During the 1940s, Eddie Miller provided premium defense at shortstop for the Boston Braves, Cincinnati Reds and Philadelphia Phillies. His glovework earned him seven selections to the All-Star game. He was a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania native, who did some of his best work against him hometown team. It didn’t have to be that way though. Miller originally signed with the Pirates, but they gave up on him quickly, making him The One Who Got Away.
Eddie Miller had quite the start to his pro career. He was a local semi-pro player in 1933, who drew the attention of the Pittsburgh Pirates at an early age. He was working out with the team at Forbes Field in early August when he got his first taste of Major League baseball. On August 8, 1933, the Pirates were playing an exhibition game against a minor league team from Wheeling, West Virginia. The Pirates had Hall of Fame shortstop Arky Vaughan in the starting lineup, playing in his second season in the majors. He went 1-for-2 before leaving mid-game, getting replaced by Miller. At the time, Miller was three months shy of his 17th birthday. He went 0-for-2 at the plate, though he drove in a run and handled both chances in the field without issue.
That was quite an introduction the pro ball for Miller. The lineup that day for the Pirates also included Paul and Lloyd Waner, Pie Traynor, and a 59-year-old Honus Wagner coming in late at first base for an at-bat. The Pirates had the next day off as well and they used that day to get in another exhibition game. Miller remained with the team and once again he replaced Arky Vaughan late in the game. Miller went 0-for-1 and handled both chances in the field, including a double play.
By the time Spring Training of 1934 rolled around, the 17-year-old Miller was signed by the Pirates. He attended Spring Training, but he was one of the early cuts. The Pirates assigned him to Springfield (Ohio) of the Middle Atlantic League. He was one of the better hitters on the team and got praise for his all-around game, so what happened next was quite the surprise.
On September 7, 1934, the Pirates sold Miller to the Cincinnati Reds, reportedly for $1,000. He was still just 17 years old and just got finished hitting .286 in 122 games, with 22 doubles, a triple and three homers. The Pirates were obviously well set at shortstop at that time, but Miller wasn’t big league ready at that point, so there wasn’t an issue about finding him playing time.
The Pirates weren’t alone in giving up on Miller too soon. The Reds traded him away in 1937 after he hit .143 in 41 games, while making his debut in the majors three months before his 20th birthday. He was sent to the New York Yankees, who traded him to the Boston Bees (Braves) eight months later without giving him a shot in the majors. The Braves held on to him and saw immediate results.
In 1939, Miller put up a .267 average in 77 games and did so well on defense that he earned himself some mild MVP support, despite the limited playing time. By 1940, he was an All-Star, putting up a .748 OPS in 151 games, while playing strong defense. He received even more MVP support this year, even with Boston being one of the worst teams in the league. He had the fourth highest dWAR in the league (1.8) and led all NL shortstops in putouts, double plays and fielding percentage.
Miller made his third straight All-Star appearance in 1941, earning the accolades due to his glove. He led the league again in fielding percentage and double plays, while finishing second in putouts and assists. His 2.1 dWAR was third best in the league, but the best was still yet to come.
In 1942, Miller led the league with a .983 fielding percentage, his career best at shortstop. That set a Major League record for a single-season fielding percentage at shortstop. It was a record that stood until 1959. He also took over the career record for fielding percentage (SS) at this point with his .970 mark. He would improve that record by two points in 1943. Miller was an All-Star again, and once again he received mild MVP support.
Then came the 1943 season when he led the league with a 4.0 dWAR. Miller was now back with the Cincinnati Reds, where he led the league in putouts, fielding percentage and double plays. It was the fourth straight year in which he led the league in fielding percentage for shortstops. That streak was broken by a second place finish in 1944. Miller made his fourth straight All-Star appearance and finished tenth in the NL MVP voting. A 4.0 dWAR has him tied for the 19th best defensive season (at any position) all-time.
Miller followed up that huge season with a 3.3 dWAR in 1944, which ranks as a top 100 season all-time. Despite a .209 average (.558 OPS) in 155 games, he was so highly regarded on defense at the time that he got his fifth straight All-Star selection and he received some MVP votes.
While he was known more as an average hitter, Miller had quite the season up his sleeve at 30 years old. In 1947, he hit .268, while setting career highs with 38 doubles, 19 homers and 87 RBIs. He led the league in doubles. It was easily his best season on offense, though his overall value wasn’t his best because he lost a step on defense.
Miller played until 1950 and was an All-Star in half of his 14 seasons in the majors. He received at least one MVP vote in eight of his seasons. His 19.0 career dWAR has him ranked 60th among all players.
The Pirates clearly sold low on Miller and it made very little sense at the time. He was a local kid who was holding his own on offense and defense at 17 years old in the minors. They obviously didn’t need the money at that point, as $1,000 wasn’t going to do much, even back then. He needed some time to develop and once he did, he was an immediate impact on defense, while providing acceptable results at the plate from a middle infielder (he had a 13.0 career WAR on offense). The Pirates saw those results a lot, as Miller played 218 games against them during his career. He had a career .643 OPS, but while playing at Forbes Field, that number went up to .726 in 121 games.
Here are the previous articles in this series:
George Kelly (HOF)
Red Faber (HOF)
Dazzy Vance (HOF)