Anyone who is a student of our national pastime, San Francisco or meteorology knows that a gust of wind blew scrawny yet effective junkball pitcher Stu Miller off the mound during the 1961 All-Star Game at Candlestick Park. That highly localized squall resulted in perhaps the most famous balk call in baseball history, contributing to a game-tying ninth-inning rally by the American League.
Miller, in the midst of a great year in relief for the Giants, eventually got the win, along with a (literally) blown save.
But while he was never perceived as the protagonist of a Grade A baseball tragedy in the manner of Ralph Branca, Bill Buckner and Johnny Pesky, the image of Miller being whipped about by Candlestick wind pixies, a veritable plaything of the elements, was forever cemented in the public’s imagination. And though Miller twice led the league in saves and ended his 16-year career with a stingy 3.24 ERA, there was never any doubt that upon his passing, the Candlestick incident would feature prominently in any obituary.
And so it was on Monday, when news came that the 87-year-old had died at his Sacramento-area home. The headline in the New York Times was typical:
The best description of Miller I ever read comes from “The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book,” by Brendan C. Boyd and Fred C. Harris:
Stu Miller thew the ultimate banana ball. You had time for a Coke and sandwich while waiting for his fastball to arrive. His pitches took so long to get up to the plate in fact that they occasionally even appeared to be going backward. Watching him from behind the third base dugout was guaranteed to make your palms itch and your seat squirm. You wanted to hightail it on down to the bat rack and have a rip at the little guy yourself. It was all an optical illusion of course. You couldn’t have hit him and neither could very many real ballplayers. His pitches may have looked like custard pies on the way up to the plate but they had a tendency to disappear when they arrived.
It all caught up with him in the 1961 All-Star Game, though.
While pitching into the aberrated air currents of San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, he became the first pitcher in modern baseball history to be blown off the mound by a gust of wind. Stick that in your old ephus ball Stu. You little bundle of meaningless motions.
Miller, needless to say, grew tired of such ribbing, and the fact that entire generations of baseball fans were going to picture him being lifted off the mound like "The Flying Nun." In 2007, when the All-Star Game returned to San Francisco for the second time since 1961, the 79-year-old former hurler attempted to set the record straight. From the Associated Press at the time:
A calm day had turned windy, some of the harshest gusts Miller saw in the three years that Candlestick was his home park while he played for the Giants. He remembered Harvey Haddix chasing his hat as it was buffeted around the infield and the flags nearly blowing off the poles.
"Just as I was ready to pitch, an extra gust of wind came along and I waved like a tree," he said. "My whole body went back and forth about 2 or 3 inches. The AL bench all hollered balk. I knew it was a balk, but the umpires didn't call it at first. I went ahead and threw the pitch and [Rocky] Colavito swung and missed. The umpire then took off his mask and motioned the runners to second and third."
In an article about the incident on the Giants' website, Miller minimizes the effect of the wind even more:
"Before I threw a pitch, I went into a stretch position and then there was an extra gust of wind and I just wavered a bit," Miller said. "... I don't think any of the fans knew what happened. They were probably wondering why the hell did those runners move up."
Miller told AP that the event was decidedly overblown. Uh, underblown....
The next day in the paper there was a banner headline: 'Miller Blown Off Mound,' " he recalled. "They couldn't have made it any bigger. They made it out to be like I was pinned against the center-field fence. It wasn't about Mays scores winning run but 'Miller Blown Off Mound.' "
The Elusive Truth
But Don Zimmer, who also played in the game, remembered it differently:
"(Miller) was a little guy. He might have been lighter than a guy like [Greg] Maddux. I remember him going backward to throw a pitch and he just kept going. With the wind, Candlestick could do that to you."
I don’t know about you, but one of my first uses of the greatest information tool ever known to humankind was to type “Stu Miller Candlestick wind video” into a search engine. Alas, as it turns out, the game wasn’t televised, resulting in an inconvenient lack of visual evidence.
In 2005, in an attempt to get at the truth, blogger and author Jay Roberts researched the incident. He wrote that the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner accounts of the game credit Miller himself with the explanation that the balk resulted from the wind blowing him off the mound. Per Roberts:
"'The wind blew me off the mound,' Miller declared," wrote Charles Einstein of the Examiner.
"Even Miller of the hometown Giants, explaining a late inning balk, said he was actually blown off the mound," noted Art Rosenbaum of the Chronicle.
It should be mentioned here, however, that a New York Times account of the game that is almost entirely devoted to the effect of the wind on the players made no mention of the balk.
So would anyone have even noticed the wind's contribution to the infraction had Miller not talked about it himself?
Blogger Roberts went so far as to purchase the radio broadcast of the game, called by Jimmy Dudley and Jerry Doggett. He writes the exact play-by-play description of the balk:
“Miller out of the stretch. And now takes a long look and delivers. Time has been called as the batter swings on and missed. Sam Landis called time. He might have called a balk. Landis called a balk on him. Miller had hesitated in his swing and a balk is called.”
No mention of the wind. No description of Miller being moved off the mound like so many discarded candy wrappers.
So the Stu Miller incident remains in that hazy realm where memory, exaggeration and the desire for the best possible story come together to forge baseball lore.
Miller was philosophical about his place in history and the fact that he’d forever be remembered not for a great pitching career, but as a symbol of the ferocious Candlestick winds.
"I guess that’s better than ‘Stu Who?' " he said in 2007. "I’d rather be remembered for something."