Tight batting races are usually decided by one or two hits throughout the course of a long season. In the closest batting race in National League history, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Albert Pujols edged Colorado’s Todd Helton .3587 to .3585 to take the batting championship in 2003. Before that, the closest race in league history occurred more than 90 years earlier. In 1911 Pittsburgh’s Honus Wagner won his eighth crown by beating Phillies outfielder Doc Miller .3340 to .3328.
This race was decided by a protested game in May of that season between Pittsburgh and the Chicago Cubs. When the protest was upheld, Wagner’s 0-for-4 day was erased from his season statistics. Had those four at-bats counted, Wagner’s average would have fallen to .331 and Miller would have won the batting title instead. Wagner of course, was a future Hall of Famer, and is still considered one of the best major-league players ever. Doc Miller on the other hand, quit baseball three years later to begin practicing medicine.
The 5-foot-10 inch, 170-pound left-handed-hitting outfielder was described as “heady, ambitious, and unconventional.”1 He was unusual for his time because he not only had attended college, but earned a medical degree during the offseasons while still playing ball. He often clashed with team owners over his contract and on more than one occasion used the threat of quitting baseball and beginning his medical practice as leverage to increase his salary.
Largely forgotten today, at one time Miller was mentioned in the same breath as Wagner, Cobb, and Lajoie as one of the game’s best hitters. The back of his 1912 Cycle Cigarettes card calls him “one of the best natural batsmen the game has ever known.” After Miller retired, sportswriter Hugh Fullerton wrote “(W)hen you get down among ballplayers and ask them about hitters, a lot will declare that Doc Miller was the best they ever saw.”2 Later in his brief career, when Miller’s defensive deficiencies limited his time in the outfield, he was unquestionably considered the top pinch-hitter in baseball.
Roy Oscar Miller was born on February 4, 1883, in Chatham, a small community in southwestern Ontario just east of Detroit. (Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins is also a native of Chatham.) His parents were Robert and Elizabeth Miller, both Canadian natives of Scottish ancestry. Roy was the youngest of five children; he had three older brothers and an older sister. His father was described in one source as a “prosperous local merchant” but died when Roy was young.3 In the 1891 Census of Canada, when Roy would have been 8 years old, his mother, Elizabeth, was described as a widow raising the five children alone in the household.
Roy attended local public schools and graduated from Chatham Collegiate high school. He enrolled in the University of Toronto, earning a bachelor of arts degree in 1907. Meanwhile he had begun pitching and playing shortstop and outfield on local semipro and sandlot teams and soon attracted the attention of professional scouts.
Miller began his career in Organized Baseball in 1903 with Manchester, New Hampshire, in the Class B New England League where he hit .225 in 25 games. One of his teammates also went into the medical profession after his baseball career ended. Moonlight Graham, who later practiced in Chisholm, Minnesota, was made famous by the movie Field of Dreams. There is no evidence the two men were friends, but it is reasonable to think they may have discussed their interest in medicine at some point.
In 1904 Miller was a member of the Denver Grizzlies in the Class A Western League, but no batting statistics could be found. In 1905 he returned to the East and split the season between the Binghamton Bingoes and the Syracuse Stars in the Class A New York State League, where he hit .257 in 64 games with both teams. In 1906 Miller moved down to the Class C level in the Northern Copper Country League. He hit.278 in 14 games with the Calumet (Michigan) Aristocrats and Fargo, North Dakota.
There is no record of Miller playing professional baseball in 1907; it is likely he was back in Ontario finishing his college degree and beginning his medical studies. The next year he was back in the Western League, this time with Pueblo, Colorado, batting .273 in 102 games. Through his first five minor-league seasons, Miller’s offensive numbers (.263 average with little power) were rather pedestrian, but he had a breakout year in 1909 that served as a springboard to the major leagues.
