First Pitch: When Your Favorite Baseball Player is Obscure

Most people here know that my favorite Pittsburgh Pirates player is a somewhat obscure one, unless you really follow team history. Dots Miller played for the 1909-13 Pirates, helping them to their first World Series title during a strong rookie season. He’s probably known most for the story about how he got his nickname “Dots”, which turned out to be nothing more than a made up story.

As the story goes, Miller was a rookie in 1909 and a reporter asked Honus Wagner which player was Miller during Spring Training. Wagner pointed and said “That’s Miller”, but in his German accent, it sounded like Dots Miller.

Cute story, and one that I believed for many years, until my own research proved it wrong. Miller had the nickname since he could talk, and it was because he said “that’s” as “dots” as a kid. The nickname in baseball only caught on when the Pirates came to New York to play and Miller’s family and friends came there and they were all calling him Dots. It was reported in the newspapers the next day and stuck throughout his career.

Since Miller is obscure now, there was no reason for anyone to look into the nickname origin. I only realized it after buying some postcards he sent to family during his time with the Pirates and he signed them Dots. Seemed odd to me that a nickname he supposedly got just recently from a reporter, was the name he signed on postcards to his family. That led to the research and finally finding the article about the childhood nickname.

Miller’s my favorite player because I was born in Kearny, NJ and he was too, just a few blocks from my first house. My great-grandfather lived in Kearny and was born 17 days before Miller. They lived just a block apart at one time.

Miller’s niece married my grandfather’s cousin and they had three kids, who in turn had three kids, so there are six relatives who Miller and I have who share the same bloodlines. That’s how I became a fan of a player who played long before I was born.

Through collecting Dots Miller items, I came in contact with Martin Healy Jr, who was a big collector of another key member from the 1909 Pittsburgh Pirates, catcher George Gibson. Healy (along with a man named Richard Armstrong) recently released a book about Gibson titled George “Mooney” Gibson: Canadian Catcher for the Deadball Era Pirates. While I haven’t read it yet, I know from experience that Martin was the perfect person to write the book.

I knew a little bit of his background with Gibson, but not the entire story. It always intrigues me when someone’s favorite player isn’t one of the usual suspects. Since Martin just got done writing a book about Gibson, I figure now was the best time to explain his fondness for a player who has been retired for over 100 years. So here’s his explanation on why he likes Gibson and felt the need to write a full book on him. If you have an obscure favorite Pirates player, feel free to share your story in the comments.

Why George Gibson? 

by Martin Healy

It was a lifelong journey of baseball fandom that led me to George.

As a youngster, I tried my hand at America’s (and for me Canada’s) favorite pastime, but quickly realized I did not possess the tools necessary to be proficient at the sport. I was a skinny kid and had a fairly weak throwing arm, so I attributed my lack of ability to my slight stature and became content to appreciate baseball from a fan’s perspective. Now, seeing players such as Randy Johnson or Chris Sale excel at the highest level despite their rather thin frames, I finally had to realize and accept the truth of my baseball inefficiencies, I did not put in the effort to perfect the skills which would have kept me in baseball, the game I love most. I have since been able to register that any man, regardless of stature, fat or thin, short or tall, can excel in baseball and that’s what makes the game relatable and easily enjoyed by many.

I think my favorite part of being a baseball fan as a kid, was reading the stats on the back of baseball cards and checking game box scores in my hometown daily paper, The Hamilton Spectator. Hamilton baseball was also popular in my youth, and just as I was entering my teenage years, and the Blue Jays were in the midst of back-to-back World Series championships, the National League’s St. Louis Cardinals located their short season A ball team to less than one mile away from my home. The Hamilton Redbirds would play five seasons in my hometown from 1988 through 1992 and I was sure to be sitting in the grandstand on the Beaver Lumber benches just as often as my dad would bring me to Bernie Arbour Memorial Stadium.

Fast-forward almost twenty years, and I found myself with serious health problems after suffering a heart attack. A lifestyle change for the better was in the cards, and I threw away most of my vices, including quitting smoking and abstaining from alcohol. All this took place during my late twenties – early thirties, and luckily, I had no real responsibilities in terms of family or dependents. Not surprisingly, I found myself a lot lonelier as old friends were still in a place I did not want to be. The boredom and loneliness led me back to a place of my youth, Bernie Arbour Stadium, where the Redbirds were long gone, but birds of another feather were ready to give Hamilton baseball fans great entertainment and a hometown team to cheer for.

