After playing regularly for the Pittsburgh Pirates at second base for three seasons and first base for two, Dots Miller became the quintessential utility man, spending time at every infield position for the Cardinals and Phillies during the last seven years of his 12-year career in the majors. In 1915 Ring Lardner picked Miller as the utility man on his personal all-star team. “When you’re picking utility guys, you want fellas that does that for a livin’,” wrote Lardner. “The best utility infielder I know anything about is Jack Miller. You can’t call him a regular. He’s in the game everyday, but he don’t never play the same place two days in succession. They’re a’scared he might get thinkin’ the game was monot’nous and quit.” A lifetime .263 hitter and widely respected baseball man, Miller was just embarking on a second career as a manager when he tragically fell sick and died at age 36.
John Bernard Miller was born in New York City on September 9, 1886, the fourth of eight children of Josephine Collins and John Mueller, a German immigrant who anglicized the family name on arriving to the United States. Shortly after John’s birth, the Millers moved to Kearny, New Jersey, a suburb of Newark. In the 1890s Kearny was a thriving community made up mostly of Scotch and Irish immigrants who worked in the thread mills. The first record of Miller playing baseball is with a team from nearby Caldwell, but it wasn’t until he began playing shortstop for Kearny’s Parkway Athletic Club that he developed into a star. In 1908 he caught the eye of Larry Rutlon, the manager of the Easton team in the Atlantic League. Miller abandoned his day job as a stained-glass installer and signed his first professional contract. His performance with Easton was impressive enough to garner the interest of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who purchased his contract in midseason and assigned him to the Ohio-Pennsylvania League with McKeesport, just outside of Pittsburgh.
Playing shortstop as a property of the Pirates could be seen as a dead-end proposition in the Deadball Era, but Miller performed well enough to be brought up for a workout with the big club late in the 1908 season. When Honus Wagner was late reporting to spring training in 1909, Miller received his first extended opportunity to display his talents to Fred Clarke and the rest of the Pirates. The 22-year-old shortstop made all the plays, and soon the other Pirates began calling him “Hans,” or “Hans No. 2.” After Hans No. 1 finally arrived in camp, a reporter asked him, “Who’s the new kid?” Wagner replied, “That’s Miller.” The reporter, misunderstanding, listed the young infielder as Dots Miller. Henceforth John Bernard Miller, sometimes known as Jack, sometimes Barney, was now and forever known as “Dots.” In an era of colorful nicknames, Miller had one of the best, acquired quite by accident.
Despite initially sharing the same position, Miller and Wagner also shared their German heritage and they quickly became best friends, with Honus often joining Dots on his visits home to Kearny. Soon they were side by side on the field, as well. A few games into the 1909 season Miller replaced the slumping Ed Abbaticchio as the Pirates regular second baseman. Typically batting fifth or sixth in the lineup, the rookie drove in 87 runs, third best in the National League, while batting a respectable .279. Miller’s defense was even more impressive; he led all second basemen in assists, total chances, and fielding percentage. New York Giants manager John McGraw even told several reporters, off the record, that Pittsburgh’s double-play combination was the best in the league. In that fall’s World Series Dots batted .250, driving in four runs, two of them in the decisive Game Seven victory over the Tigers.
In 1910 Miller fell prey to the sophomore jinx, as his batting average dropped to a woeful .227 and he drove in just 48 runs. But despite his poor on-field performance, Dots’ personal life flourished. Along with his brother-in-law and business partner, Joe Gunderman, Miller opened the Parkway Tavern in Kearny, an impressive establishment that featured a bar, a catering hall, a card and billiard room, a bowling alley in the basement, and apartments on the second and third floors. Born and raised in one of those apartments was Dots’ nephew Jack Tighe, who went on to manage the Detroit Tigers in 1957-58.
The following year Dots returned to his rookie form with 78 RBIs and a career-best 82 runs scored, but the Pirates once again failed to challenge for the pennant. Much of the team’s failure was blamed on an anemic offense, particularly a lack of production from the first-base position, manned that year by the uninspiring trio of Newt Hunter (24 RBIs in 65 games), Bill McKechnie (.225), and John Flynn (.203). To fill the breach in 1912 the club turned to Miller, whose soft hands helped him dig out low throws and whose 5’11½” figure presented infielders with an ample target. Playing 147 games at first base, Miller responded with another solid offensive campaign, batting .275 with 87 RBIs. In 1913 he was even better, ranking second in the NL in triples (20) and fourth in RBIs (90) and total bases (243). But while Miller thrived, the Pirates floundered. Their 78 wins that season marked their lowest total since 1899.
In 1914 Barney Dreyfuss worked a deal with the Cardinals that altered his roster dramatically, sending Miller, Chief Wilson, Hank Robinson, Cozy Dolan, and Art Butler to St. Louis for Bob Harmon, Mike Mowrey, and Ed Konetchy. As it turned out, Miller rivaled Konetchy as the most valuable player in the trade, averaging 150 games and 540 at-bats for the Cardinals over the next four seasons. Some have speculated that his inclusion in the deal may have been prompted by an off-season scandal: according to press accounts, Dots became involved with a married woman and was implicated in the ensuing divorce suit. Whether that contributed to his departure from Pittsburgh is unknown, but his indiscretion scared away neither the Cardinals nor Pearl Thoroman, whom Dots married later that same year.
Helping the Cardinals improve their 1913 win total by 27 games, Miller quickly won over both the fans and his new teammates. In addition to batting .290 with 88 RBIs, he displayed the defensive versatility that soon became his trademark, splitting time between first, second, and shortstop. Over the next few seasons Dots played every infield position, and eventually he was named captain of the Cardinals. After the 1917 season St. Louis manager Miller Huggins left to join the Yankees and Dots Miller was rumored as his likely replacement. Cardinal president Branch Rickey chose Jack Hendricks, however, and Miller ended up voluntarily enlisting in the Marines, for whom he served overseas in 1918. Decorated for marksmanship, Dots returned from active duty in time to rejoin the Cardinals in 1919. After batting just .231, Miller was sold to Philadelphia where he spent his last two seasons as a player, befriending a talkative outfielder named Casey Stengel. Decades later, the Old Professor would recount tales of Uncle Dots in his heyday to Jack Tighe when he was managing the Tigers. Miller finished his playing career in style with the last-place 1921 Phillies, batting .297 while splitting time between third, second, and first base.
After the season Dots Miller accepted a job managing the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. In his first year as a manager he guided the Seals to the 1922 PCL pennant. Still only in his mid-30s, Miller appeared to have a bright future. His managerial career was tragically cut short partway through the 1923 season, however, when he was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis. Dots returned immediately to Kearny. After one week at home, he was sent to the tuberculosis retreat at Saranac Lake, New York, in the Adirondack Mountains. The mountain air, theorized the doctors of the day, could aid in what was termed the “cold weather cure.” In reality there was no cure for tuberculosis in 1923. With his family at his bedside, Dots Miller passed away on September 6, 1923, three days shy of his 37th birthday. His body was returned to Kearny where he was buried in North Arlington Cemetery.
Note: A slightly different version of this biography appeared in Tom Simon, ed., Deadball Stars of the National League (Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, Inc., 2004).
For this biography, the author used a number of contemporary sources, especially those found in the subject’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.