Denmark says goodbye to a legend
John Miller, pointing before the state baseball championship at Fox Cities Stadium last June, always had stories to tell and people eager to listen. Miller died on Jan. 28. Photo by Jacob Heiser
By Kelly Fenton
The Denmark News
DENMARK – According to his many friends – and virtually everyone he met, in one form or another, became one – John Miller’s passing late last month leaves a giant hole.
A hole in the town of Denmark, in northeast Wisconsin and in all those lives he enriched, whether it was via his entrepreneurship, his community impact, his generosity or the fascinating life he led and the many rich stories it generated. Stories enhanced by his gift for telling them.
All of that will be missed.
“I never thought the day would come,” said Dale Schlies, a lifelong friend who witnessed first-hand many of the events that became the fodder for so many of Miller’s legendary stories. “It’s so hard for me but you gotta accept it. I can’t figure out how the funeral home is going to be able to handle so many people.”
If you had to sum up John Miller by just one thing, you’d tie yourself in knots. He was the founder of Circle Tap and later, in 1972, The Bar, which, if not the first sports bar in the country, was certainly among the first; he was the man who single-handedly brought world-class fast-pitch softball to Denmark and who ultimately was inducted into the International Softball Congress (ISC) Hall of Fame; he was the father of Bill Miller, Hall of Fame Denmark High School baseball coach who just won his third consecutive state tournament; he was the grandfather of two of the players on those teams and of 14 grandchildren in all; he was a wildly successful entrepreneur; he was a world-class blackjack player in Vegas.
He was, maybe above all else, his friends insist, a man of enormous and humble generosity.
“He had a big heart for helping those in dire need,” said friend and business partner John Duckett. “As far as giving back to the community he was the first door you would knock on. His ears were wide open and he listened, whether it was giving advice or financial help.”
John Miller died on Jan. 28, 86 years to the day after he was born on his parents’ farm in Cleveland, Wisconsin. After he graduated from Green Bay East, Miller joined the U.S. Navy during the Suez Canal Crisis in 1956. He decided to try his hand at baseball after he returned to civilian life and headed to Florida with a friend to showcase his talent with some major league teams, picking grapefruit and working in the carnival to make ends meet.
The baseball thing didn’t work out and when he returned to Wisconsin he played a couple of seasons with the Manitowoc Chiefs, a semi-pro football team, and coached basketball and football at St. Philip's School.
He married Clare in 1960 and had five children and bought a beer distributorship and later owned Denmark Coin. Along the way, he purchased Circle Tap.
That’s a full life already.
But John Miller’s life was just getting started.
‘Miller knocks them out again …’
Miller grew up in Maribel idolizing the local fastpitch softball team. That probably played a role in his founding of the Circle Tap Dukes, a fastpitch softball team, in 1984. Eventually the Circle Tap Dukes combined with another local team and formed what is today the Denmark Dukes, who are managed by Darren Derricks. Derricks bought Circle Tap from John in 1986.
The Denmark Dukes, composed of local and international players, have played in several ISC World Tournaments and also host the Boys of Summer Fastpitch Softball Tournament every July at the pristine softball diamond John built behind Circle Tap.
Miller played a little softball himself for one of the Circle Tap teams “only because I built the diamond,” he used to joke.
During an interview before the state championship last June at Fox Cities Stadium Miller laughed and slipped in a Yogi-ism. “At one time I thought I was better than I was.”
But even when he wasn’t playing, he was an enthusiastic supporter, not just as a fan but as a financial donor as well. His sponsorships included, in addition to the Dukes, the Devilbears and Denmark Youth Baseball and Softball and countless others.
Meanwhile, with the advent of ESPN and the preponderance of televised sports, The Bar took off, eventually expanding to seven locations.
Miller wasn’t happy just to reap the rewards of his wild success; he was eager to pass along his knowledge to friends.
“He was my mentor and got me going in the bar business,” Derricks said. “His best advice was, surround yourself with good people. That’s what he did. And they were all loyal to him.”
Dale Schlies laughs when he remembers one of his early visits to Circle Tap right after he graduated from high school.
