During the 1909 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates won their first World Series title, winning 110 games during the regular season, then defeating the Detroit Tigers 4-3 in the seven game postseason series. The star player on that team was Honus Wagner, but his rookie double play partner that year had a helping hand in getting the Pirates to that first title.
Born on September 9,1886 in Kearny, NJ, John Barney “Dots” Miller had played just two months of pro ball before the Pirates signed him in June of 1908. Prior to signing with Easton of the Atlantic League, he had only played semi-pro ball near his hometown. He was a star shortstop for Kearny’s Parkway Athletic Club in the Fall of 1907, when the manager of the Easton club(Larry Rutlon) signed him. Miller didn’t last long in Easton as the Atlantic League folded and the Pirates quickly signed the young shortstop. For the rest of the minor league season, he was assigned to the McKeesport Tubers of the Ohio-Penn League. Miller collected 52 hits over the last 43 games of the season, finishing with a .306 average.
The Pirates were impressed with their new player and after the minor league season ended, they had him working out with the major league team, although he didn’t get into any games. Their initial plans with Miller didn’t include him starting at second base for the 1909 team. In fact, when he reported to Spring Training early, he was playing shortstop in place of the late-arriving Honus Wagner. Jack(as he was often referred to in the papers) was performing so well during Spring, that when Wagner arrived, they moved Miller over to second base in the place of Ed Abbaticchio. The move was significant in that a rookie was replacing a veteran player the Pirates had paid a huge price to acquire just two years earlier.
It was said that Miller being of German descent, hit it off right away with the Flying Dutchman. Wagner was known to visit Miller quite often in Kearny during the off-season for stays at his Dukes St residence. As a side note, the house Miller grew up in was still in the family up until just three years ago. Wagner took the young player under his wing during that rookie season, helping his transition into major league life.
The nickname of “Dots” supposedly came from Honus Wagner and his thick German accent. The story goes that a reporter asked him who the new shortstop was in camp and Wagner replied “Dot’s Miller”, though he was actually saying “That’s Miller” and the nickname stuck. My own recent research found out the actual story, which was sort of similar to the old story, it just doesn’t have the famous player attached. What the old story also got wrong was that Honus Wagner skipped Spring Training that year and was staying in shape by playing on a basketball team in Pittsburgh.
The “Dots” nickname was attached to Miller at a very young age due to his own German accent. As a child, he said “Dot’s mine” every time he wanted something and his own family called him Dots since he was a small child. No one on the Pirates knew the nickname until they visited the Baker Bowl in Philadelphia during his rookie year. His family and many friends from Kearny showed up, with everyone calling him Dots, which immediately became his big league nickname as well. Prior to that, he was sometimes referred to as “Honus the Second”, or just Jack/John.
During the 1909 season, Miller played 151 games, all but one of those at second base. He batted either fifth or sixth in the lineup during the season. When he was in the fifth spot, it was right behind two Hall of Famers, Wagner and Fred Clarke. That rookie season he hit .279, third on the team behind Wagner and Clarke, and Miller drove in 87 runs, trailing only the 100 RBI’s tallied by Wagner. He finished ninth in the league in hits(156), fifth in total bases(222), fourth in triples(13) and third in both RBI’s and doubles with 31 two-baggers. In the field, he was just as strong despite the move to a new spot. He led all NL second baseman with 426 assists and his .953 fielding percentage ranked second in the league.
His second season with Pittsburgh looks like a sophomore slump, though he was slowed all year by an early season leg injury. At one point he was sent home(begrudgingly) to rest. He quickly rejoined the team, but never got going and finished the year with a .227 average in 120 games, with 48 RBI’s.
Miller was back to his rookie season form in 1911, batting .268 with 51 walks, 17 stolen bases, 78 RBI’s and a career high 82 runs scored, in 137 games. In 1912, his job with the Pirates took on a new role, playing first base.
Pittsburgh had trouble filling first base ever since Kitty Bransfield was traded away after the 1904 season. They went through a large group of first baseman over the next seven years, but when a young infielder named Alex McCarthy showed enough promise to play everyday, manager Fred Clarke decided to move Miller. While he was a strong defensive fielder in all aspects, he was recognized as being above average at catching the ball. With Wagner at shortstop taking most of throws at second base, Miller never ranked near the top in putouts. The move seemed like a natural one at the time, and Miller took quickly to first base.
In 1912, Dots played 148 games, hitting .275 with 87 RBI’s and 72 runs scored. He finished fourth in the league in doubles, tenth in triples and seventh in RBI’s. The 1913 season was even better, as he finished with a career high of 90 RBI’s, also setting personal bests with 20 triples and seven homers, while playing 154 games. Miller finished eighth in the NL MVP voting. What happened next turned out to be a surprise and the initial reaction surrounding it, turned out to be wrong.
On December 12,1913, the Pirates traded Miller, along with star right fielder Chief Wilson and three other players, to the St Louis Cardinals for three players. The Cardinals gave up their star first baseman Ed Konetchy in the deal, but wouldn’t make the deal without Miller coming to St Louis to take his place. The Pirates wanted Konetchy bad, but they also wanted to keep Miller and move him to another spot in the infield. It was said at the time that they Pirates got the best of the deal, but that turned out to be far from true.
In his first year with the Cardinals, Dots hit a career high .290, with 88 RBI’s, finishing fifth in the NL MVP voting. It was said by many at the time, especially those around St Louis, that he was the best first baseman in the league. Konetchy on the other hand, played just one season with the Pirates, and his numbers on offense didn’t approach those put up by Miller.
It was with St Louis that Jack received one of his highest praises. The Cardinals had no trouble moving him around the infield wherever he was needed, playing him often at his three positions he had experience at, as well as seeing time at third base. A well-known sports writer at the time named Ring Lardner, named Miller to his All-Star team, calling him the best utility player in baseball.
In 1915, Dots hit .264 with 72 RBI’s, 73 runs scored and a career high of 27 stolen bases. He played two more years with St Louis in the super utility role before enlisting in the Marines in September of 1917. His offensive numbers had dropped off a little during his last two seasons before his military duty, but he still played everyday. In 1916, he led all NL first baseman in fielding percentage. It was said at the time, there was a chance he could’ve been the manager of the 1918 Cardinals, replacing Hall of Fame manager Miller Huggins.
After missing the entire 1918 season, Miller returned to the Cardinals for one more season. He was sold to the Phillies in January of 1920 and spent his final two seasons in the majors as a backup infielder, seeing time at all four spots. He played 1589 major league games, hitting .263 with 715 RBI’s, 711 runs scored and 1526 hits. With the Pirates, he hit .266 with 390 RBI’s and 347 runs scored in 710 games. Jack played 737 big league games at first base, 681 at second base, 111 at shortstop and 68 at third base. He had 127 sacrifice hits with the Pirates, eighth most in franchise history.
After his major league career ended in 1921, Miller moved on to manage the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. He was there two years, winning the PCL pennant in 1922, his first season with the team. He also played the last 12 games of his pro career that season. In 1923, he was again leading the Seals towards another pennant, when he became ill in August. He had contracted Tuberculosis and was sent home to rest. Dots was sent to a retreat in Saranac Lake, NY by doctors who thought the area would help him recover, but he never did, passing away just shy of his 37th birthday. His nephew Jack Tighe, was the manager of the 1957-58 Detroit Tigers