In mid-July of 1897, a Louisville team headed for an eleventh-place finish in the twelve-team National League gave two youngsters the chance to prove themselves against major league competition. The first, a 21-year-old pitcher, made his major league debut on July 15th; the second, a 23-year-old outfielder, first appeared four days later. Though it is only speculation, one can imagine the two rookies being drawn together during their three weeks as teammates. If so, it would only accentuate the divergence of their lives that followed. The outfielder was converted to shortstop and earned election to the Hall of Fame’s inaugural class — he is Honus Wagner. While Wagner was gaining immortality, his erstwhile teammate faded into such complete obscurity that only recently have the most rudimentary details about Bert Miller’s life come to light.
He was born Herbert Alexander Miller in rural Riley (near DeWitt), Michigan, on October 26, 1875, the second son of Alexander Herbert and Susan Brudell (Coheon) Miller. Alexander Miller was a farmer at the time of Bert’s birth, but shortly thereafter he moved the family to Woodland, Michigan, and eventually became a minister. His father’s new profession didn’t keep Bert from getting in trouble from time to time; he and a companion were the first two people to be fined for riding their horses too fast through the main street of the neighboring city of Lake Odessa. (Lake Odessa Wave, September 1, 1893)
Reverend Miller died in 1893, and with Bert’s older brother William already married, Bert became his mother’s primary means of support. He worked as a typesetter and also found time to play for the town’s baseball team, soon emerging as its star pitcher. During that spring and summer of 1894, he led Woodland to a long skein of victories against larger towns and became known for some signature habits. After allowing several runners to reach base, “Kid” Miller would smirk and then either strike out the side or make use of a devastating and controversial pickoff move to eliminate one of the base runners. And if his pitching exploits were not enough to win the game, he would deliver a game-winning hit.
At first annoyed, the bigger towns were soon clamoring for Miller’s services, and by August he was pitching for Nashville, Michigan. (Nashville News, August 10, 1894) He began the 1895 season with Nashville, but soon proved too good for his competition and was loaned to teams representing Hastings and Kalamazoo for important games, including two memorable contests against the famed African-American touring team the Page Fence Giants. (Coincidentally, future teammate Wagner was meanwhile playing in Adrian, the headquarters of the Page Fence Giants.) He also had his first experience with minor league baseball, playing five games for Kalamazoo of the Michigan State League.
Bert Miller went to Hastings to stay in June of 1895, spending the rest of the season and the start of the next one playing for that city’s semipro club. In July of 1896 he left the team for unknown reasons, with a note in the local paper indicating that several of his friends were concerned as to his whereabouts. The local team didn’t miss him, however, as Hastings resident and former National League star “Lady” Baldwin came out of retirement to take his place. (Hastings Banner, June 25, 1896)
In 1897, Miller signed to play for New Castle, Pennsylvania, in the Interstate League, but that deal fell through and he instead joined Kalamazoo’s entry in the Michigan State League. (Hastings Banner, April 29, 1897) The local paper marveled at the ability of “Little Miller” to strike out opposing batters. The Kalamazoo team folded in late June, and it was announced that Miller was to join Louisville in the National League. Then word came that the Kalamazoo team would be revived under new ownership, and its players began to compete again. But when it became clear that the new owners intended to move the team to Flint, Bert Miller jumped ship and headed to Louisville. (Kalamazoo Telegraph, coverage of 1897 season, especially April 23, July 2 and 15)
His major league debut on July 15, 1897, saw Miller facing future Hall of Famer Amos Rusie, who, although only 26, was already the winner of over 200 major league games. Any chance Miller had was ruined by six Louisville errors behind him, but he did pitch a complete game and even managed a single off the great Rusie. It was his only major league start; in three subsequent relief appearances he was hit hard and was released to New Castle.
In 1898 he pitched for New Castle until mid-July and then joined the Youngstown, Ohio, team in the same league. But his season was plagued by arm troubles that jeopardized his career. He spent the winter in Woodland and in February expressed optimism that his pitching arm was on the mend. (Fort Wayne News, February 18, 1899) Unfortunately, matters proved otherwise. In brief stints with Dayton and Wheeling of the Interstate League and an unaffiliated club in Stratford, Ontario, in 1899, he was unable to regain his old form.
Bert Miller married a young woman named Alice Cattell in 1900 in Lake Odessa, Michigan. The marriage record lists his occupation as baseball player, but aside from a few appearances with an independent club in Clarksville, Michigan, there is no indication that he pitched that year. And that seems to have been the end of his once-promising baseball career.
Bert and Alice moved to Grand Ledge after their marriage, where Bert’s older brother William lived, but then Bert left for parts unknown. Nothing more is known about Bert Miller’s life until 1917, when he was remarried in Lansing to a widow named Rose Neuffer and became the stepfather to her three children. Bert and Rose initially settled in nearby St. Johns, but after that his whereabouts again became difficult to trace.
Some years ago, I started trying to unravel this mystery and was able to locate one of Rose’s grandsons. He informed me that he remembered Bert living with him around 1931 on Shepard Street in Lansing, which amazed me since that was the street on which I then lived. But his impression was that Bert had left his wife around that time and that Rose’s family did not know what became of him.
Now back to square one, I next traced the descendants of Bert Miller’s brother William. William had died in 1912, but one of his grandchildren recalled that Bert lived with her parents one summer, probably 1932. She told me that it was the height of the Great Depression, but Bert convinced her father to try to sell fish door-to-door. The business proved short-lived, with the two men soon losing the automobile that had been their only capital, and Bert then left for parts unknown. As far as she knew, he had never contacted the family again.
My pursuit of Bert Miller stalled at that point, but several years later I located a promising listing in a listing of deaths in Flint, Michigan. I ordered a death certificate and discovered on it the same birth date and birthplace that I had already gleaned from county birth records. Bert Miller, it turned out, had been reduced to transient status by the Depression. In 1936, he arrived in Flint, the town that he had shunned so many years previously to take his shot at major league glory, and registered with the local transient bureau. Apparently homeless, he died at Flint’s Hurley Hospital on June 14, 1937.
Contemporary newspapers; censuses, city directories and vital records; interviews with several descendants.