“I was what I guess you’d call a kind of an eager guy,” Schlies says. “And John has to tell me to settle down a little. And I did because I respected him. So I walk in and he says you owe me a dollar (for the cover).
“I say, ‘the band’s quitting in twenty minutes,’ and he says, ‘Is there music now? Give me a dollar.’ So I’m walking out and he and Irv each have two beers and it’s four beers for a dollar so I say, ‘You can at least thank me for the beers.’ And they laugh and say, ‘This Schlies ain’t as dumb as we thought.’ He was just a funny guy.”
Schlies ended up accompanying Miller to Vegas on many occasions. Miller, an excellent blackjack player who was banned from smaller casinos for counting cards, always had a table at the Stardust where he knew the casino manager.
“If I heard it once, I heard it a thousand times,” Schlies says. “John would look at the dealer and he’d say, ‘Now I’m going to draw a five or a six here and you’re going to take a break card, Maam.’ And it almost always happened that way.”
Over the years Miller won three blackjack tournaments in Vegas, including two straight. Schlies says he remembers an article in the Stardust magazine with a picture of John with boxing gloves under the headline, ‘Miller knocks ‘em out again!’
Derricks, who also often went to Vegas with Miller, said he was never flashy about his winnings or any of his many successes in life.
“He was just very generous,” Derricks says. “He was a great blackjack player but what he wanted most was for everyone to have fun. It was nothing for him to throw someone a black hundred-dollar chip if they were having a bad night. He wanted everyone to have a good time.”
Schlies concurs, adding, “Every Vegas trip I went on with him he never overdressed and he didn’t care if you had a dollar or a thousand dollars in your pocket, he was the same person. He talked with everybody. He’d rather have Frank and Pat’s Pizza and a bottle of Bud than a steak. He’d say, ‘It don’t get no better than that.’ He was a down-to-earth guy.”
Duckett, Miller’s partner in The Bar, actually honeymooned in Vegas along with John and Clare and another couple. Duckett also attended several Super Bowls with Miller.
“He just knew how to have a good time,” Duckett says. “And he knew how to help people.”
Schlies says he and John were planning another trip to Vegas last fall but his decline ruled that out.
“He was going strong to the end,” Schlies says. “But winter came and he started slowing up. His tank just ran out of gas. He never said quit, though. He was sharp as a tack to the end.”
‘He got those tournaments here’
It wasn’t his blackjack prowess or his many business successes that mattered most to John Miller. His greatest sources of pride, according to Schlies and Derricks and Duckett, were his family and helping to put Denmark center stage with world-class fastpitch softball.
“I think one of the highlights of his life was getting to throw out the first pitch at the World Tournament the first time Denmark hosted it (in 2019),” Schlies says.
That happened, by the way, at John Miller Field, the new name as of 2012 of the diamond he built behind Circle Tap. The tournament returned to Denmark again last summer.
Derricks says Miller’s love of big-time softball and the pride he took in bringing it to Denmark was evident in the fact that he showed up every day for the tournament last August despite beginning to decline.
“He got those tournaments here,” Derricks says. “That was a huge deal.”
In 2012, Miller was inducted into the ISC Hall of Fame.
Duckett says Miller still loved to reminisce about the 21-inning game at the World Tournament in Kimberly in 1973.
“There were a bunch of us went on a Monday evening and it was a team from Green Bay and I think they ended up winning 1-0.” Duckett recalls. “They stopped serving beer at one a.m. and John sees a guy pushing a cart with five cases of beer and he bought the whole cart and was giving them out to all his friends.”
Such generosity was commonplace, according to Schlies, who pointed out that for at least a couple of seasons Miller purchased two Packer season tickets in the disabled section at Lambeau Field and would always find someone to give them to.
“I could tell you stories about all the people he knows and you’d be sitting around the bar and if there was anyone with a problem, he’d want to know about it,” Schlies said. “And he’d say, ‘let me do this or let me do that.’ He never hesitated. He was a sensitive guy with a heart as big as he was. He was a very giving guy.”
