Rich Szlosek: The Northampton ballplayer who went far: Stu Miller

Last modified: Monday, September 08, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — Sunday afternoons were always the best time of the week when I was growing up in Northampton in the late 1940s. It seemed like there was always somewhere to go or something that had to be done on that day.

My family would go to visit my maternal grandparents’ farm in Hatfield every other Sunday and on the alternate ones I would often spend the afternoon at a baseball game. Back then many area towns had teams made up of local athletes who were referred to as “semi-pro” players. I recall the Bay State AA team that played at Kearney Field, the Florence Braves based at Arcanum field and a Haydenville squad.

My cousin, Wally Novak, had been a solid catcher at Hamp High and was in demand by several teams. He played for the Bay State team which was coached by a man named Jim Cote. The star pitcher of the team was Stu Miller, the first Northampton native who would make the major leagues and who was a friend of my cousin.

Wally would let me tag along with him at many of these games even when they included road trips to Franklin or Hampden counties. I remember sometimes sitting in the back seat of a car with Wally on one side and Stu Miller on the other while I held their gloves for them.

Stu’s brother, Gordon, would drive and there would be some other player in the front. I wasn’t the batboy or anything like that but would just sit in the stands and watch the game. One time, though, I was asked to pass the hat among the spectators and another time I got a big splinter in my rear end when I took my seat in the bleachers. After that I was the “butt” of jokes for the rest of the summer.

One day in 1948, all the players were very excited. It had been announced that a group of scouts from the St. Louis Cardinals were going to hold a tryout camp at Kearney Field. I rode my bike to the field because I wanted to see what a real live scout looked like. There were over 60 players there from all over western Massachusetts and northern Connecticut. It was pretty boring to me and I left after a half hour or so. But, of course, that was the tryout at which Stu Miller was signed to a minor league contract.

Four years later, in 1952, he became a starting pitcher for the Cardinals. If I remember correctly, his first game resulted in a 1-0 shutout victory. He played for five teams and hung around the majors until 1968. His repertoire featured agonizingly slow stuff and he became a top-notch relief pitcher in the latter part of his career.

In fact he was voted Fireman of the Year in 1961 when he was on the San Francisco Giants squad and was a member of the National League All-Star team that year. They played two All-Star games that season and the first, held in the Giant’s Candlestick Park, led to an incident that made Stu a part of baseball lore.

Candlestick, situated on the bay, was known for having windy conditions. The breeze had been very strong for some time when Stu came into the game to relieve Sandy Koufax. There were two runners on base and, as he went into his stretch, a sudden gust of wind caused him to flinch his shoulders. The home plate umpire called a balk and advanced the runners but the next day all the papers proclaimed Miller had been blown off the mound — intimating that he had been practically knocked over by the wind.

Those headlines proclaimed his lasting legend and, if you Google “Miller blown off mound,” you will see what I mean. Stu actually did very well that day. In an inning and two-thirds, he struck out four hitters and was the winning pitcher. A short while later at the second All-Star game in Boston he again relieved Koufax, pitched three innings, gave up no runs and struck out five. So in two All-Star games he struck out nine, did not give up any earned runs and was the winning pitcher in one. In his career, Stu won 105 games, lost 103 and recorded 154 saves. His earned run average was 3.24 and he struck out 1,164 batters.

To the sound of deafening silence, I have suggested a few times in these pages that there should be a Calvin Coolidge statue in town. With great temerity, let me now ask if it would be possible to name one of the new athletic fields in Florence for Stu Miller?

It sure would be nice if we would start properly acknowledging our home-grown success stories.

Rich Szlosek is a retired attorney and lifelong Northampton resident. His column appears on the first Friday of the month. He can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.