Miller started the season with Pueblo again and was hitting .367 when he was acquired by the San Francisco Seals in midseason. His debut was delayed by a week because he first had to return to Toronto to take some medical exams. For the Seals he hit .347 in 60 games. Miller showed some extra-base power as well, rapping 25 doubles, 8 triples, and 12 homers for both teams. Even though he had only 219 at-bats with the Seals, he was recognized as the Pacific Coast League batting champion. Miller was personally signed by Chicago Cubs manager Frank Chance in the offseason while the latter was in Southern California looking after some business interests.
Miller attended spring training with Chicago in New Orleans in the spring of 1910. The Cubs thought so much of his bat that they briefly considered moving him to the infield, where it was thought he could unseat either Joe Tinker at shortstop or third baseman Harry Steinfeldt. He made the Cubs’ Opening Day roster and made his major-league debut with a pinch-hitting appearance on May 4 against the Pirates in Pittsburgh. That would be Miller’s only at bat with the Cubs; on May 13 he was traded to the Boston Doves for pitcher Lew Richie. He settled in as the Doves’ regular right fielder and had a solid rookie season, batting .288 in 130 games. Slow foot speed was one of the reasons given for Miller’s poor defense (11 errors and a .951 fielding average) but in his defense, right field was a notorious sun field at Boston’s South End Grounds.
Originally the Red Stockings, and then the Beaneaters, when George Dovey owned the Boston National League franchise the team was nicknamed the Doves. After Dovey died, the team was sold to William Hepburn Russell and renamed the Rustlers. They would go by that name just one season, 1911, before becoming the Braves the following year. Russell hired longtime Boston baseball icon Fed Tenney to manage the club, but the 1911 Rustlers were one of the worst teams in major-league history, finishing with 44 wins and 107 losses, 54 games behind the pennant-winning New York Giants. Maybe the only highlight that season was 44-year-old Cy Young’s 511th and final win, a 1-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates on September 22.
Despite the team’s dismal performance, Miller had an outstanding season. He led the National League with 192 hits (tied with Brooklyn’s Jake Daubert) and singles (146), and as mentioned earlier, his .333 average was second in the league. His 36 doubles were second and his 91 RBIs were fifth best. He stole 32 bases. Though Miller was a notoriously poor outfielder, he had 26 outfield assists, fourth best in the National League. It is not clear if that signified a strong left throwing arm, or the fact that he was making a lot of plays on balls he should have caught in the first place.
What made Miller’s season even more remarkable was that he quit the team in mid-July, claiming he had not been paid a bonus promised him by Boston owner Russell. At the same time his teammate, shortstop Buck Herzog, was fined by manager Tenney for “indifferent playing,” so on July 15 both men left the club.4 A few days later Miller and Russell met, and when the owner promised to seek trades for his unhappy players, Miller rejoined the team.5
Russell was able to trade Herzog to the New York Giants but couldn’t complete a deal for Miller. Frank Chance, the Cubs manager, expressed some interest in having Miller return to Chicago, and John McGraw of New York discussed a swap that would have sent outfielder Mike Donlin to Boston for Miller. A six-player blockbuster with Cincinnati was also briefly on the table, but none of these deals could be completed, and Miller finished the season in Boston.
Deserved or not, Miller had a reputation as a selfish ballplayer, more concerned with his batting average than team success. In the midst of a hot streak in June 1911 when Miller briefly led the National League in hitting, Chicago’s Chance was asked if he now regretted trading him the previous year. Chance said that he did not and went on to say that Miller often swung at pitches with the count 3-and-0, and he had no use for such a player. Miller’s response was, “Well, we haven’t a chance, so I might as well look out for myself.”6
Miller started the 1912 season in Boston and was hitting .234 in mid-June when the team was finally able to arrange a trade, sending him to the Philadelphia Phillies for outfielder John Titus. Miller blamed not having felt well all season as the reason his hitting and fielding had dropped off.7 With the change in scenery, his production increased and he hit .288 in 67 games the rest of the season for the Phillies. He was back in Philadelphia the next year but Gavvy Cravath beat him out for the right-field job and he was used primarily as a pinch-hitter.
