John Miljus

“Big Serb” Early Hurler
in the World Series

by Michael D. Nicklanovich

September/October 1997, vol. XIV, no. 1

Pittsburgh's Forbes Field during the first game of the 1927 World Series where Miljus held the Yankees to a single hit in four innings.


     John “Big Serb” Miljus was most likely the first American Serb to make the big leagues of professional baseball. It is said that Babe Ruth himself gave Johnny Miljus the nickname “Big Serb.”
     Miljus was on the mound for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the first and fourth games of the 1927 World Series and faced Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and other Yankee sluggers in the awesome batting lineup called “Murderers’ Row,” part of the 1927 New York Yankees team which is still considered by most to be the greatest team in baseball history. Though Babe Ruth had hit his record 60 home runs that year, Miljus, in the two and a half innings he pitched in the first game, held the mighty Babe to a single and picked him off at first.
     In the last game of the series, with the bases loaded and no outs, Johnny Miljus bore down and struck out Lou Gehrig, the American League’s Most Valuable Player with 47 home runs and 175 runs-batted-in. Miljus then proceeded to fan another member of Murderers’ Row, Bob “Long Bob, The Rifle” Meusel, the biggest and best all-around athlete of the Yankees who set records in triples and doubles and had been the 1925 American League Runs-Batted-In Champ, with 138.
     This was the high mark of Johnny’s long career in professional baseball which—with some interruptions—lasted almost a quarter of a century, from 1915 to 1939.

The Early Years

     John (Jovo) Miljus was born in the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh on June 30, 1895. He was raised and educated in the city of steel, and even in his childhood he showed exceptional athletic talent and a passion for all sports. Baseball was his favorite, as it was for all American boys then.
     After briefly attending Duquesne University, John settled down at the University of Pittsburgh where he was a major-college football and baseball star. Miljus reportedly worked in the steel mills between periods of going to school. While at Pitt and playing baseball there in the afternoons, he also played for local semi-pro teams at night and on the weekends, sometimes facing Black teams like the famous Homestead Greys.
     Miljus apparently was also outstanding in the classroom. He graduated with a doctor of dentistry degree in 1915 but never practiced. Instead, it was baseball all the way for the next twenty-five years.
     He had a hard time getting up to the majors and staying there, which was not unusual in his day. By the time he came to the Pirates just before the World Series of 1927, he had played for twelve different teams.

Up & Down in the Big Leagues

     In 1915, the major-league scout and the general proprietor of the Pennsylvania Independent League in western Pennsylvania, Dick Guy, was very impressed with Miljus and remembered: “I was never more confident about a pitcher’s future in my life... I wanted to help him get a real chance at organized ball.” That year Guy arranged for Miljus to try out for New York Giants’ manager John McGraw at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh.
     McGraw sent an old catcher named “Red” Dooin down to the bullpen to see what Johnny had. After only five minutes, he came back and told McGraw that Miljus “wouldn’t do.”
     At that time there was a third nation-wide league, called the Federal League, which was attempting to gain a place alongside the American and National leagues. Guy convinced the manager of the Pittsburgh Feds, Ennis “Rebel” Oakes, to give Miljus a tryout. Guy recalled: “...Oakes ... decided that Miljus was aces high as a young pitcher. He kept him for the rest of the season, and John was in a number of games.” The official records show that John played in only one game—the pennant game.
     The Pittsburgh Feds played the Chicago Whales for the Federal League pennant on October 2, 1915. Mordecai Brown, the “famous three-fingered miner,” was sent to the mound for the Whales and pitched the entire game. The Feds used six pitchers, one of whom was Miljus. John pitched for one inning and gave up only a single hit which did not result in a score. Pittsburgh lost to Chicago that day 8 to 5, and the starting pitcher of the Feds, Elmer Knetzer, was charged with the loss.
     In the winter of 1916, the Federal League fell apart, and Pittsburgh sold Johnny to Binghamton in the New York League. The Binghamton manager, “Red” Calhoun, sent Miljus down to the north-central Pennsylvania St. Marys’ Pros of the Interstate League. The summer of 1916 was likely a trying time for the 21-year-old Serb on the bottom rung of the minor leagues. One story from Miljus’ days with St. Marys' has survived—a reflection of a bygone era of American baseball.