‘He always loved a celebration’
Miller was there last June when Denmark took on St. Thomas More at Fox Cities Stadium, looking a bit frail huddled in his wheelchair on the concourse above the stadium seats but holding court with all his fellow-fans, tossing off a quip here and a quip there.
He said at the time that there was nothing he enjoyed more than coming to watch his son coach and his grandsons play. It had always been that way with all his grandchildren.
“My grandpa was always in the front row cheering us on,” said Margaret Miller, an all-conference basketball player who led DePere High School in scoring when the Redbirds reached the sectional final in 2015. Miller hit the game-winner against Kimberly in the sectional semifinals. “He was always very proud of us. Sports is how we bonded.
“He was always a character. He was always betting on something with his friends and he told me before one game, ‘Margaret, I need you to score this many points.’”
Margaret says she heard at one point there was a two-hour line to get into the wake.
“People said it was one of the liveliest wakes they’d ever been to,” she adds. “He’d have been so absolutely proud of that. He always loved a celebration. It was well deserved.”
Bill Miller’s daughter, Hannah, who played basketball and volleyball at Denmark, says that she remembers always seeing her grandfather in the bleachers.
“I just remember when he’d come back from Vegas with all his winnings we’d go to his house and he’d give us a little cup of money to play blackjack with,” she says. “If our cup went empty he’d throw in five more dollars. And he’d show us all these card tricks and you could tell he loved showing off to us.
“It’s extremely tough (to lose him) after seeing how hard he fought these last few years. He never gave up and he would do anything he could to be able to be there (for the baseball games).”
Saving the best for last
Before the game last June that would end with another state championship and would make Denmark only the third baseball program in state history to win three consecutive state titles, Miller discussed an especially proud moment the year before after Denmark had just won the state title when someone from another team told him that was the best-coached high school team he’d ever seen.
Over the last five years of his life, John Miller got to witness a lifetime of highlights. He saw his grandson, Brennen, get the victory in his son’s 400th career win as a coach. This past season, with grandson Luke pitching, he witnessed Bill hit the 500-win mark. By that point, Bill had already been inducted in the Wisconsin Coaches Hall of Fame. And, of course, there were those 18 straight postseason wins starting in 2021 that catapulted the Vikings into three-time titleists. He had to sit through only six losses over the last three seasons while celebrating 89 wins. He became the proud grandfather of the 2021 Division 2 Player of the Year, All-District Co-Player of the Year and North Eastern Conference Co-Player of the Year when Brennen went 11-0 with a sub-1.00 ERA and, two years later, of the 2023 North Eastern Conference Player of the Year and the Northeast District Player of the Year when Luke went 12-0 and batted .542.
“Winning those state tournaments, he loved that,” said Derricks. “He was beaming. We’ll never see that again in our lifetimes. He loved going to those games and he was so proud of Bill and those kids.”
For Brennen and Luke, they hold on to the joy of having such an ardent, supportive grandfather even as they process the grief of his loss.
“The first thing that comes to mind is going to his house as a little kid and shooting hoops or playing catch with him,” says Brennen, who was the Skyway Conference Pitcher of the Year and who will play for Bradley University this spring. “And then just him being at almost every one of my sporting events. I can see him always pulling his car right up to the fence.”
Luke says his grandfather inspired his love for baseball and basketball.
“It maybe seems like a small thing at the time when you realize he comes to all your games,” Luke says. “But it wasn’t. He was the first person I would try to find after the game and he’d always have some kind of witty comment for me. He joked last year, ‘You know you’re maybe a better hitter than your brother, now you gotta work on your pitching.’”
Brennen says he never got tired of hearing stories he says he’d heard a hundred times.
“And just the way he carried himself,” he adds. “The way people saw him. You couldn’t go anywhere where 10 or 12 people wouldn’t come up and shake his hand and talk to him.”
Luke says he and his brother recently talked about how it will probably hit them hardest the next time they’re in a game.
“Of course we’re going to miss him,” Brennen says. “It’s going to be different stepping out on the mound for the first time. He always had the best seat in the house. And I know he’s always going to have the best seat from now on.”