When sitting down with a WWII vet, you never know how, or if, conversations will unfold. Some veterans have a lifetime of stories to tell, others choose not to share any of the details of the war that wiped out over 400,000 American soldiers. During my time with Robert Miller, he was gracious enough to allow me to ask lots of questions. He shared what it was like raising 4 kids in the Township, more information about baseball than I ever wanted to know, and a lesson in humility.
Robert Miller is a spunky 92-year-old who schooled me on how to use his newly acquired “smart TV”. He’s a man that has a way of bringing up baseball in every conversation, which is certainly a very unique talent. But in order to understand his love for the sport, you have to understand his childhood.
Born on June 16, 1926, a significant time in Redford history as Detroit was annexing over half of Redford. He grew up in an old farmhouse on Greenfield, with vivid memories of the Weeping Willow trees. An athletic kid, Robert showed an interest in nearly all sports. But he remembers when his dad bought him his first pair of baseball “cleats”:
“I wanted spikes but [my dad] couldn’t afford them. So they sold a little package of spikes with screws. So you took an old pair of shoes and you put them in yourself.”
A graduate of St. Mary’s of Redford in 1944, Robert played baseball, basketball, and football for the school. Standing at 6’3″, he received a scholarship to play basketball for the University of Detroit. After just a few weeks at the university he was drafted into the Army and left for basic training from Detroit’s Michigan Central Depot on October 22, 1944. As Robert was getting further into the details of his time in the military, all I could think about was how devastating it would be to be talented enough to play college ball and attend college for free, and then have it taken all away because your number got called. I mentioned my thoughts to him and he quickly replied:
“That was America then. Never complain, never bitch. We had to do what we did.”
I sat back and realized what a different world we live in now. In today’s society, there is a sense of entitlement that makes Robert shake his head.
After 3 weeks in combat, Robert was pulled from the front lines when a law was passed stating that 18-year-olds couldn’t be on the front lines. He then trained for the invasion on Japan and became a Staff Sergeant. In the spring his Command Officers asked if anyone wanted to play baseball because there was a field nearby. Robert jumped at the opportunity. He made a divisional team and was picked first for the 25th division. He laughs as he tells me that “we were boo’d by our own people because the Colonel made everyone put on their full dress outfit and root for us.”
After the War
While mustering out of the Army, Robert started shaking and sweating. He ended up with Malaria and was hospitalized for 3 weeks. But after being overseas for over 2 years, Robert finally made his way back home, returning to U of D, this time to play baseball as a pitcher. The Philadelphia Phillies wanted to sign him after his 1st year there, but Robert wanted to stick it out for at least 2 seasons. He entered the minor leagues in 1949, with 25 out of 27 starts, and then was brought up to the Phillies. He was getting paid $5,000/yr in the big leagues. To help subsidize his pay, Robert appeared in print and television advertisements for Camel cigarettes. In 1950 the young group of players, including Robert, were nicknamed the “Whiz Kids”. They won a National League Pennant and went on to play in the World Series. Robert played with the Phillies until 1958. He pitched against some pretty memorable players, including Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio, and Jackie Robinson.
To hear an interesting story about Robert during the radio broadcast of game 4 of the 1950 World Series, click here, and go to minute 11:52. When I asked Robert if that was true, he laughed and said, “No. They’d say anything for a story.”
A few years before retiring from the Phillies, Robert met Maureen Maher on a blind date. Maureen was the daughter of a Circuit Court Judge and Robert was the son of a Detroit Police Officer. They married on February 3, 1954 and then bought a home in Redford. They purchased the model home in the subdivision for $14,900, with a mortgage payment of $87/month. They stayed in this home for nearly 50 years, raising 4 children (Thomas, Robert Jr, Mary, and Patrick).
Coming Full Circle
Nearly everyone calls Robert “Coach”, a natural nickname after being the head baseball coach at U of D from 1965-2000. In 1979, Robert was inducted into the Titans Sports Hall of Fame, and in 1999 was inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame. Robert’s sons caught the baseball bug as well; all 3 played in high school. Robert Jr (“Bob”) and Patrick also played at U of D, and Patrick went on to play in the minor leagues.
Robert still occasionally gets asked for autographs. He says his favorite stadium that he played at was Wrigley Field. And the WWII medal he is most proud of is his combat medal. Here are some pictures from my visit with him: