John Miller did not waste his life dwelling on what could have been, though a bum shoulder kept his baseball dreams from coming to full fruition.
The Baltimore native used his sharp slider to win a dozen games for the Orioles and earned a World Series ring as a part-time starter on the 1966 team. After shoulder woes robbed him of his fastball, he found a different way to serve his hometown as a Baltimore County firefighter for almost three decades.
Mr. Miller died Friday of congestive heart failure at Carroll Hospital. The Mount Airy resident was 79.
“He was a super-humble guy,” said his son, John E. Miller III of Marriottsville. “He would tell you stories if you asked him, but you would never have known he played pro baseball. He was proud to have been a fireman for 28 years; he pitched for the Orioles for five. I don’t think he had any regrets.”
Mr. Miller’s former teammate and longtime friend Boog Powell admired the ease with which he transitioned to life away from baseball. He was a stoic figure who could crush your hand in his massive grip, but his empathy exceeded his strength. In later years, they would reunite to go crabbing and share a few beers on Mr. Miller’s boat.
“Nothing ever changed between us,” Mr. Powell said. “It was like we were still teammates, even though he had a whole other life after we got through with our thing. He was a hard worker and … really cared about friends and other people.”
Former teammate Jim Palmer, a fellow pitcher, remembered Mr. Miller’s biting slider, mastery of pitching and kind, understated demeanor.
“You talk about a quiet guy — John hardly ever said anything,” Mr. Palmer said. “We had so many different characters … and John was just genuinely nice and good-hearted. He could pitch, he had a great slider and I looked at him as somebody I wanted to emulate.”
Mr. Miller’s attraction to the Orioles began long before he pulled on the team’s uniform for the first time in 1962.
In a 2011 interview, he recalled standing in a crowd of 350,000 as Baltimore greeted its new major league team at the beginning of the 1954 season. Amid the floats and brass bands along Pratt Street, the 12-year-old from Irvington thought: “That could be me one day.”
Mr. Miller’s father, John Sr., worked as a foreman for Arundel-Brooks Concrete, and his mother, Loretta, was a homemaker. His sister, Joan Dale of Severna Park, said he aspired to be an outfielder as he climbed the ranks of the city’s recreation leagues. But Orioles scout Walter Youse watched the powerful young man throw one day and insisted that he pitch.
“A couple teams were after him, but his dream, from little up, was always to be a Baltimore Oriole,” Mrs. Dale remembered.
Mr. Miller grew into a 6-foot-2 fireballer for Edmondson High School, and Mr. Youse snapped him up with a $10,000 contract, signed the day of graduation. Mr. Miller made his major league debut at age 21 and pitched 27 innings for the Orioles between the 1962 and 1963 seasons.
He made it back to the big club in 1965 and posted his finest season, going 6-4 with a 3.18 ERA over 16 starts. With the Orioles on the rise under manager Hank Bauer, he set himself up to be the team’s fourth starter behind Dave McNally, Steve Barber and Wally Bunker.
Shoulder pain intervened, and Mr. Palmer moved up in the rotation.
“I thought I was going to Triple-A, and John would’ve been one of the regular starters,” said Mr. Palmer, who was 4½ years younger than Mr. Miller. “In those days, you got hurt and somebody else got a chance. I just happened to be there.”
Mr. Miller made 16 starts for the Orioles in 1966, a few of them spectacular, but he struggled to a 4-8 record with a 4.74 ERA. He did not pitch in the club’s World Series sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
He pitched just six innings for the Orioles in 1967 before his hometown club sold him to the New York Mets. He never faced a single batter for the Mets; at age 26, his right shoulder was toast.
“Those were good times,” Mr. Miller said, looking back on his career in 2011. “I just wish I could have survived [the injuries]. Back then, you threw as hard as you could and you took your chances that your arm would hold out. Some did. Mine didn’t.”
He told his son he never pitched in the big leagues without some pain in his shoulder, which popped for the first time shortly before he was called up.
Despite that rotten luck, Mr. Palmer never heard a word of bitterness or regret when he ran into his teammate in later years.
“You’d talk to John, and it never affected his personality,” Mr. Palmer recalled. “He was the same guy I met when he was healthy and pitching well and maintaining an ERA around three runs a game. A lot of people live that life of ‘I could’ve been a contender.’ But it never seemed to bother John.”
Mr. Miller left baseball behind to become a Baltimore County firefighter for the next 28 years, driving Truck 13 out of the Westview station. He painted houses on the side to help put three children through Catholic school.
Mrs. Dale said her brother grew up around firefighters and lived his second dream when he moved from the camaraderie of the Orioles clubhouse to the camaraderie of a firehouse.
“It was perfect for him,” his son recalled. “He was always looking to help someone. He was a simple man who was happy doing what he did.”
Mr. Miller never played up his status as a former Oriole, though he kept up with his old team on television and worked with the pitchers at Mount Saint Joseph while his boys attended school there in the 1980s. His shoulder still hurt when he threw warmups.
He retired in 1999 to a life of fishing and golf at the Rattlewood Course near his home in Mount Airy. He played his last round eight days before he died.
In addition to his son and his sister, Mr. Miller is survived by his wife of 53 years, Judy; another son, Christopher Miller of Bel Air; his daughter, Jill Tolle of Ellicott City; and seven grandchildren.
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Mass and burial services will be private.