Guest Post: The Other Guy: The Yugoslavian Shortstop of 1944

The following is a guest post from Adam Moss, who goes by Roadgeek Adam in the comments. He’s previously written guest posts on Tim McClelland, Frankie Crosetti, the No. 26, Casey Stengel, Leo Durocher, Miller Huggins, Jerry Kenney, the Copacabana incident, Mark Koenig, Earle Combs, and Urban Shocker.

(Baseball Birthdays)
Milosevich. (Baseball Birthdays)

The 1944 season for Major League Baseball was a strange one when it comes to the players who were participating. Because of World War II in Europe, many Major Leaguers were overseas fighting. Famously, Yogi Berra participated in the D-Day invasion at the beaches of Normandy, France; Bill Dickey served at the Navy Hospital in Hawaii until his discharge in January of 1946; Joe Gordon served for the United States Army as a member of the Air Corps; Spud Chandler enlisted for the Army as well. At home, the war effort was also important. On June 26, 1944, the Yankees, along with the crosstown Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants had a three-way baseball game to raise money in war bonds. The three-way game raised over $55 million in war bonds for the Roosevelt administration.

New players were needed to replace the players who were serving in the war effort. Aside of this writer’s favorite player, Frankie Crosetti, most of the team in 1944 was backup players. The 80-tool name that the 1944 Yankees had was infielder Snuffy Stirnweiss, who came in fourth for the Most Valuable Player Award. That season he batted .319/.389/.460/.849 and had 16 triples and 55 stolen bases (the highest in the league). He scored the most runs (125) and got the most hits (205) in the most plate appearances (723). Nick Etten, the Yankees first baseman, hit 22 home runs and was the home run king for the season. He led the league in walks with 97 and finished 23rd in the MVP vote. By 1947, Etten was out of the league after 14 games with the Athletics.

While Etten and Stirnweiss held down the right side of the infield, the other side was a platoon. Crosetti was the starting shortstop, but on a downward trend from his peak in the 1930s. With regular shortstop Phil Rizzuto out serving for the Army, the now utility infielder would have to take care of the job until the war ended. At the same time, the Yankees promoted a nine-year minor leaguer from the Kansas City Blues, their AAA affiliate.  This 30-year old rookie would end up becoming the stalwart at shortstop over Crosetti for 1944.

Michael Milosevich was born on January 13, 1915 in the city of Zeigler, Illinois, a two-hour drive southeast of St. Louis. He was one of seven kids born to Rados (“Rado”) and Kata (“Katie”) Miloseovich, natives of Slune in Yugoslavia. The Milosevich children were all very athletically-inclined. Mike, along with his siblings, George, Daniel, Paul, Nicholas and Samuel, represented the sports of Zeigler from 1929-1944. All of them would move on to colleges, such as Samuel, who attended the Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville and played football and basketball. Paul attended the University of Illinois and was one the varsity football team, varsity baseball team, and the varsity basketball team. (Paul died in a plane crash in Florida in 1943.)

However, Michael had a different calling. At age 20, the eldest brother decided to leave his job at a steel mill as a puddler and a soft coal miner in Zeigler to make it into professional baseball. In 1935, when he made the decision, he was playing semi-professional baseball for a team in Steubenville, Ohio (west of Pittsburgh). Milosevich decided that he would head to Washington, Pennsylvania and talked to the manager of their Pennsylvania State League team, 1927 Yankees backup catcher, Benny Bengough to get on the team. Milosevich asked Bengough to give him a chance and soon he became a shortstop. The known statistics of the Washington Generals for 1935 are limited, but Milosevich appeared in 107 games and batted .294 and slugged .383 with no home runs, five triples and 24 doubles in 112 hits.

The next season, 1936, the Yankees promoted Milosevich and his manager, Bengough to the Joplin Minors C-league team in Joplin, Missouri. In his first season at Joplin, Milosevich batted .269 and slugged .367 with 151 hits in 562 at bats during 141 games. He hit his first two professional home runs at Joplin in 1936. The numbers showed improvement during a second stint at Joplin in 1937. That season he hit .274 and slugged .363 with 22 doubles, 7 triples and three home runs in 139 games.

In 1938, the pairing of Milosevich and Bengough were split as the former was sent to the C-team in Akron, Ohio (the Akron Yankees), managed by Pip Koehler. In 107 games at Akron, he managed to attain 117 hits in 107 games with 409 plate appearances. His home run power continued to go up, reaching six in 1938, where he batted .286 and slugged .430. In 1939, he was promoted to A-league Binghamton in the Eastern League. At this time period, the Binghamton team was named the Triplets. (The name is based on the Triple Cities of Endicott, Binghamton and Johnson City in Broome County.) In the team, Milosevich batted .272/.387 (average/slugging) in 103 games and 346 at bats.

