John “Mule” Miles, an outfielder / third baseman with the Chicago American Giants of the Negro Leagues, passed away Friday May 24, 2013 at his San Antonio home. He was 90.
Miles earned the nickname “Mule” from Giants manager “Candy” Jim Taylor after a display of power led him to remark, “You hit as hard as a mule kicks.” He upheld that reputation by blasting home runs in 11 consecutive games in 1947.
In addition to being one of a dwindling number of remaining ex-Negro League players, he was also one of the prestigious Tuskegee Airmen, who were the first African-American aviators in the United States Armed Forces.
Miles served with the Airmen in World War II starting in 1942 for a three-year period. He returned to San Antonio after his discharge to work as an aircraft mechanic.
“We had it hard at Tuskegee; buildings weren’t completed when we got there, it was hard, but we made it, I wasn’t complaining, because at Tuskegee, I learned a trade, I learned how to work with my hands – to do something,” Miles said in a 2009 interview with the United States Army.
It was shortly after his return that he was approached fellow San Antonio native Clyde McNeal, who just finished his rookie season with Chicago.
“He was the one who enticed me to go,” Miles said to the San Antonio Express in April, 2013. “If I had to go by myself, I don’t think I would have done it.”
He played three seasons for the Chicago American Giants from 1946-1948, playing against the best the Negro Leagues had to offer. One of his favorite subjects was Satchel Paige.
“Satchel was a great pitcher. He could throw hard and he was smart. Nobody could touch Satchel when he didn’t want ‘em to,” Miles said in Brent Kelley’s “Voices from the Negro Leagues.”
Miles left the Negro Leagues to after the end of the 1948 season to return to his mechanic job. He continued to play in local leagues and the lure of professional baseball drove him to try out for the Laredo Apaches of the South Texas League in 1952. He made the team, becoming the first black player in the league, and batted .281 in limited action. At the age of 30, Miles was past prospect status, and returned home to his job that he would keep until his 1971 retirement.
As the Negro Leagues experienced a renewed interest in the 1990’s, Miles’ career returned to prominence. He made frequent appearances across the United States at reunions and speaking engagements.
In 2007, Topps honored him with a baseball card in their Allen and Ginter set. The release of the card caused him to be showered with mail requests daily for his signature, something he relished in his later years. He would often send back signed cards with inspirational phrases such as, “I’m not complaining, just explaining,” or, “Without those passing yesterdays, there can be no bright tomorrows.” It was no surprise that his 2009 autobiography was titled, “A Legacy to Leave Our Youth.”
“I loved baseball and I was willing to play it anytime, anywhere. … When I started playing for money, it wasn’t enough to make a living on. You’ve got to understand this was during the forties and fifties. The only baseball players making any kind of money were the ones in the majors,” said Miles in Dick O’Neal’s “Dreaming of the Majors.”
“We just loved the game, and if someone was willing to pay to watch me, that was fine.”