The St. Marys’ Pros & the Byrnedale Miners

     In 1916 baseball was the “Great American Pastime,” and every boy and man played on some team or another. St. Marys had six baseball teams sponsored by various companies and groups. There were the St. Marys’ Professionals for whom Miljus pitched; the St. Marys’ Cubs, the outstanding amateur “town team”; and several railroad, mill, mine and factory teams.
     One of the factory teams was the Stackpole Carbon Company. H.C. Stackpole was the boss and the team sponsor, and he authorized his manager to hire several good players from the Cubs. This “ringer-stacked” team of Stackpole Carbon bested all of its competition except for the town team from the coal-mining town of Byrnedale.
     Because the men worked hard, like coal miners everywhere, the Byrnedale players were in top shape, loading at least the proverbial 16 tons per day. The powerful Byrnedale miners were great sluggers, and Stackpole Carbon had been knocked out of the ballpark by them on several occasions.
     To even the score, Stackpole “borrowed” Miljus from the St. Marys’ Pros for a double-header on Memorial Day, 1916. Those days America was loaded with talented town teams that, on any good day, could give the pros a run for their money. With Stackpole’s hopes high, Miljus started the morning game but gave up so many hits that he was “knocked out of the box” in the fourth inning by the Byrnedale muckers.

Back to the Majors

     Miljus’ impressive 1917 record of 16 and 7 with the St. Marys’ Pros led to his recall by Binghamton. For Binghamton, Miljus was a major pitcher, winning 11 and losing 6 as did his fellow-hurler Sam Frosh. Johnny’s record with Binghamton was all the more impressive, considering that he only played half the season for the southern New York team. The Binghamton club finished second to the Calhoun Coal Heavers in the New York League.
     Because Binghamton was in arrears in his pay, Miljus declared himself a free agent in July and signed a contract with the Cincinnati Reds. He never played for Cincinnati.
     Brooklyn contested his sale. They had sent catcher Mack Wheat to Binghamton on option and, in the deal, secured the right to pick any other player on the Binghamton roster. Brooklyn selected Miljus, who had not been released from his Binghamton contract. They won in the courts, and John Miljus went to Brooklyn.
     In 1917 John was back in the big leagues where he played briefly because it was near the end of the season. On September 5th, he started for Brooklyn against the Boston Braves. His first major-league start was not good. Boston won by a close score, but Miljus gave up 8 hits, walked 6, balked once, threw one wild pitch, struck a batter, and made one fielding error. He appeared in two more games for Brooklyn as a relief pitcher before the season ended.