By this time Miller had earned a well-deserved reputation as an outstanding hitter but a liability in the field. When he played for San Francisco, the team owner, Frank M. Ish, remarked, “Miller was a terrific batter but very weak in the field.”8 As early as 1910 Chicago sportswriter Ring Lardner thought Miller would be best suited as a pinch-hitter. He wrote “Doc Miller’s slugging ability is likely to win him a home. He appears to be a natural born hitter.” But Lardner also said “(H)e wouldn’t be a white elephant on the manager’s hands if he were retained only as a substitute batter.”9
Sportswriter Fred Lieb, describing a 1914 game, wrote, “(Miller) should shoot the man who called him an outfielder. … Whenever a ball was hit to right field the Doc would run around in circles. Everybody on base always scored.”10 Sporting Life also chimed in, saying “In navigating the outer gardens, Doc’s movements were as majestically graceful as a freighter loaded to the waterline. …”11
By late August of 1913, Miller reportedly had 17 pinch-hits in 35 at bats, and had been “instrumental in winning seven games for his team that would have been otherwise (lost).”12 Overall, his 20 pinch hits (in 57 at-bats for a .357 average) that season were the National League record for 19 years and were the top mark for the Phillies organization for 95 years until Greg Dobbs had 21 pinch hits in the Phillies World Series championship season of 2008.
After the 1913 season Miller was placed on waivers by Philadelphia. When he was not claimed, manager Mickey Dooin sold him to Montreal of the International League. Even though it would be nearer his Canadian home, Miller refused to return to the minors and announced he would retire from baseball and enter a medical practice with his brother in California. At this point Cincinnati owner Garry Herrmann, who had tried to acquire Miller after his brief strike in 1911, entered the picture again. Knowing that Miller was also being pursued by Baltimore of the Federal League, and that Miller’s threat of retirement probably was nothing more than a negotiating ploy, Herrmann was able to persuade Miller to sign with his club.13
In 1914, in what would be his final major-league season, Miller hit .255 for Cincinnati. He played only 50 games in the outfield but made 44 pinch-hitting appearances. Still considered the top pinch-hitter in the National League, he went 12-for-34 (he drew eight walks and had two sacrifices among his 44 plate appearances) for an average of .353. Cincinnati released Miller in February of 1915, but by this time he had fully committed to medicine, and he had no desire to continue his baseball career.
Miller finished with a .295 career batting average over five seasons (1910-1914). Complete box score and play-by-play data is unavailable, but he played in only 425 games in the outfield (committing 32 errors) among his total of 557 games played. It is believed he had 39 pinch hits in 120 at-bats (.309) over his career.14
In 1916 Miller began taking postgraduate courses at the Cornell University Medical School in New York City, and later opened his own practice, becoming a specialist in skin diseases and cancer. Apparently despondent over the death of his wife, Addie, two years earlier, he committed suicide by jumping from a third-story window on July 31, 1938, in Jersey City, New Jersey. He was 55 years old. He was cremated and interred at North Bergen (New Jersey) Garden Crematory. He and his wife had no children; he left no descendants. Miller was posthumously inducted into the Chatham Sports Hall of Fame and the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.
1 Chatham Sports Hall of Fame website.
2 New York Evening World, April 25, 1919.
3 Chatham Sports Hall of Fame website.
4 “Boston Players Go On a Strike,” Washington Times, July 17, 1911.
5 “Herzog and Miller Return to the Fold; Russell Pardons Baseball Rebels,” Boston Journal, July 19, 1911.
6 “No Place With Cubs for Man Who Disregards Team Work,” Denver Post, June 11, 1911.
7 “Phillies Trade Titus to Boston for Doc Miller,” Washington Times, June 22, 1912.
8 Portland Oregonian, May 28, 1911.
9 Topeka (Kansas) Daily State Journal, March 19, 1910.
10 Fred Lieb, “Why the Phillies Finished Second,” Baseball Magazine, February 1914.
11 Sporting Life, February 6, 1915.
12 Fergus County Democrat (Lewiston, Montana), August 26, 1913.
13 “Herrmann Winner in a Player Deal,” Harrisburg (Pensylvania) Telegraph, February 14, 1914.
14 Paul Votano, Stand and Deliver: A History of Pinch Hitting (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2003): 40.