John Milner was born Christmas week, 1949, in Atlanta, Georgia, and raised in the neighboring town of East Point. There was no little league for blacks in East Point until he was thirteen years old. His hero was the Alabama-born Henry Aaron, of the second wave of black ballplayers admitted to the major leagues. As a professional, Milner would befriend Aaron, who interceded when the great Bob Gibson plunked the younger player in camp. "Why'd you do it?" asked Aaron. "I heard he could hit," was Hoot's reply.
"The Hammer," as he came to be called, wore thick sideburns and stylish wristbands. He stood tight to the plate, his feet under his shoulders, his torso tilted, his bat pointing straight to the sky. A lanky left-hander, he could pull an outside fasball into the first base dugout, or launch it two-thirds of the way up the right-field scoreboard at Shea. Young John Milner was the thunder and the menace in 1970s Met teams known for unnaturally good pitching. If he never quite broke out to be the superstar one hoped for, he always was the Hammer.
A multi-sport, all-state athlete in high school, Milner was selected by the Mets in the 14th round of the 1968 amateur draft and advanced steadily through the minors, flashing fearful power. In September of 1971, he took his cup of coffee under the leadership of Gil Hodges. But when he debuted in earnest the following year, it was to the mournful strains of "Taps" bleated on opening day at Shea Stadium, to mourn the skipper's passing.
The 1972 Mets were recent world champions in a painful, hopeful transition. Around a "Miracle" core -- including Tommie Agee, Bud Harrelson, Ed Kranepool, and the great Tom Seaver -- was added a new manager, Yogi Berra; a new slugger, Rusty Staub; the 41-year-old legend, Willie Mays; Jon Matlack, the Rookie of the Year; and Milner.
Milner assumed part-time duties in left field, but won the job outright as the Mets surged to a 31-12 record. On June 3, however, a pitch broke Rusty Staub's right hand. As if suffering pains of compassion, the team methodically broke down around him. At 83-73, the injury-plagued Mets finished third for the the third year running.
But the rookie had shown promise. Milner had played 117 games, knocked a team-best 17 home runs, and, despite a .238 average, posted an OPS of .762 which was nearly 20% above the league average. The Hammer, in fact, had shown just what sort of player he was. Roughly speaking, Milner was good for about 130 games, would hit in the mid-.200s, walk 60-some times, strike out about the same, and slug enough to be a home run threat but never a league leader. He suffered one down year, 1975, but toggled back with his very best year and a 131 wRC+. The rookie campaign, exciting as it was, was a reality of goodness rather than a presentiment of greatness. But we are ahead of ourselves.
The feeling heading into 1973 was that a healthy Met ballclub could retake center stage. Seaver christened the year on April 13 by knocking down Bob Gibson on Milner's behalf — "you got better control than that, Tommy!" Now playing mostly first base — where he was competent, more so than in left field — Milner was greased lightning off the blocks, batting .327 in April with five home runs and a .453 on-base percentage. On April 26, the fun ended as he pulled a hamstring stretching for a Bud Harrelson throw. "This crap is starting already," Yogi moaned.
Matlack took a liner to the forehead. Grote was hit by a pitch that broke his arm. Theodore's eyeglasses were shattered on a fastball up and in. Harrelson broke his hand on a double play ball. Even Seaver tweaked his back moving crates in his wine cellar. At the end of August the Mets were in dead last. But such was the mediocrity of the division, and the excellence of Mets pitching, that on September 21, 1973, they were locked in a contest for first with the Pittsburgh Pirates. In a joyful, pain-erasing rout, the Hammer clocked his 23rd home run of the year to help break the divisional tie. (23 home runs, in 1973, was good for 29th best in the major leagues.) Milner's unassisted double-play in Chicago clinched the title and sent the 82-79 Mets to their first playoff series since '69.
He must have been a frustrating Met to watch in the postseason. Milner took his walks -- he was an expert fouler, and always took pitches — but he could find no wallop in his bat, could put no air under his hits. The result — 11 singles in 44 at-bats, 10 walks, zero extra-base hits — was useful, but more eye-glass-repair kit than Hammer. After upsetting the Big Red Machine in a maximum five games, the Mets lashed out offensively in only two of their World Series battles. (Runs number nine and ten in Game Two were attributable, albeit error-assisted, to a Milner at-bat.) In Game Seven, loudmouthed Reggie Jackson — "Who are the Mets?" Reggie asked — squared on a Matlack pitch and helped spring his A's to a 4-0 lead. Milner (0-3, BB) could only scratch his sideburns in envy.
After the Midnight Massacre in '77, Tom Seaver would look back and claim the Mets' down-sliding began the moment of Gil Hodges's death, World Series berth or no World Series berth. This would mark Milner — "Rookie of the Spring" at the time of Gil's heart attack — as a tragically timed Metropolitan. Indeed, the Mets would not spend a single game in first in 1974 (when Milner hit .252/.337/.408), and would miss his bat sorely while he struggled through injuries in his down year, '75.
Milner's finest season, '76, is partially remembered for manager Joe Frazier's quote: "I feel like going to the Empire State Building and jumping off." He hit an impossible .500/.589/.795 through his first fourteen games before a thigh muscle got him again. With fewer homers but loads of doubles and walks, the Hammer gradually recovered to notch a .271 average and .365 wOBA in his penultimate year. But the Mets finished 15 games worse than the new cream of the East, the Phillies.
Of 1977 (64-98), the less said the better. For his part, Milner batted .255/.353/.415, and was sent off to Pittsburgh at season's end — Jon Matlack was sent away too — as more evidence of M. Donald Grant's acutely strategic mind. It was an elaborate, eleven-player trade involving four teams and netting the Mets Willie Montez, Tom Grieve, and Ken Henderson. Pete Hamill wrote a column in the Daily News: "Who's Buried in Grant's Tomb? The Mets and the City."
There is an unsavory coda to the Hammer's story, followed decades later by an honest tragedy. The less consequential act played out in Pittsburgh courtrooms, where prosecutors hauled ballplayers before a grand jury to talk, mostly, about cocaine. In 1984, Milner, as well as Keith Hernandez and several other players, testified to his use of the drug. Milner further testified to receiving doses of a liquid amphetamine, known as "red juice," from his Mets teammate, Willie Mays, which Mays denied. Milner received no punishment, and went back to living his life in Georgia.
On January 4th, 2000, shortly after his 50th birthday, John Milner died of cancer near his home in East Point. He was a World Series champion with the Pirates in '79, but spent his best years, and cracked 94 of his 131 homers (and took 338 of his walks!) as a home-grown New York Met. Nosing through the Internet, one finds numerous testimonials from fans smitten with the stylish slugger and the goodies kept in his toolbox. Perhaps a sign-hoisting lady Met fan had it best:
"Nailed by the Hammer."