I think it was the 1973 Topps card that I saw first. Something about this guy drew me to him. Sure, I had hundreds of baseball cards as a kid, maybe thousands, but something about John Milner’s card made me keep going back. He looked like a bad-ass, all nasty glare and pork-chop sideburns (was he secretly trying to be the black Elvis?).
From that moment on I made it point to collect all of John Milner's baseball cards...and he wasn’t smiling in any of his cards. I began thinking, if I ever meet this guy in person I'll be scared to ask for an autograph because since he never smiles, he's probably mean! (There were exceptions, like his '81 card with the Bucs.) Oh, well, I guess I'll never get Milner's autograph.
Something about his batting stance made me curious as well. Straight back, butt sticking out a little, and not much movement at the plate before he swung the bat. The Hammer looked like he was made to hit home runs (though he never hit more than 20 in a season). He also seemed like he should have been swinging a sledgehammer. As if, for some reason, in the rule book he would have been the one player allowed to swing one while everyone else had to use boring old bats. I think his bat speed would have stayed the same, too. An Atlanta native, Milner was nicknamed The Hammer just like another ballplayer connected to that city, Henry Aaron.
Milner was born on December 28, 1949. He was a three sport all-star (baseball, football and basketball). Drafted by the Mets in late in the 1968 draft, he made his MLB debut in September 1971. By the next season he was platooning in leftfield with Cleon Jones. Did he name himself The Hammer (since he was such a huge Aaron fan) or did someone else bestow it on him? I think the former.
His 1972 numbers (.238 BA, 17 HR and 38 RBI) didn't land him Rookie of the Year honors but he did come in third (behind teammate Jon Matlack and the Giants Dave Radar). There aren’t many appearances for The Hammer in the record books but he did set a major league record with twelve plate appearance in a 25-inning game against the Cardinals. The Mets traded Milner to the Pirates after the ’77 season. He spent four years with the Bucs and was part of their 1979 World Series championship team. (Come on, everyone, sing it: “We Are Family!” What, Sister Sledge not punk rock enough for you?)
In 1981 The Hammer was traded yet again, this time to the Montreal Expos (for Willie Montanez, who was also part of the four-team trade that sent Milner to the Bucs a few years earlier). After a season and a half he ended his career with the Bucs yet again.
In researching the article I found out that Milner never put up the monster numbers that I thought he had when I was a kid. I feel like if he hadn’t been a reserve player he could have done so. Maybe that's just wishful thinking on my part.
During the 90’s my co-worker Steven and I passed the time by rattling off the names of obscure baseball players (“Larvell Blanks!”). Even now, on the rare occasion that we see each other, John Milner is a go-to.
So go get a card of The Hammer's out of your collection and raise it in tribute. Hey, he mattered. At least to this writer he did.
Note: During the Pirates drug trials Milner apparently admitted to using cocaine as well as red juice (a liquid form of amphetamine) that he got from, who else, Willie Mays! Also, other folks on the Pirates claimed that Willie Stargell would place pills (amphetamines) in lockers anonymously. Hey, he was Pops, right, the father figure. He was allowed to do that.