Off to War

     Pittsburgh sports columnist John Gruber reported that John Miljus was the first major-league player “called to arms” in World War I. He was with the American Expeditionary Force in France. As part of the 320th Infantry, Headquarters Company of the Eightieth (Blue Ridge) Division, he saw especially hot action during the Argonne offensive in September of 1918. In France, John Miljus’ wartime bunkmate was Joe Harris, and they would be together again as members of the Pittsburgh Pirates team in the 1927 World Series.
     The first major attack the U.S. Army made was in the Argonne Woods, north of Verdun, against an enemy well placed in defensive positions in the difficult terrain thick with forest and underbrush. Although the Americans attacked with great spirit, their assault ground to a halt, and they took heavy casualties.
     John Miljus was wounded in action—bayoneted—and slightly gassed with mustard gas, sustaining some lung damage. The wounded were marked with colored tags: a red tag meant that the soldier was to be sent home, a yellow meant back to action. Miljus had a red tag, but he sneaked out of the hospital and rejoined his unit.
     He was in the service for almost two years and, after the war, was assigned to a military baseball team touring Europe. He pitched a no-hitter against the Canadian Army All Stars.
     Years later a reporter asked Miljus about his war experiences. Telling good stories was part of the style of professional ball players in those days, and Miljus was right up there: Miljus told the reporter a war story, but it was not about the Argonne. Instead, he recounted his first airplane ride.
     It was after a ball game, near an English airfield, when a pilot invited John to go up for his first ride. Miljus put on a parachute, listened to instructions on how to use it, and up they went: “Well, things were going along pretty good. It was a nice day, and I began to enjoy it. But all of a sudden the motor began to sound funny. Then I saw smoke and then fire. I looked around at the pilot, and he was motioning... (Miljus made the hand signs for going over the side for the reporter.)
     “Well, sir, I don’t remember whether I was excited. I looked over the side and saw the ground under there all nice and flat and green and brown. And I thought to myself, ‘Well, John, you would go riding up in the air!’
     “So I got up and hopped over like the guy said. And after a while, I pulled the cord like he said, and the bag just filled out nice, and I came floating to the ground like Elijah or some of those from heaven.
     “I never went up in one of those things again.”

Back to the Big Leagues and the Bush Leagues

     While he was still in France early in 1919, Brooklyn signed him again for the coming season. When John reported in late May, they sent him down to play for the Toledo Mudhens in the American Association.
     In his first start with Toledo against the Milwaukee Brewers on June 8th, he was sent to the showers in the 1st inning, an “inauspicious re-beginning,” but in his next game against the St. Paul Saints he held the opponents to three hits as Toledo won 3 to l.
     His all-around athleticism was an asset to the team. In addition to pitching for Toledo, Miljus played the outfield—he was an excellent fielder and thrower. Due to his speed, he was also used as a pinch-runner. By the 1919 season’s end, he had won 9 and lost 8. Brooklyn recalled him.
     He saw little action for the Robins in 1920, winning 1 and losing 0. Brooklyn was deep in veteran pitchers, and Miljus and his fellow-soldier-pitcher George Mohart were used sparingly in relief.
     In 1921 John went 6 for 3 for the Brooklyn Robins, but in 1922, after he objected vehemently to a $500 salary cut, Brooklyn sent him to New Orleans. Miljus split the 1922 season between New Orleans and Nashville.
     He played in 53 games for the two teams—only 30 on the mound. Miljus spent as much time in the outfield as he did hurling. He became a good batter, gathering 37 hits with 2 doubles, 2 triples and 2 home runs, for an average of .259.
     On December 13, 1922, John Miljus married Estelle Baden in Chicago.The groom was 27 years old and had been up and down from the majors to the minors and back several times, not an uncommon journey for the baseball journeyman of those times. John had yet a lot to learn about the art of baseball.
     Brooklyn recalled Miljus for 1923, but, before the season opened, he was released to the Rochester Broncos of the International League. In his first outing for the Broncos on April 19th, he held Newark to four hits. Rochester won 13-2.
     John continued his fine batting that season with 31 hits, 3 doubles, a triple and 3 homers, averaging .259 for the second season in a row. He went 12 and 9 for the Broncos who finished second in their league.
     After Rochester refused his request for a raise, Miljus was sent to Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the Eastern League. Again he was on the last rung, but he liked the pay and played well although Bridgeport finished in the cellar. The 29 year-old Serb won 15 and lost 13, played the outfield, and was the team’s pinch-hitter. In 46 games he made 32 hits for an average of .264.

