“Big Serb” Early Hurler
in the World Series
by Michael D. Nicklanovich
September/October 1997, vol. XIV,
Field during the first game of the 1927 World Series where Miljus held
the Yankees to a single hit in four innings.
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.”
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.)
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.
went up in one of those things again.”
Back to the Big Leagues and the
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
the fateful ninth inning in which Miljus had his brush with baseball immortality.
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.
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.
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.
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!’”
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:
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.
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.
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.
here was Tony Lazzeri crouched at the plate—the Yanks last hope.”
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.
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:
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.
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.”
the Pirates would be back next year, but it took 33 years to be exact.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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this publication may be reproduced without the express written permission
of SERB WORLD U.S.A. Copyright 1997 by SERB WORLD U.S.A.