Reference Entry

Miles, John “Mule”

Glenn Allen Knoblock

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Miles, John “Mule”

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Tuskegee aircraft mechanic and Negro League baseball player, was born in San Antonio, Texas. His parents' names are unknown, as are details of his childhood. He was nicknamed “Sonny Boy” in high school, where he played baseball and graduated in 1940. He went on to play basketball while a student at St. Phillips Junior College in San Antonio.Miles left home for Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1943. He attended Tuskegee Institute and was trained as a civilian aircraft sheet-metal worker. Miles would later say about his time at Tuskegee: “As soon as I heard about Tuskegee I knew it was what I wanted to do. I really wanted to learn a trade and work with my hands. It sounded like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so I jumped on the chance” (Maurice, 1). At the time Tuskegee Institute was part of a new experiment by the army air corps in training black pilots and ground crew. His time as both a student and employee there was an exciting period in Miles's life, but it could also be trying. Miles recalled that “Tuskegee was hard work” and also stated that “we dealt with protestors outside the base everyday … there were a lot of angry people who were against Tuskegee … but we went on with life just the same” (Maurice, 1). Miles worked at Tuskegee from 1943 to 1945, servicing all kinds of military aircraft flown by the Tuskegee Airmen. In 1945 he returned to his native state, where he was employed as a civil service aircraft mechanic at Kelly Field Air Force Base in his hometown of San Antonio. While Miles would work at Kelly Field for thirty years to earn a living, he would also rediscover the passion of his life: baseball.Miles first returned to the game while employed at Kelly Field. He joined the base team, the Brown Bombers, playing third base or outfield, and was an immediate success. An imposing six feet three inches in height, Miles soon came to the attention of a Negro League scout for the Chicago American Giants and in 1946 was signed on the spot for three hundred dollars a month, a good wage but not on the level of the superstars of the Negro Leagues. Miles would later recall that “I loved to play ball and that was my ambition … when I had a chance to go professional, I had no doubt in my mind about making it” (Kelley, 208). While Miles's wife, Bernice, was skeptical about his chances of making the Chicago American Giants, she had no trouble with his pursuit of the dream, even though he had to take a leave of absence from his job.Miles made his Negro League debut with the Chicago American Giants in 1946. A right-handed batter that played the outfield, he batted somewhere between .250 and .270. As was typical of the Negro Leagues, statistics for individual players have often been lost or were never kept. Because of this, official statistics for his career are lacking. The year 1947 was when Miles's star shone most brightly and when he earned a place in the historic lore of the Negro Leagues. It was also a year that changed the face of America's favorite pastime forever.The 1947 debut of Jackie Robinson in a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform forever broke the color line in baseball. Prior to this time African Americans could only play in the Negro Leagues; Major League Baseball was an all-white institution. No matter how high the talent level of white baseball, the talent found in the Negro Leagues at this time was, by many accounts, at least equal to, if not greater than, that in the Major Leagues. The Negro League and its players were often vastly more entertaining to watch; such talented and flamboyant Negro League players like Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige were the stars of the day, and their exploits on the baseball diamond were followed by African Americans nationwide, as well as many whites. This was also the year that Miles came into his own as a hitter in the Negro Leagues. Now more experienced, and perhaps inspired by Robinson's feat in breaking the color barrier, Miles became an accomplished hitter. While playing outfield and third base, he hit twenty-seven home runs to tie the Negro League's all-time season record for home runs set by Willie Wells in 1926. (There is some dispute as to this year; some sources place Wells's accomplishment in 1929.) But the season highlight for Miles was his feat of hitting eleven homers in eleven consecutive games, the all-time record as of 2007 for all of baseball, black or white. Miles's power was so great that his manager, “Candy” Jim Taylor, told him, “Miles, you hit as hard as a mule kicks” (Kelley, 206), and from that day on he was known as “Mule” Miles. Indeed, all of 1947 was a dream season for Miles; in one game against the Memphis Red Sox he hit two home runs, one off Dan Bankhead, the other off Lefty Mathis; in New Haven, Connecticut, during an exhibition game against a white team, Miles hit a home run that broke a scoreless tie and won the game. Despite his accomplishments, however, Miles has never gained the full recognition he deserves because of the lack of records for the Negro Leagues.Miles would play two more years with Chicago, but he never again hit at the same level. Perhaps he simply tried too hard to hit home runs and lost his stroke. Lyman Bostock Sr., his teammate on the Chicago American Giants, would later state that manager Jim Taylor once told Miles to “stop lookin' at that goddamn fence! Every time you look at the fence you hit the ball two hops to the pitcher” (Kelley, 66). At this time the Negro Leagues were fading fast because of the ever-increasing numbers of players going to the Major Leagues. With his wife pregnant with twins and a job waiting at home, Miles left the Negro Leagues at age twenty-seven. He played baseball for several more years close to home, with the Laredo Apaches in the Gulf Coast League as its only black player in 1950 and for a local team in San Antonio in 1951. He hung up his cleats for good in 1952.Though his career was short and his achievements largely undocumented, John “Mule” Miles is representative of the men of the Negro Leagues whose accomplishments in a time of racial inequality have often gone unnoticed. Following his retirement, Miles remained in San Antonio and was active in his community working with local youths and acting as a nationwide ambassador helping to keep alive the history of the Negro Leagues.

Reference Entry.  1167 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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