The Turning Point

     The baseball vagabond next trekked across the country: from the Eastern League to the Pacific Coast League’s Seattle Indians. In the 1925 season John became a 20-game winner, crossing the “magic mark.” He became the team’s chief pitcher and a star. His batting average went down to .205, but each time he took the mound, the Seattle fans knew the odds were in their favor.
     Seattle was the turning point for Miljus. One sportswriter said: “...there, in the salubrious atmosphere of the Pacific Coast circuit, Big John seemed to find himself.” Another wrote: “The fresh surroundings and swelled salary aided him, no doubt, in letting out the best that was in him.” None of them mentioned the excellent coaching Miljus finally received there.
     It is true that, in his 2 1/2 years in Seattle, John developed a lifelong love of the West, becoming an avid fisherman and hunter. With his increased salary he was able to buy a ten-acre ranch with an orange grove at Hermosa Beach, California. This became his home when he wasn’t on the road, and it provided him with his first security and a delightful refuge.
     Miljus started the 1926 season poorly; he had tonsillitis. After his tonsils were removed in May, his strength gradually returned. Although he was not Seattle’s leading pitcher for the year—winning 14 and losing 13—his batting reached his career high. In 44 games, he made 34 hits for an average of .279. His hits included 2 doubles and 4 homers. Two of his home runs came in a game with the San Francisco Seals on May 7th when he had still not fully recuperated from his illness.
     Miljus came roaring back in 1927, winning 12 straight with Seattle in just half a season. On May 15th, he held the Hollywood Stars to 4 hits and beat them 5 to l, and on June 18th, he shut out Oakland 1 to 0. Against Los Angeles and Charlie Root, who later became a star pitcher for the Chicago Cubs, Miljus had a no-hitter until the 9th when a double spoiled his perfect day.
     John later credited much of his success in these years to Wade Killefer, the Seattle manager, of whom he said: “I got my tips on pitching from Wade Killefer, after they sent me back to the minors. He’s a smart baseball man, and I learned a lot of things from him they never told me while I was up in the big show.” Killefer taught him to throw the curve both ways, outside- and inside-breaking, and more.
     In addition to a still-fairly-fast fastball, at the age of 32, Miljus had the curve, the knuckle ball, the spitball and the slow ball or change-of-pace. Before he was called up to the Pirates at mid-season in July, he had won 14 for Seattle and lost only 4. He was now a master craftsman, and he was readier than ever for the “big show.”
     In his last game for Seattle on July 13th, the “crack Serbian right-hander of the Seattle Indians” was presented with a wrist watch by the Indians’ fans, and the Young Men’s Business Club of Seattle gave him a farewell dinner after the game. He left at night for Pittsburgh.

Back to the Big Show

     Pittsburgh had five double-headers coming up in a period of nine days, and one of their pitchers, Johnny Morrison, had not returned to the team after injuring his pitching hand. Pittsburgh called up John Miljus.
     Before reporting to the Pirates, John visited his parents in Lawrenceville in Pittsburgh. John’s father had just returned from the Old Country, and he reportedly was surprised to see his son. He knew that John had a good job in Seattle and property on the coast, and they say he urged John to return to the West. Johnny explained that the contracts of baseball and the rules for exchanges did not give him a choice: Pittsburgh had traded a pitcher to Seattle for Miljus.
     In the last half of the regular season, Big Serb won 9 and lost 3 for the Pirates. In the gruelling series of double-headers in mid-July, he beat the Philadelphia Phillies on successive days, going the full 9-inning route both times. This was a crucial pair of victories for the Pirates who barely beat the St. Louis Cardinals for the 1927 National League pennant by a mere game and a half.
     In the World Series, the Pirates faced the 1927 Yankees, the “greatest team ever.” They had finished a record 19 games ahead of the Philadelphia Athletics to take the American League pennant.
     America was poised for the World Series of 1927. This was the year that Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs. It was the height of the Roaring Twenties. Charles Lindbergh had crossed the Atlantic in May, and Gene Tunney had beaten Jack Dempsey in the famed “long-count” fight on September 23rd. America, in its greatest boom era, was sports-crazy.
     The Pirates, of course, came into the series as underdogs, but Americans had a reputation for rooting for those with the odds against them. Although it was improbable that the Pirates would upset the Yanks, all of America anxiously waited to see what the Babe and his “murderous” crew would do.

