When I first began collecting baseball cards as a kid back in 1974, it quickly became apparent that the Topps Chewing Gum Co. had a bit of a problem with quality control. Not that I understood what that term meant, exactly, but the baseball cards themselves were often off-center, of varying degree of glossiness and / or brightness, and sometimes included print-spots that resembled extra-large zits on player’s faces.
To my young mind, worse than any of the above grievances was the issue of coming across the same faces numerous times, pack after wax pack. Try as I might to come up with a Johnny Bench or a Reggie Jackson, invariably I would pull a Ray Fosse, a Jack Brohamer, or a Tom House.
Or, most frustratingly, for (literally) my money, a Norm Miller.
Norm Miller was a backup outfielder for the Atlanta Braves. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Miller, age 28, was entering his swan-song season in the Majors. He broke in with the Astros in 1965 at age 19, but whatever the Astros first saw in this presumably hustling teenager, the bloom had long since faded from this particular flower.
The less sagacious Atlanta Braves, however, appeared to believe that there was still reason enough to carry Miller’s light bat at the end of a thin bench. From that vantage point, at least Miller got to witness firsthand Henry Aaron’s final assault on Ruth’s home-run record. There are worse ways to earn a living.
Perhaps subconsciously I was also coming to terms with the realization that, an aspiring outfielder myself, and also part of the vast and influential Clan Miller, I might also never amount to anything more than a backup outfielder with underwhelming statistics.
Miller’s citrus-smile mocked me throughout the last half of the ’74 school year, and the entire baseball season. He looked like a man who wasn’t exactly a ball-player, but was happy enough to be wearing one of those uniforms, anyway. His non-threatening, every-man demeanor was as reassuring as it was distressing. Suppose I should strive and aspire to someday be someone — a man of note — only to be revealed to all the vast public as an impostor?
From mid-March, when I began collecting baseball cards, Norm Miller became the one constant in my life. He followed me into my sleep, and into my dreams. I was shagging fly balls in a perfect pasture of an outfield, when a Braves bullpen coach shouted at me to get off the field, grab a broom and start sweeping the dugout. Ralph Garr mocked me as he sauntered over to the batting cage. Johnny Oates flicked dirt from his cleats onto my little corner at the end of the bench.
Doubles, we called them. Whenever you got two or more — it didn’t matter how many — of a certain card, we called them doubles. I think perhaps some people still do.
In school, Miller became the answer to some of my math problems. 12×12? No sweat. That’s the pile of Norm Miller baseball cards on my bedroom floor. If Norm Miller traveled on a train from Atlanta to Cincinnati at 15 miles per hour, and if Rowland Office was traveling from Atlanta to Chicago at 25 miles per hour, and you knew that Miller was going to go 0-4 with two strikeouts in the second game of a double-header, how many times would you play him for the rest of the year?
For my eleventh birthday in May, a Norm Miller birthday cake, not a Billy Miller birthday cake, should have been set on the table for all the children in my neighborhood to enjoy, each little candle a bat splinter from his Louisville Slugger.
Once, I even got two Norm Millers in one pack. I’m ashamed to admit I began littering the ground that summer with unwanted Norm Miller cards on my way home from the A&G Market, my local grocery store of choice. I wanted to ask Ann and Gus why they kept sticking Norm Miller cards in every single pack they sold me, but I was too young and still too intimidated by adults to be so rude.
If you were to dig up any section of asphalt on Bridgeport’s west end, I’m confident that even today, you would turn up a soiled and battered Norm Miller baseball card, his smile forever fixed on whatever it was he was focused on at that particular moment in his life. Had he just finished a nice pancake breakfast? Were his eyebrows clipped just the way he liked them? Was there a cute girl waving at a player behind him, and he mistakenly thought she was a fan of his?
Norman Calvin Miller, I estimate that you owe me at least $12.50 for all the dimes I spent on you back in the summer of ’74, and I won’t even figure in inflation. When you read this, and I know that you are still keeping tabs on my life, please leave the envelope full of dimes on the top of my bureau at my old address in Bridgeport. I’m confident that it’ll find me.
In his final career at bat, on September 16, 1974 at Candlestick Park, Norm Miller, pinch-hitting against Giants pitcher Jim Barr, struck out. I like to think he went down swinging, for all of us.