Hartford Courant, March 17, 1930

ii Boston Globe, January 5, 1930

iii Boston Globe, September 6, 1934

iv Boston Globe, April 10, 1932

v The Sporting News, February 2, 1933

vi Bill Lee, The Baseball Necrology (Jefferson NC: McFarland & Co., 2003)

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