The 1927 World Series

     The first game of the series was played at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. Waite Hoyt was the Yankee pitcher, and Ray Kremer started for the Pirates. Kremer had a “blazing fastball,” a good curve, and a change-of-pace. This day, however, he seemed nervous and lacked control. In the third inning with the bases loaded, he made the unpardonable offense of walking in a run. Although Kremer only gave up five hits in 5 1/2 innings, the Pirates made several errors which resulted in Yankee scores.
     Babe Ruth made the first Yankee hit, a single, and scored the first New York run. With the Pirates’ mistakes in the third and a single by Ruth, the Yanks scored three runs. New York already had scored one run in the 1st and followed the three of the 3rd with another in the 5th. They were leading 5-3 when the 6th began.
     First up was Tony Lazzeri, the New York second baseman and a member of “Murderers’ Row” who was the first Italian-American superstar. He hit a line drive over Clyde Barnhart’s head for a double. Pirates’ manager Donie Bush immediately sent John Miljus to the mound in relief.
     The experts said that New York was weak against the curve, and Miljus—who was described as a curve-ball artist—showed his stuff and prevented any further Yankee scoring in the sixth. In the top of the sixth, with Lazzeri on second, Joe Dugan sacrificed to advance Lazzeri to third. New York catcher Pat Collins walked, and the Yank pitcher Hoyt hit into a double play. Pittsburgh failed to score in the bottom of the sixth.
     In the seventh Miljus struck out Earl Combs, the six-foot lead-off man of the Yankees who led the league in triples. Then Mark Koenig grounded to Joe Harris, the Pirates’ first baseman, who tossed him out at first with Miljus taking the throw and covering the bag. Ruth took a slow ball and then singled to center, the only hit Miljus would give up that day.
     When Babe led off first, Miljus picked him off, throwing to Harris who ran down Ruth after setting up the trap with Glenn Wright at second. This ended the top of the seventh.
     In the bottom of the seventh, Miljus led off for the Pirates and went down swinging. Lloyd Waner, one of Pittsburgh’s better hitters, tried to bunt but grounded out. Ruth caught Barnhart’s fly to right field.
     In the top of the eighth, Big Serb knocked down a Lou Gehrig drive to the mound and threw him out at first. Miljus then struck out Bob “The Rifle” Meusel. Lazzeri grounded to Pie Traynor at third who threw wild to first, but Harris caught it and tagged out the runner on the base line.
     In the bottom of the eighth Pittsburgh made 3 hits, scored 1 run and left 2 men on base. Joe Harris’ single drove in Wright from third. The Yankee lead was cut to 5 to 4.
     In the top of the ninth Dugan grounded out as did Collins for New York. Miljus struck out the Yankee relief pitcher, Wiley Moore, for the third out.
     In the Pirates’ last turn at bat, Fred Brickell—who batted for Miljus—grounded out. Lloyd Waner’s line drive to center went right into Combs’ hands. Barnhart’s drive off Moore’s glove was picked up by Lazzeri who threw to Gehrig at first in time for the out and the end of the first game.
     James Harrison, who covered the game for the New York Times, wrote that “...the Pirates beat themselves in a tragedy of errors.” Although they outhit the Yanks 9 to 6, the Pirates left too many men on base.
     There was high praise for Miljus. Harrison wrote: “The trouble, from the Pirates’ point of view, was that Miljus arrived on the scene too late to capitalize the maximum on his mastery. If he came into the picture three innings before, the Yanks would not have made those three runs in the third inning—not if he had pitched at 2 o’clock the brand of deceptive offerings he pitched at 3. If he had remained on the bench, he would have been available for duty tomorrow.”
     Wilbert Robinson, the President and Manager of the Brooklyn Robins, wrote for the Chicago Tribune: “When Miljus replaced Kremer after Lazzeri doubled to open the sixth, the Yanks just folded up. They couldn’t do a thing with his curve.”
     There was a note about the soldier-players on the bottom of the New York Times’ sports page. It related that John Miljus and Joe Harris had served together in France and fought in the Battle of the Argonne and added that the great battle was a lot tougher than the battle for the 1927 World Series.