The Hamilton Cardinals play in the Inter-County Baseball League based in Southern Ontario. The Cardinals played most of their home matches on either Friday night or Sunday afternoon when I first started attending games regularly. Watching the club became a suitable habit and I even began following the team on the road when life would allow. One weekend I decided to follow the club south west down the 401 highway to a game in London, Ontario where the Cardinals would face the Majors, a top team in the league. It would be my first time at the historic, Labatt Park, and I was amazed at the beauty of the ball grounds upon my arrival. I was sure to get there early so I could scope out the place and find a good spot to watch the ballgame, and really, just soak in the atmosphere. While I was giving myself a personal tour of the facility, I came across a plaque on the wall commemorating a historic baseball player named, George Gibson. Intrigued to the reason this player was awarded a memorial on the wall of the park, I quickly pulled out a pen and jotted his name on my ticket stub and proceeded to watch the game without giving the name George Gibson another thought.

A few days later, I pulled the stub from my pocket before doing laundry which reminded me I wanted to throw George Gibson’s name into a search engine to see what came up. Of course, Gibson’s Wikipedia page was the first web page listed and I thought it was as good a place as anywhere to get a quick synopsis on the life of my subject of research. The page stated that Gibson spent a lifetime in baseball, as a player, coach, scout and manager, while also being a World Series champion, a member of the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame and the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. He was also named Canada’s top baseball player of the first half of the 20th century.

Before reading Gibson’s Wikipedia page, I knew next to nothing about baseball during the deadball era, in which George played, but I had heard some about the great Ty Cobb, who the Wikipedia write up explained had been held under control on the basepaths by Gibson during the 1909 World Series. This had me amazed, and somewhat ashamed to call myself a Canadian baseball fan. I decided to do further research on Gibson who was born just down the road from me in London, Ontario.

I am also a collector. I had always collected Toronto Blue Jay cards, and cards of Canadian born players. I never even considered vintage Baseball cards, as spending hundreds of dollars on an old piece of paper seemed a poor investment. But shortly after I discovered Gibson, I did an eBay search and was surprised with what I found. There were many cards featuring Gibson, which I later learned were used as advertisements for tobacco and candy during the time he played. I never dreamed I would spend a hundred dollars on a single baseball card, but curiosity got the better of me and I purchased Gibson’s T206 card from a dealer on eBay. When the card arrived, I was almost dumbfounded how this one hundred year old piece of paper was in such great shape, and perhaps because of my slight OCD, I became obsessed with finding rare George Gibson baseball cards.

This obsession led me to a community of like-minded vintage cards collectors on an online forum called, Net54. The forum was a great resource for my collection and put me in contact with many turn of the century baseball card collectors and historians. After a few months of being a member of the forum, I met this fellow, Richard Armstrong, who coincidentally was also amassing a George Gibson player collection. From there on, Richard and I agreed to share our research and collaborate on accumulating as much information we could on Gibson, Canada’s forgotten baseball icon.

SONG OF THE DAY

Yesterday, Wilbur picked an Emerson Lake & Palmer song and the title of the song wasn’t correct on the video. I knew my dad really liked ELP and loved one of their songs “karn evil 9 1st impression part 2” so I was going to use that today. Instead, I gave my dad the choice to pick any song and he went with “Karn Evil..”. After realizing Wilbur used the same song, I told my dad and asked for a second pick, while guessing that he would say Black Magic Woman by Santana. Either he is very predictable or we have super powers

DAILY QUIZ

This quiz feels like it was made specifically for readers who have been with our site since day one

THIS DATE IN PIRATES HISTORY

By John Dreker

Four former Pittsburgh Pirates players born on this date.

Jose Castillo, second baseman for the 2004-07 Pirates. He was signed as an amateur free agent by the Pirates out of Venezuela, shortly after his 16th birthday. After one season in the Venezuelan Summer League, he made it to the states as an 18-year-old, playing in the Gulf Coast League. Pittsburgh moved him up to A-ball the next year and he hit .299 with 16 homers and 72 RBIs during his first year in a full season league. He moved up to High-A ball for 2001 and hit .245 with 23 steals. The Pirates had him repeat the level in 2002 and he put up big numbers, hitting .300 with 27 steals, 16 homers and 81 RBIs. He played well at Double-A the next season, then in Spring Training of 2004 he made the Pirates as their starting second baseman.

