On June 19, 1953, the Detroit Tigers signed a teenager out of Baltimore by the name of Al Kaline. He was given a reported $35,000 bonus.
Within 45 hours, the team signed another youngster, this one from Morton High School in Cicero, Illinois. He did even better than Kaline, the future Hall of Famer, receiving a whopping $65,000 bonus (although some erroneous reports had it as high as $100,000).
His name was Robert Gerald Miller, but his friends all called him Bob. He was born on July 15, 1935, in Berwyn, in the Land of Lincoln, making him less than a month shy of his 18th birthday at the time of his signing.
Overseeing the deals for both kids were farm director Muddy Ruel and his assistant John McHale. They had been given the green light by team president Spike Briggs, who was in Washington, D.C. at the time, for a fortnight of active duty in the Air Force reserve.
The Tigers were in a rebuilding mode. On the morning of the 19th, their record stood at a dismal 15-43, good for last in the American League, and there were rumors swirling that manager Fred Hutchinson was going to be given the old shove. “That’s a lot of bunk,” Briggs insisted. “Hutch can’t be blamed for what has happened to us. We are taking our raps while rebuilding, but we’ll improve.”
Kaline and Miller were expected to be a big part of that rebuilding. Miller, described as a “stylish southpaw” pitcher, said he received offers from 13 other big league clubs before biting Detroit’s bait. According to his father Frank, who was a Chicago postal employee, “We liked the Detroit park best, along with the people around it and the opportunity.”
At the time, Miller’s bonus was the second-highest ever paid by Detroit, exceeded only by the $72,000 given to catcher Frank “Pig” House before the 1949 season.
Miller was scouted by George Moriarty, who played for Detroit from 1909-15 and also managed them for two seasons in the late 1920s. “Miller’s fastball is big league variety,” he pointed out. “Most pitchers need three or four years to make it. He’ll be a regular starter long before that. The boy is rugged and he’s a competitor.”
The pitcher had thrown three no-hitters in high school, and led his team to the state high school championship in his senior year. “Miller is as fast as several major leaguers I’ve seen,” gushed Charlie Gehringer, the Tiger general manager.
But Miller wasn’t just a jock. He’d been offered a four-year scholarship to Yale University to study industrial administration. He turned it down, deciding instead to attend DePaul University in Chicago in the off-season.
Because of the Bonus Rule that was in place, the Tigers had to keep Miller on their 40-man roster for two years.
“Baseball is my life,” he said. “I believe I have a chance to become a big leaguer and Detroit is the best spot for me.” His first game was a relief stint at Shibe Park in Philadelphia on June 25. He came on to start the bottom of the eighth, and retired all three batters he faced. The Tigers lost the game, 5-2. The game was also the debut of Kaline, Detroit’s “other” bonus baby. Kaline came into the game as a defensive replacement in the bottom of the eighth, and flied out in the ninth in his first at-bat in the major leagues.
Miller’s tenure with the Tigers did not last long, however. He finished the 1953 season with an ERA of 5.94 in 13 games (one start). He spent all of 1954 with the big club, fashioning a 2.45 ERA in 32 games (one start), but by 1955, the team sent him down to A-ball, with the Augusta Tigers in the South Atlantic League.
In 1956, he had worked his way into the Tigers’ starting rotation, only to have his wrist broken early in the season by a line drive. He split time that season with Detroit and Triple-A Charleston. But following a year in the military in 1957, Miller never returned to Briggs Stadium. He pitched south of the border in the Mexican Winter League, and toiled in the minors for Detroit and Cincinnati for four seasons. Two wrist operations had taken much of the speed off of his once-imposing fastball.
He finally made his way back to the big leagues with the Reds for six games at the beginning of 1962, with an unimpressive 21.94 ERA. On May 7 of that year, he was dealt to the expansion New York Mets, along with third baseman Cliff Cook, for utility infielder Don Zimmer.
New York immediately optioned Miller down to Triple-A Syracuse, where he pitched 22 games before they recalled him in mid-July. On his first pitch as a Met, he gave up a game-winning 12th-inning home run.
The Mets played in the old Polo Grounds, their temporary home until Shea Stadium was built. Casey Stengel, their 71 year-old manager, seemed confused that he now had two pitchers named Bob Miller. To alleviate the problem, Stengel began referring to Robert Gerald Miller as “Lefty,” while Robert Lane Miller, a right-hander, he inexplicably dubbed “Nelson.”
Recalls “Lefty” Miller: “At first, I roomed with Joe Pignatano, but I had to be switched to room with the other Bob Miller because any time a phone call came to the hotel, the caller would say, ‘Let me talk to Bob Miller.’ The operator would ask, ‘Which one?’ They’d say, ‘The pitcher with the Mets.’ It got to be a little crazy.”
Both Bob Millers appeared as contestants on the same episode of the television show To Tell the Truth. Following the usual format of the program, a panel of three contestants began the night by each saying, “My name is Bob Miller and I pitch for the New York Mets.” A panel of celebrities then peppered them with questions, trying to catch them in a lie, because the whole premise, of course, was that only one of the contestants was the real Bob Miller; the other two were supposed to be imposters. At the end of the show, the host dramatically asked, “Will the real Bob Miller please stand up?” Both righty and lefty Miller stood up and said, “My name is Bob Miller and I pitch for the New York Mets.”
Naturally, this caused confusion in the studio audience, which wasn’t in on the joke that there really were two Bob Millers who pitched for the New York Mets. To add to the bewilderment, the third contestant proceeded to stand up and say, “My name is Bob Miller and I pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies.” This was the same Bob Miller who was born in Detroit, went to St. Mary’s High School, and attended the University of Detroit Mercy, before pitching ten years for the Phillies.
Bob Miller (Robert Gerald Miller, of Berwyn, Illinois, that is) finished with a lifetime record of six wins and eight losses in 86 games with the Tigers, Reds, and Mets.
Al Kaline, the more-inexpensive bonus baby, went on to gain 3,007 hits, including 399 home runs, in 22 years in the Motor City.