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[Home Runs]

May 5, 2019

Hugh Atkins

Last month, Lane Thomas of the St. Louis Cardinals joined an exclusive group of Major League Baseball players by hitting a home run in his first big league at-bat. Since 1900, fifty-one American League players have hit home runs in their first plate appearance, and Thomas became the 67th National Leaguer to do it.

Two members of the Hall of Fame – Earl Averill and Hoyt Wilhelm – christened their careers with home runs. Wilhelm, a pitcher, homered on April 4, 1952, and then played 21 years without ever hitting another one.

© T.C.G.

Bob Nieman of the St. Louis Browns in 1951 and Keith McDonald of the St. Louis Cardinals in 2000 are the only two players to hit home runs in their first two big league at-bats.

At the other end of the spectrum, since 1900, fifty-three players have hit a home run in the final at-bat of their careers. Most baseball fans know that Ted Williams put an exclamation point on the end of his career by slamming his 521st round tripper. Williams and Mickey Cochrane are the only two members of the Hall of Fame to wrap up their playing days with home runs.

Remarkably, one player managed to hit a homer in his first big league at-bat and also homer in the final at-bat of his career. On September 11, 1966 John Miller of the New York Yankees made his Major League debut and homered in his first at-bat. Four years later, Miller was playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers when he hit a home run in what ended up being his last hurrah. Making Miller’s accomplishment even more remarkable is the fact that he hit only two home runs in his entire career.

“I don’t remember that, but I’m sure it happened,” Miller said of his feat.

Miller appeared in six games with 23 at-bats for the Yankees in 1966. In addition to his home run, Miller managed only a single in his other at-bats to finish the year with a batting average of .087. In the spring of 1967, the Yankees traded Miller to the Dodgers, and he spent the next two seasons in the minor leagues. Miller made it back to the big leagues in 1969, and on September 23 of that year hit his second career home run in what turned out to be his final at-bat. The final numbers for his career were two home runs, three RBI’s, and a .164 average.

© T.C.G.

“I was in the on-deck circle in the last game of the season, but the guy in front of me made an out,” Miller said. According to the box score from that game, Miller was to pinch hit for pitcher Jim Brewer in the bottom of the 11th inning against lefty Ron Bryant of the San Francisco Giants. But when the Giants brought in righty Don McMahon, the Dodgers countered with lefty-swinging Len Gabrielson as a pinch hitter for Miller.

An unexpected circumstance during the off-season sealed the deal for Miller’s odd achievement.

“I had a falling out with the general manager, Al Campanis, and during the winter, they were going to send my contract back to Spokane, which was their Triple-A club, or I had an opportunity to go to Japan,” Miller said. “At that point, I wasn’t making a lot of money, so I took the opportunity to go to Japan.”

John Miller’s unique accomplishment just might stand forever. Every time a player completes his first at-bat without a home run, the record survives. And most players are not thinking about retirement in the midst of a home run trot.

(All statistics are from baseball-reference.com and baseball-almanac.com; all game details are from retrosheet.orgThe quotes from John Miller are from my telephone interview of June 22, 2010.)

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