Card Corner: John Milner

When you find a quality card in an appealing set, it becomes paradise for the true collector. That’s how I feel when I first see John Milner’s 1980 Topps card. Unfortunately, feelings of nirvana soon give way to sadness, as I begin to consider the subject matter of the card.

John Milner, 1980 (Icon/SMI)

On the surface, the Milner card has a slew of strong attributes in its favor. Photographed during the Pirates’ world championship run in 1979, the picture shows Milner in a vivid and clear action shot, having completed one of his booming but silky uppercut swings. Unlike many action shots, which reduce the player’s size and scale on the card, this one provides a close-up, giving us full view of Milner’s head and face, including his trademark beard. We see his upper body, which looks particularly strong and robust. In addition, the photograph captures the bright all-gold uniform worn by the Pirates of that era, one of myriad combinations afforded by mixing and matching their gold, black and pinstriped jerseys and pants. All in all, if we forgive the absence of a star player, this is a nifty little card.

er for the Pirates in the late 1970s. Originally drafted and signed by the Mets, Milner once seemed destined for glory. When the Mets first brought him to the big leagues in 1971, they envisioned him becoming the franchise’s first superstar hitter, filling a void created by the inconsistency of Cleon Jones and the ill-fated trade of Amos Otis. As a native of Atlanta, Milner embraced the nickname of “The Hammer,” an homage to the boyhood idol who originated the moniker, Hank Aaron. As Milner began to put up impressive numbers in the minor leagues, including .321 and .330 in his first two seasons, some within the Mets’ organization held high hopes that Milner could become a left-handed version of Aaron, hitting for both power and average while showing similar patience at the plate. In retrospect, those forecasts seem like wishful thinking, but at the time, they represented the desires of an organization desperately searching for its first great star.

The new Hammer also looked great in a Mets uniform. Lean but muscular, with hardly a stitch of fat, Milner wore his form-fitting uniform perfectly. When he took his batting stance, he hung his arms and upper body over the inside of the plate, practically daring pitchers to throw him up and in. When they threw him fastballs, Milner usually devoured them–with extraordinarily quick wrists.

Looking the part of a superstar, Milner exhibited flashes of his talent. In 1972, he hit 17 home runs in 362 at-bats and placed third in the National League Rookie of the Year balloting. One year later, he hit a career-high 23 home runs and helped an overachieving Mets team to a National League pennant. In 1976, he blasted three grand slams while leading the Mets with an OPS of .806.

Yet, Milner’s game had holes. Though he feasted on fastballs, particularly from right-handed pitchers, he struggled against breaking balls, especially those thrown by southpaws. Milner also lacked a strong defensive presence, whether in left field or at first base. By the end of the 1977 season, the Mets had given up hope that Milner would become the lynchpin to their offense. Concluding that he would never surpass his status as a platoon player, the Mets packaged him with left-hander Jon Matlack in a massive, four-team blockbuster deal. In a deal that defies explanation to this day, the Mets received only a pair of journeymen, first baseman Willie Montanez and outfielder Ken Henderson. Matlack landed in Texas, while Milner ended up in Pittsburgh, playing for an upgraded Pirates team.

In contrast to his situation in New York, the Pirates only needed Milner to fill a complementary role. With stars like Willie Stargell and Dave Parker carrying the bulk of the offense, Milner could blend into the Bucs’ background. Manager Chuck Tanner wisely used him as part of a left-field platoon, where he split time with veteran Bill Robinson, while also featuring him as a pinch-hitter deluxe. Milner reached his peak during the championship season of 1979, compiling a career-best OPS of .849 while sharing time in left field with Robinson, Lee Lacy, and Mike “Hit Man” Easler, and backing up Stargell at first base. The Hammer drew 53 walks while striking out only 37 times, a remarkable ratio for a power hitter.