     Perhaps because he had pitched in the first game, Miljus did not play in the second game, but the fans and the papers expected to see more of him soon. The Chicago Tribunefront-page story quoted Pirates’ Manager Bush’s praise of Miljus and speculated: “Aldridge will do the hurling tomorrow, with Johnny Gooch catching, but Miljus may be in there any time for a full game.” George Pipgras, a rookie from St. Paul and an Iowa farm boy, pitched the Yankees to a 6-2 win over the Pirates in the second game. The Yankees had two 3-run innings, but nobody hit a homer.
     The Yankees won the third game 8-1 in New York. Herb Pennock pitched the best game of his career, not allowing even 1 of the first 22 Pirates to face him to get on base. Pittsburgh got only one hit, while Ruth homered and Gehrig doubled and tripled in the Yanks’ greatest show of power in the series.
     Miljus saw no action in the third game either, even though he seemed to be the only Pittsburgh pitcher able to control New York. Many were surprised that he was not picked to start the fourth game in Yankee Stadium. Although Carmen Hill was the tentative starter for the Pirates in the fourth game, the Chicago Tribune urged otherwise:
     “Carmen Hill is the probable nominee of Manager Donie Bush for the tough chore of seeing that the Yanks don’t sweep the 1927 world’s series. Hill, a veteran of many seasons, has had a great year. He won 22 games during the regular season and lost 11.
     “But the experts say he’s made to order for the Yanks, and that is the reason he didn’t start in any of the first three games. This has been a tough fall for many experts, of course, but most agree on Hill’s vulnerability when it comes to going against the Yanks.
     “If Bush agrees with the theory of Carmen’s suspected weakness against New York technique, he may shoot in the bristle-haired Serbian, John Miljus. John went four innings in the first game of the series, and let the Yanks down with one hit. His performance was by far the best of any of the Pirate throwing crew, and many think he is entitled to start tomorrow.”
     Perhaps Bush had too firmly cast Miljus as a relief pitcher only. Yank Manager Millard Huggins did start relief pitcher Wiley Moore for the fourth game.
     In the first inning, Combs singled and so did Koenig. Ruth hit a single to right which scored Combs. Pittsburgh also scored one run in the first with a Wright single that drove in Waner. The score remained tied 1-1 until the fifth inning when Ruth homered driving in Combs to make it 3-1. Pittsburgh came back in the seventh with two runs to tie the score 3-3.
     Miljus relieved Hill in the bottom of the seventh after the Pirates had just caught up. Koenig hit an infield single. Ruth hit into a double play: Traynor at third to Wright at second to Harris at first. Gehrig’s fly was caught to retire the side.
     In the eighth, Pittsburgh had George Grantham at second with 2 out when the Yankees decided to walk catcher Johnny Gooch to get to Miljus. Miljus struck out.
     Big Serb held the Yanks scoreless in the eighth. Meusel grounded out. Lazzeri walked. Dugan popped up and out to Harris. Collins singled, advancing Lazzeri to third. Returning the favor, Miljus struck out the Yankee pitcher, Wiley Moore.
     Then came the fateful ninth inning in which Miljus had his brush with baseball immortality.
     In the top of the ninth Pittsburgh went down with no score, one-two-three. As the Pirates took the field in the bottom of the ninth, they knew their only hope was to hold New York scoreless and throw the tied game (3-3) into extra innings. The final responsibility came down heavily on Miljus’ shoulders and his good right arm.
     Big Serb seemed to show the strain as he walked Combs on four balls in a row. Mark Koenig then bunted down the third base line and made it to first safely. With two men on, George Herman Ruth—the Babe —stepped up to bat. The decision was made to pass up Ruth for the hardly “lesser evil,” Lou Gehrig, and attempt a force-out at home plate.
     As the balls were thrown to Ruth, he yelled: “Give me a chance!” Then he shouted: “The Buster (Gehrig) will do it if I don’t!” At the fourth ball, the Babe cursed: “Oh, you sour so-and-so!” One can only imagine how much John wanted to really pitch to Ruth, who had never had his way with Big Serb. “The Iron Horse” Gehrig stepped up to the plate.