However, the Yankees tried to play Milosevich in the Norfolk Tars playoffs during the 1939 playoffs. This was a disaster. Piedmont League President Ralph Daughton ordered on September 6 that the team was eliminated for using Milosevich. This decision vacated their four wins and gave teams in Asheville, Durham, Portsmouth and Rocky Mount, North Carolina the opportunity to participate for the President’s Cup.

In 1940, the Yankees kept Milosevich with Binghamton, and he hit a bland .250/.327 with 120 hits. The 1940 season would begin to mark a decline in the minor league performance for Milosevich. In 1941, he ended up splitting time between Binghamton and Norfolk, appearing in 63 games for both teams and batted .213/.258 with no home runs and just 89 hits. Despite the lackluster performance in 1941, the Yankees placed Milosevich in the AA Kansas City Blues of the American Association. In 1942, the shortstop appeared in 153 games, batting .286/.370/.362 with 146 hits and 27 doubles with 52 runs batted in. The next season, 1943, he also returned to Kansas City as a 28-year old. Then, he only appeared in 139 games and batted a paltry .243/.285/.304. Milosevich had only 42 RBI and got 127 hits.

The Yankees entered 1944 with Oscar Grimes as their starting shortstop with Crosetti on the bench. Grimes had a horrendous start to the 1944 campaign. He managed to hit only .125/.222/.167 in seven games. (That is what you call small sample size.) On April 30, they called up Milosevich to the Yankees and benched Grimes. (To tell you the Yankees’ opinion of Grimes, he did not appear in another game until May 30 against the Tigers.) In the first game of the doubleheader against the Washington Senators on April 30, Milosevich went 0 for 4 against Mickey Haefner. In the third inning of the second game, Milosevich got his first big league hit against Early Wynn with a double.

Milosevich’s numbers after his debut were outright terrible. They were not Kyle Higashioka-terrible, but he did not reach the Mario Mendoza Line until May 19, when it peaked at .211 in batting average. By the doubleheader on May 21, he was below it again. Aside of a quick jump above .200 on May 30, Milosevich remained there until July 6, when he finally got the average above for good. His 1944 season would be considered a tale of two seasons as he managed to continue going on a rake during the latter half of the season. At the end of the 1944 season, the Yankees finished third in the American League and batted .247/.313/.308 with 77 hits, 11 doubles, four triples and 32 RBI in 94 games.

The damage was done, however. The next season, 1945, Grimes was moved to third base and Crosetti became the starter with Milosevich as the backup. Milosevich did not make his 1945 debut until May 19 and would not appear in another game until July 1. He played sporadically during the months of July and August and early September. His last appearance on the 1945 Yankees came on September 15, when he participated in a doubleheader. By that point, he hit .217/.280/.246 as the backup shortstop. His time as a major leaguer was done as in 1946, Rizzuto returned from the service and Crosetti went to the backup. His final statistics as a Major League player were a .241/.309/.297 line with 92 hits om 391 AB and 124 games.

The Yankees did not cut the infielder from their organization in 1946, but instead, he played for the Newark Bears of the International League and the Blues in Kansas City. In 103 games, his completely tanking numbers showed themselves in a .195/.308/.246 batting line with 61 hits and 23 RBIs. The next season, 1947, he joined the Red Sox organization and played for the Atlanta Crackers and New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association.

By 1949, Milosevich became a D-league player/manager. That season, he managed the Hazlehurst-Baxley Red Socks of the Georgia State League. In 1950, he moved onto the Lumberton Auctioneers of the Tobacco State League as a player (and not a manager). His final season as a player manager was the 1951 season with the Americus Rebels of the Georgia-Florida League. For his minors careers, Milosevich appeared in 1,566 games and had 1,475 hits, 47 home runs, 57 triples, along with 282 doubles. He managed to walk more than he struck out: 145 to 129.

Milosevich’s career was over. Milosevich moved to East Chicago, Indiana, where he died on February 3, 1966 due to heart disease. He was buried in the family plot at Zeigler Cemetery. All of the Milosevich Six have since passed away, with the final brother, Samuel, passing in 2015 at the age of 94. The story of Mike Milosevich is a short one given his short career, but the 1944 Yankee deserves air time because he was a stalwart of the 1944 team despite his poor performance. Hidden behind Etten, Stirnweiss and others, he managed to beat out Crosetti and earned his chance in 1944. While he is never remembered by anyone but the obscure Yankee historians, River Avenue Blues gets a chance to read about him.