While Milner became a vital contributor to the Pirates’ championship run, he also contributed to an undesirable culture of drug abuse and debauchery. After his playing days ended, Milner confessed to his addictions at the infamous Pittsburgh drug trials of 1985. Testifying for the defense, Milner told stories of how he had taken liquid amphetamines from Willie Mays’ locker when both played for the Mets, and how Stargell had given him greenies during his days in Pittsburgh. Milner also revealed that he once purchased two grams of cocaine during a game, completing the illicit transaction with a Philadelphia man in a bathroom stall. That tawdry scene epitomized how desperate Milner had become in feeding his addiction.

In summary, Milner admitted to using cocaine over his last four major league seasons and giving the drug to several of his Pirates teammates. Milner’s testimony during the two trials, especially its implication of beloved superstars like Mays and Stargell, caused a stir in baseball circles. Yet, some Pittsburgh insiders felt that Milner had told only part of the story, minimizing his own involvement in the infestation of drug use. Believing that Milner himself was the root cause of the team’s drug problem, they privately charged him with bringing cocaine into the Pirates’ clubhouse in the first place and helping to spread its popularity among the other players.

In the aftermath of the drug trials, Milner became a pariah in Pittsburgh. He was never invited back to Three Rivers Stadium, not even for celebrations commemorating the Bucs’ world championship season of 1979. In some ways, he became a less infamous–and unofficial–version of Pete Rose.

Sadly, Milner’s post-baseball fortunes only worsened when he was diagnosed with lung cancer, an illness that attacked some of his contemporaries, like Mark Belanger, Bobby Bonds, and Dave McNally. Like them, Milner saw his health worsen. On January 4, 2000, John Milner died. He was just one week past his 50th birthday.

In many ways, I feel badly for Milner, whom I liked as a player. He never achieved his full potential, at least based on the Mets’ scouting reports. He became an outlaw with the Pirates, even though it was self-inflicted by his decision to hand out drugs in the clubhouse. And then he saw his life shortened, apparently because of a long-term smoking habit.

Suddenly, I don’t feel so good about this baseball card anymore. I want to, but it’s hard, knowing the fate that awaited this player. As John Milner could have attested, life doesn’t always imitate baseball cards.

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  1. browngoat said...

    Interesting look back on Milner.  I did not realize that he was blamed for the “drug culture” in Pittsburgh.  One question:  Have Mays or Stargell ever addressed Milners accusations of providing drugs?  Every where I have looked, I see Milners statements but no response from Mays or Stargell.

  2. Walt in Maryland said...

    I’ve never heard or read of Mays addressing the “red juice” stories many have told about him.

    As for Stargell, Milner can discuss it with him personally.

  3. gdc said...

    Both Henderson and Montanez had big years earlier in the 70’s and were about the same age as Milner.  Montanez had been the Braves rep in 1977 ASG and had once been traded straight up for Garry Maddox.  Ken Henderson had been one of the top players for the White Sox just a few years before and was another of the Giant’s farm system outfield diaspora like Bobby Bonds, Garry Maddox, Gary Matthews (Sr.), Larry Herndon, George Foster that filled MLB during the 70’s.  Henderson seemed to me to be sort of like Rick Monday but he played for the Giants and White Sox rather than the A’s and Cubs.  Too bad he didn’t finish up with the Angels to make the analogy complete.  But then he probablay would have had to save the Confederate flag.

  4. glenn-troy ny said...

    I sent a fan letter with a Topps card to Milner in ‘73..He was kind enough to autograph it & send it back..was sad to hear of his passing at such a young age..

  5. Bruce Markusen said...

    Browngoat, to the best of my knowledge, Mays has denied using amphetamines (i.e. “red juice”), saying that he never had any need for it.

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  7. Peter said...

    I truly believe John Milner’s recurrent hamstring problems undid his rising career in 1974 through 1976.  Despite his sad story, he will always be my favorite player.  He was kind enough to send me back an autographed 73 card too!
    RIP John.

  8. Mark Mariniello said...

    It was the way M. Donald Grant did business in the mid-70’s. He didn’t want to pay big salaries thaT were coming to the players due to free agency.Seaver,Matlack,and The Hammer were part of that unfortunate movement.I sent John a 1973 card to get signed in 1999.It came back 2 weeks later.RIP Hammer.

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