     The New York Timescalled it “Gehrig’s chance of a lifetime,” bases loaded, no outs, a seemingly shaken pitcher, the World Series and the record book. James Harrison described the way he swung and missed the third strike as Miljus “broke a resplendent curve across the inside edge. Gehrig’s bludgeon smashed through the air—and ‘mighty Casey had struckout!’”
     Now Miljus had onlyto dispose of two more from “Murderers’ Row,” Bob “The Rifle” Meusel and Tony Lazzeri, to retire the side and go for extra innings. James Harrison described the next confrontation best:
     “John Miljus went to his task like a lion-hearted veteran. A minor-leaguer a year ago, a curve-ball pitcher who failed in Brooklyn and has kicked his way around the ‘bushes,’ he pitched like a Matthewson or a Bender in this dire moment. First he broke a curve over the outside corner, where Meusel never hits them. It was called a strike. A low, outside pitch was ball 1. Meusel lunged at a dipping curve and missed.
     “He was in a hole, was Robert, and now Miljus shifted his tactics and drove a fast ball shoulder high. Ormsby said it was ball two and the Pirates, led by Johnny Gooch, complained querulously. But it didn’t matter, for Meusel, after fouling one, swung again and missed again.
     “Miljus had risen to brilliant heights and the tone of the cheering changed now. Before the nerve-wracked spectators had clamored for a Yankee hit; now they were with John Miljus to the last man, woman and child—acclaiming the courageous stand of an obscure hero.
     “And now here was Tony Lazzeri crouched at the plate—the Yanks last hope.”
     Lazzeri hit a line drive foul to the left off Miljus’ first pitch. The next pitch went high and wide. When the catcher lunged for it, the ball glanced off his mitt and rolled quickly towards the box where Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis sat. So unexpected was the wild pitch, that the base runners froze like the hushed crowd for a moment of disbelief. Then Combs came in from third on the passed ball, and the game was over!
     It is not known whether that last pitch was a failed curve or a spitball gone awry—one report said it was moist. John never said.
     Miljus had gone from the brink of becoming an unforgettable figure in World-Series’ history to the tragic status of being the man who lost the last big game. Although nobody went so far as to suggest that John was “the man who lost the World Series,” there were attempts to portray Miljus as the scapegoat for the last game, but Pirates’ Manager Donie Bush said:
     “I can’t blame Miljus a mite for the wild pitch that lost the game. It was just the final break. Johnnie Gooch has caught worse balls in his career, although it was a very bad pitch, but the series is over, and I must give credit to the Yankees as one of the finest clubs in the history of baseball.
     “We were dead on our feet from the start. Our pitching was spotty, but the Yanks did not hit us consistently. It was just a case of too many 3 to 1 and 1 to 0 victories in the final stages of the pennant race. Before I could look forward to the World Series I had to win the flag, and in doing that the team wore out, had nothing left for the Yankees.”
     Bush said the Pirates would be back next year, but it took 33 years to be exact.
     As for John Miljus, he kept right on pitching. In the first half of the 1928 season, he won five and lost seven for the Pirates in a relief role. In midsummer, the Pirates asked waivers on him, and a clerk in the Cleveland office—in the absence of the manager and secretary—put in a claim for the 33 year-old hurler. Due to some quirk in baseball law, Miljus’ price was $16,500, more than double the usual waiver price of $7,500. The Indians tried to withdraw from the transaction, but Commissioner Landis forced them to go through with the purchase.
     There was laughter in the league, and Miljus was called the “$16,500 white elephant” and worse. His first part-season with the Cleveland Indians was not impressive. He won only 1 and lost 4 officially at the tail end of the Cleveland season, but, as in the series, he was pitching mainly relief, being called in when there was trouble.
     In the 1929 season Miljus made a comeback and became something of a mainstay on the Cleveland Indians’ pitching staff. In those days, when a player turned thirty, his days were numbered. John was 34 in 1929 though his age was often incorrectly reported as 32. In his last season in the majors, he won 8 and lost 8.
