COLUMBIA – Baseball has a romantic history of being handed down, generation to generation, father to son.
A Columbia family has been part of that. Eric and Andrew Mueller represent the fourth generation of baseball players. Their father, Mark Mueller, played in the minor leagues in the early 1970s. Their grandfather, Don Mueller, played in the major leagues in the 1940s and 50s. Their great-grandfather, Walter Mueller, played in the major leagues in the 1920s.
Eric Mueller played four years for St. Louis University. Andrew Mueller is in his last season as a pitcher at Missouri. He expects to return soon after undergoing knee surgery in May.
The Muellers’ story begins with a historic home run.
WALTER MUELLER, THE HISTORIC FIRST
If you listed the worst conditions to start a major league career, Walter Mueller’s would have fit most. He played his first game on May 7, 1922, at 27, years after most players start. The opposing pitcher that day was future Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander, who was in the middle of his brilliant career.
Hitting sixth and playing right field for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Walter Mueller became ingrained in baseball lore. On the first pitch he saw, he hit a three-run, inside-the-park home run over the center fielder’s head. Walter Mueller was the first player in the major leagues to hit the first pitch he saw for a home run. Later in the game, he added another RBI in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 11-5 rout of the Chicago Cubs.
Walter Mueller hit one more home run in his career.
After his 2-for-5 performance in his first game, he had 117 more at-bats in 1922. Walter Mueller hit .306 in 40 games the next season. He played 49 more games in the 1924 and 1926 seasons before playing his last game in 1926 and died in 1971 in St. Louis.
His son also had a knack for being involved in history.
DON MUELLER, THE CLASSIC PLAYER
Don Mueller keeps a framed copy of the Sept. 3, 1951, New York Daily News front page in a cabinet. Light has damaged the picture, whitening the photo, but you can see everything if you look hard enough.
Don Mueller has a cigar in his mouth, three bats cradled in his left arm and two more in his right, signifying the five home runs he hit in two days. The caption beneath the photo reads “Proud Popper.” Don Mueller hit three home runs on Sept. 1, 1951, a day before his son was born.
When Mark Mueller was born, his father was at-bat. Someone phoned the dugout with news of his son’s birth. The news was relayed to Monte Irvin, who was on deck. Irvin waited for a pitch to be thrown and then told Don Mueller about his son.
Don Mueller hit the next pitch for a home run, his second of the game, helping the Giants in their 11-2 rout of their hated rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers.
He finished the season with 16.
“Back then, teams wouldn’t let players go see their children being born,” Don Mueller said.
Later that season, the Giants finished the season in historic fashion. They were 13 1/2 games behind the Dodgers on August 11, 1951, but rallied to finish the season tied atop the standings, which forced a three-game playoff to advance to the World Series.
The two teams split the first two games, and the Giants were losing 4-1 in the bottom of the ninth in Game 3. Alvin Dark singled to lead off the inning, and Don Mueller singled to put runners on first and third.
Whitey Lockman doubled down the left field line. Dark scored, but Don Mueller broke his ankle sliding into third. Clint Hartung pinch ran for Don Mueller. Bobby Thompson then stepped to the plate.
Two pitches later, Russ Hodges delivered his famous call for WMCA-AM in New York City.
“Branca throws...there’s a long drive...it’s gonna be, I believe...THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT, THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT, THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT, THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT.”
That was, as it has been remembered in baseball history, "the shot heard ’round the world."
With the win, the Giants qualified for the World Series, where they lost to the New York Yankees in six games. Don Mueller couldn’t play because of his ankle.
Three seasons later, he missed another opportunity to be remembered. Entering the last day of the 1954 season, Don Mueller led the National League in batting average at .343. Teammate, fellow outfielder and neighbor in the clubhouse Willie Mays was second with .342.
Don Mueller went 2-for-6 against future Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts in front of less than 8,000 people in Philadelphia. Mays, however, went 3-for-4 with a walk. Don Mueller hit into a force out his sixth time at-bat; Mays was on-deck when the inning ended, just as he had been during Thomson’s famous home run three seasons earlier.
Mays finished three points ahead of Don Mueller, .345 to .342.
Don Mueller played parts of five more seasons in the major leagues, never hitting more than .306. Mays would become a Hall of Famer, only breaking Don Mueller’s 1954 batting average of .342 once more in his career.
Don Mueller’s spirits probably weren’t low for too long: The Giants won the World Series the season he came so close to winning the batting title.
Their win came with some help from Mandrake the Magician.