That rookie season of 2004 saw Castillo play 129 games, with 105 starts at second base. He hit .256 with eight homers and 39 RBIs. In 2005 he had two trips to the DL, the first time just two games into the season when he strained an oblique muscle. The second injury happened as he was taken out by a runner attempting to break up a double play. That injury put him out from August 22nd until the end of the season. He was still able to hit .268 with 11 homers and 53 RBIs in 101 games. Castillo came into Spring Training 2006 healthy, and put up his best career numbers. In 148 games he hit .253 with 14 homers and 65 RBIs, despite second half struggles that season. In 2007, Castillo lost his starting job to Freddy Sanchez and he would end up playing more third base than second base. In 87 games he hit .244 without a home run or a stolen base base, and just six walks. He was released in December 2007 and he spent one more season in the majors, splitting the 2008 campaign between the Giants and Astros. Castillo played in Japan, Italy, Mexico and Venezuelan until his untimely passing at age 37 in December, 2018.

David Ross, catcher for the Pirates in 2005. He spent three years in the majors with the Dodgers prior to being purchased by the Pirates at the end of Spring Training in 2005. In 2004, Ross hit .170 in 70 games with Los Angeles, his only full season in the majors while with the Dodgers. For the Pirates, he started the year as the backup to Benito Santiago, but quickly took over the starting job when Benito was placed on the DL a week into the season. Ross drove in seven runs in the first four games after taking over, but he quickly fizzled out and ended up with a .222 average in 40 games, adding just eight more RBIs to his total. On July 28th, the Pirates traded him to the San Diego Padres in exchange for JJ Furmaniak. He also played for the Reds, Red Sox, Braves and Cubs before retiring following the 2016 season. In 883 career games, he was a .229 hitter with 106 home runs and 314 RBIs. Ross is currently the manager of the Cubs.

Angel Mangual, outfielder for the Pirates in 1969. He was signed as an amateur free agent by the Pirates in 1966 and he hit .228 in 80 games at A-ball that first year. He moved from the Midwest League to the Carolina League for 1967 and improved to a .285 average with 71 runs scored and 46 RBIs in 136 games. He spent all of 1968 and most of 1969 at Double-A, showing a drastic improvement the second time through the league. After hitting .320 with 26 homers and 102 RBIs at Double-A in 1969, he played three games at Triple-A, then was called up by the Pirates in September of 1969. Mangual played six games off the bench for Pittsburgh, going 1-for-4 at the plate with a double and a run scored. He spent the entire 1970 season at Triple-A, where he hit .281 with 20 homers and 87 RBIs. Shortly after the 1970 season ended, he was sent to the Oakland A’s as the player to be named later in an earlier traded for veteran pitcher Mudcat Grant. Mangual spent six seasons in the majors with the A’s, getting into 444 games. He retired after the 1976 season. He is the brother of Pepe Mangual, who spent six seasons in the majors and he’s the cousin of Coco Laboy, who played five seasons for the Expos.

Paul Smith, first Baseman/outfielder for the 1953 and 1957-58 Pirates. He was signed as an amateur free agent by the Pirates in 1950 and spent that first season playing for the Tallahassee Pirates of the Georgia-Florida League. Smith hit .319 in 139 games that year. Moving up to Class B from D-ball, he hit .322 with ten homers in 143 games for Waco in 1951. He continued his rise through the system, playing at Double-A in 1952, where he hit .323 in 153 games. Smith spent all of 1953 with the Pirates, hitting .283 with 44 RBIs in 118 games. He played 74 games at first base and saw some time in the outfield as well. He then spent all of 1954 in the minors, playing for Havana of the International League before serving two years in the army, missing the 1955-56 seasons. He returned to the Pirates for 1957 and hit .253 with 11 RBIs in 81 games, most of them off the bench. Smith was used just six times the first month of the 1958 season, all as a pinch-hitter, prior to being sold to the Chicago Cubs on May 6th. He played 18 games with Chicago before they sent him to the minors, where he finished out his career, playing until 1964. He played 223 big league games, and he hit .298 over 1,385 minor league games.

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