     In the meantime, he had become notorious for his last wild pitch in the 1927 World Series, and opponents frequently jeered him as “Throw-it-away-John!” But Miljus played ball, the love of his life, and then he walked away, apparently happy in his memories.
     Journalist Ralph Kelly interviewed Miljus in 1928, just after he’d joined the Cleveland Indians. Kelly knew that John had vast experience and drew on that in the interview.
     Kelly asked Miljus to name the hardest batter he’d faced. John named Riggs Stephenson, a former Indian, and said: “But there were plenty of tough guys in the National League. I never happened to have much trouble with Hornsby, but Bottomley, Frisch, Terry, Lindstrom, Jackson and old Cy Williams always bothered me. They are fellows who will look weak on one ball, yet who, when you give them another just like it, will hit it out of the park.”
     Miljus ranked Alphonse “Tommy” Thomas of the Chicago White Sox as the greatest pitcher of the times and Burleigh Grimes, the National League spitball artist, as a close second.
     In 1930 Miljus was traded to the San Francisco Seals. He was glad to be home in the West. San Francisco sold him to Seattle before the season was over. After a year, Seattle Manager Bill Klepper tried to sell John to Hollywood, but the deal was never completed. On May 5, 1932, Klepper arranged Miljus’ sale to Memphis, his last stop pitching. In 1938-39, Miljus managed the Hollywood Stars of Los Angeles in the Pacific Coast League.
     After his retirement from baseball, he worked as a security guard for the Martin Marrietta Corporation and later as an athletic supervisor for the Northrop Corporation. His love of hunting and fishing was lifelong. In 1967 he moved to Bigfork, Montana.
     After his wife Estelle died in 1969, he moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, where he had relatives. John and Estelle never had children. In 1972 he returned to Montana and stayed in the town of Polson until his death on February 15, 1976, at the age of eighty.
     Miljus was a member of the Polson Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), a Masonic lodge in California, and the Association of Professional Baseball Players of America. In his last years he often spoke about the old-timers of baseball for the Kiwanis Club and other community organizations.
     He died at Fort Harrison Veterans Hospital, and his last picture showed him propped up in bed with his baseball glove on. He was buried with Episcopalian rites. He was survived by two sisters, Nell Todorovich of Chicago and Mrs. Marie Walters of St. Petersburg, and several nieces and nephews including John and Richard Huggins of St. Petersburg and Don Miljus of Steubenville, Ohio.
     John “Big Serb” Miljus was, in all likelihood, the first American Serb to play major-league baseball and, even more likely, the first in a World Series. Although he is often remembered for his last wild pitch in the 1927 World Series, his overall performance was the best of the Pirates’ pitchers in that series: he did not allow a single earned run. There are still those who speculate that, had he started the second or third game of that series, he might have stemmed the Yankee tide.
     John was never bitter and maintained until the end that playing professional baseball had been the greatest pleasure in his life. He fondly remembered the thrill of facing the mighty Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and the others of “Murderers’ Row,” the lineup of the “greatest team of all time.” When all is said and done, he had lived much of the dream of nearly every American boy in baseball’s greatest era. John Miljus was, like Rogers Hornsby, one of the old-time baseball nomads. He had played for fifteen teams.
     Nor should it be forgotten that John Miljus was a hero of the Battle of the Argonne and returned to action when his wounds had qualified him for a trip home. He was one of those few soldier-players who had courage on the battlefield and on the diamond.

    Thanks to Dewey McKay for the idea, Don Miljus for information, and Joe Gilbride and Bruce Markusen of the National Baseball Hall of Fame for photos and research.

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