In 1934, Lee Falk created a comic strip called “Mandrake the Magician.” Mandrake was a superhero who used his powers to combat crime. Don Mueller earned the nickname “Mandrake the Magician” because of his propensity for poking hits magically through the infield. Part of that talent came from Don Mueller’s ability to put the ball in play: Every 162 games, he averaged only 22 walks versus 19 strikeouts.
He finished with a lifetime .296 batting average and made two All-Star teams. Don Mueller lives in St. Louis and still receives memorabilia from fans to autograph.
MARK MUELLER, THE MINOR LEAGUER
Before he was 10, Mark Mueller was tracking fly balls at Comiskey Park with the Chicago White Sox. His father finished his career with Chicago, and Mark Mueller would visit him during the summer. One of his favorite parts of those trips was chasing after balls during batting practice.
As for his playing career, Mark Mueller spent three seasons bouncing around in the minors before being cut in the spring training of 1974. He was drafted by his hometown St. Louis Cardinals and also played for the New York Mets organization.
“Only one in a hundred gets to make it,” Mark Mueller said. “Odds are against you when you sign. I got to the opportunity to play enough that I knew I wasn’t going to make it. I just wasn’t quite good enough.”
Mark Mueller would arrive at the park at 4:30 or 5 p.m. play, finish around 10:30 or 11 p.m., get something to eat — his diet consisted of “a lot of fast food” — and then get ready for the next game, which usually entailed a long bus ride.
“Playing the game was never the hard part,” he says. “Just the travel got old. We didn’t really have anything to pass the time.”
Mark Mueller went to the University of Southwest Louisiana after his playing career ended and met his wife, Nancy Mueller, there. They lived in Houston for three years while she worked with AMI, which is partnered with the Columbia Regional Hospital. Mark Mueller, who wanted to live near his previous home of St. Louis, jumped at the opportunity to live in Missouri once again, and they moved to Columbia in 1985.
ERIC AND ANDREW MUELLER, THE PITCHERS
Walter Mueller and Don Mueller both played outfield. Mark Mueller played shortstop and third base. His sons were both converted to pitchers.
Eric Mueller’s switch came when he played for St. Louis University. He was named an all-state catcher in 2001 while at Hickman but began pitching in 2004.
Eric Mueller tore his ulnar collateral ligament in his right (pitching) elbow which required Tommy John surgery. He redshirted a season, and the next year he closed out the Atlantic-10 Tournament Championship game. The win sent the St. Louis Billikens to the NCAA baseball tournament for the first time since 1966.
Eric Mueller had 93 at-bats his first two seasons, but he never hit again after being converted to pitcher. He finished with 31 innings thrown in his pitching career. He now works as an event coordinator for St. Louis University and recently obtained his MBA.
Andrew Mueller, who is three years younger than his older brother, switched to pitcher after his junior year of high school at Hickman. The Kewpies won the state championship his senior year, and Andrew Mueller closed out the championship game.
He almost wasn’t allowed to do it.
In the semifinal game at Simmons Field, Andrew Mueller was hitting with two strikes and one out. He struck out and several opposing players, unaware that there were only two outs, began to walk off the field. Andrew Mueller, also thinking he was the third out, threw his helmet toward the dugout, walked up the first base line and waited for a teammate to bring him his glove.
The umpire turned away, saw the helmet bouncing around and ejected Andrew Mueller from the game. Andrew Mueller’s coach argued for a few minutes that his player only thought it was the third out. The umpire allowed Andrew Mueller back into the game.
It’s still a story Andrew Mueller and former coach Dave Wilson talk about.
“We have a good chuckle about it now and then,” Andrew Mueller said. “He made a rule that everyone had to take their helmet off in the dugout.”
Hickman had been winning by a large margin when Andrew Mueller was ejected for a few minutes, but Lee’s Summit brought the game to within one run. He hit a two-run home run to help Hickman to an 11-8 victory.
If Andrew Mueller had been ejected, he wouldn’t have been eligible for the championship game the next day against DeSmet, which was coached by Greg Vitello. Vitello’s son Tony Vitello is Andrew Mueller’s pitching coach at MU.
Andrew Mueller felt it was going to be a good day when he came in relief in the championship game.
Andrew Mueller recorded a nine-pitch strikeout on a curveball to end the game. The rest of the Kewpies came onto the field for the celebratory dog pile. Andrew Mueller ranks that, as well as his start against Arizona State this season, as his favorite baseball moments.
He just didn’t want it to end.
“I was kind of sad that that was the last out of the game,” Andrew Mueller said. “For the last two weeks, I was in the zone. I couldn’t make an out.”
Andrew Mueller threw 10 1/3 innings for the Tigers last season with eight strikeouts. He hasn’t hit once.