#49 – John Milner: The Hammer

Opening Day 2011 will be the 50th Opening Day in Mets history. To honor that, around here we’ll be counting down the top 50 Mets in team history, one every weekday from now until we’ve done ‘em all. Today, #49, John Milner.

In American mythology, the delineation between the 1960s and the 1970s appears sharper than that between any other pair of decades. In the span of four months in 1969, man landed on the moon, Woodstock took place, and the Miracle Mets won the World Series. Then the Hell’s Angels stabbed some dude in the head at a Rolling Stones’ concert in December, and the ’70s started. Riots sprouted up everywhere, and everyone was suddenly addicted to drugs. Movie theaters only showed pornography. People lined up for days across many miles to fill their cars with gas. “Gimmie Shelter” played on every single radio station in America on a continuous loop.

Or something like that. I’m not sure, that’s just what I’ve learned from television.

If you want a Mets’ myth of broken ’60s dreams, look no farther than John Milner. In 1968 the Mets drafted the promising outfielder out of Atlanta, nicknamed “The Hammer” out of hopes that his quick wrists would make him the lefthanded version of his idol Hank Aaron. Milner blasted his way through the minors, hitting .307 across four seasons and four levels, reaching the majors for a cup of coffee in 1971 and making the Mets out of spring training in 1972.

If this were a movie, Milner’s rookie season would mark the beginning of his fall, when the promises of the ’60s are derailed and the decline of his career mirrors that of society. 1972 happened to be the great Willie Mays’ first year with the Mets, Mays being acquired from the Giants in May. As the young first baseman would later testify, Milner observed and even stole a swig from a bottle of “red juice” – liquid amphetamines – he saw in the 41 year old Mays’ locker. (Mays would later claim that the juice was cough syrup.) This would be the scene where the young protagonist looks behind the curtain and discovers what really made the best player of the ’60s so great. But this was not the rookie’s only early exposure to drugs in the clubhouse: Milner also said that amphetamine use was so prevalent that he would often find unsolicited greenies waiting for him in his Mets locker on gamedays.

Greenies or no, Milner’s career never took off the way some imagined, though he had moments of sideburned success. Standing on top of the plate, he hit 17 home runs as a rookie, and then a career high 23 the next season, driving in a key run in Game 5 of the 1973 World Series. Milner was the best hitter on the 1976 Mets, with 15 home runs, 25 doubles, and 65 walks in 127 games. But he was constantly sidelined by hamstring injuries, never able to fulfill his potential, and was traded to Pittsburgh in 1977’s head scratching four team, eleven player deal. Milner won a World Series with the ’79 Pirates, but also did a lot of cocaine with his Pittsburgh teammates, going so far as to make a clubhouse drug deal during a game in 1980. He retired at age 32 and would later become a star witness at the Pittsburgh baseball drug trials in the mid-eighties. Thanks in part to his testimony, baseball never turned a blind eye to drug or PED use by its players ever again.

John Milner’s life has all the pieces of a sad story: unfulfilled promise, drugs, and dying a bit too young, with Milner passing from lung cancer in 2000 at the age of 50. But I think it’s a disservice to assume that his story is a sad one, or even a morality tale of some kind. We have a tendency to connect dots even when they shouldn’t be connected, seeing cause and effect in everything — it’s how our minds work. We like stories, and because Milner was heavily involved in the darker parts of baseball in his day and his career never panned out as expected, it’s tempting to connect the two. While that’s sometimes the case, I don’t see it with Milner. He never turned into the lefthanded Hank Aaron, but that’s simply because Milner couldn’t hit lefties – the drugs were not necessarily related to his struggles. If anything, amphetamines probably enhanced his performance, as they were intended to do. Milner was involved in unfortunate things during times that are often remembered as tumultuous, but they didn’t make or break his career. Myth isn’t always the same as fact, even if myth is what makes more sense to our minds.

Most home runs by a Mets player in the 70s:

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