The long history of baseball has seen many players make it to the major leagues for a “cup of coffee.” Most have limited impact on the history of the game. One exception is Wee Willie Mills, who made a small contribution by himself, but whose son and grandson made baseball a family tradition.
William Grant Mills was born on August 15, 1877 in Schenevus, New York. In his prime as a player, he was 5′ 7″, 150 lbs. — thus leading to the “Wee Willie” nickname. Not much is known about his family; his father was apparently a blacksmith.
Like most boys of the era, Willie played “sandlot” baseball in Central New York, eventually making his way to one of the finest amateur teams; the Actives ball club of Utica, New York. Willie also pitched for the club in nearby Ilion and in the fall of 1898, he pitched very well in a couple of exhibition games against Utica’s club of the professional New York State League (NYSL).
His fine play drew the attention of the management of Utica’s NYSL team and Mills was signed to pitch for them in 1899. The Utica Sunday Tribune described him as “a very promising hurler. He has good speed and a full assortment of curves. He should show up in fine form.” Willie won three exhibition games during the preseason, earning the 21-year-old Mills the honor of starting for the Utica Reds on Opening Day. Willie Mills’ first pro game was a success as he beat Cortland 6-4.
Willie’s rookie season proved to be very successful as he posted a 21-14 record to lead the team in victories. Utica finished 70-43, in 2nd place behind their main rival, Rome.
Many times during this era, the lone umpire wouldn’t show up for a game. When this happened, each team provided one player to share the umpiring duties; usually a pitcher who wasn’t going to play that day anyway. On August 5th, this happened in Albany, so Willie Mills and Albany player Rhuland umpired the game. It was the first of several times during his career that Willie Mills umpired an official professional game. He must have been quite highly regarded by his fellow players for them to select a rookie player to umpire. He had umpired a couple of the club’s pre-season exhibition games, and he made a positive impression.
Like its predecessor, the 1900 club contained nearly a dozen players who would play in the major leagues. Wee Willie Mills once again would take the mound for the Utica Reds and this season he would be even better.
The end of May brought the traditional holiday doubleheader between rivals Utica and Rome (a slightly smaller city about 15 miles away). In the morning, the teams played in Rome with Willie Mills picking up the victory for the Reds. The teams and many fans then made the 15-mile trip to Utica for the afternoon game. A huge crowd of 5,000 turned out for a clash of two of the NYSL’s premier pitchers, Willie Mills and Willie Mains. Even though he was starting his second game of the day, Mills pitched well, striking out two and walking three. But Mains bettered Mills, almost single-handedly winning the game for his club. He allowed four strikeouts and only one walk, and his hitting (3 for 4 with a double, a triple, and two RBIs) was enough to win the game for Rome.
The loss to Mains dropped Wee Willie Mills’ record to 3-4, but his fortunes soon changed for the better. Mills played rightfield and first base during an exhibition game against Ilion and that may have helped him get on track, because he then won eight games in a row. In one game, he came out of the stands, got dressed in a hurry, entered the game in the seventh inning, threw a few warm-up pitches, and got the win.
Utica continued to play well, with Mills pitching two shutouts at the beginning of August, although he lost a 13-inning game between the two victories. Utica finished the season strongly, winning the NYSL championship with a 75-43 record. Mills had over 1/3 of his club’s victories, leading the club with a 26-12 record, 125 strikeouts and four shutouts. His pitching record was 47-26 over his two seasons and he had become well known in baseball circles.
Leading his “adopted hometown” team to the championship made Mills one of the most popular players in Central New York. Unfortunately for Utica, Mills wouldn’t return for the following season. In fact, none of the team would return after one of the strangest occurrences in Utica’s long baseball history.
Supporters of baseball in Schenectady, New York, wanted a championship club, so they contacted Utica owner Allie Brown regarding the possibility of him putting together a team for them for the 1901 season. In three years as owner in Utica, his teams had finished 4th, 2nd and 1st, and he had made at least a slight profit every year. This was very attractive to the Schenectady boosters, so they gave Brown favorable terms and he took control of the Schenectady franchise (even thought he technically still owned Utica’s franchise). In effect, he moved the Utica club (Manager Earl and most of the players) east to Schenectady. Of course, this didn’t sit too well with Uticans. They did manage to put together another ball club for the season, but the animosity would carry over through the season and Willie Mills would be caught in the middle.
By now, most everyone involved with baseball in New York State knew that Wee Willie Mills was a first-class pitcher. Those that didn’t know soon would, as Mills began the season with an incredible 13-game win streak. When owner Brown decided he needed to start selling players because he wasn’t making enough money due to low attendance, he knew Mills would be worth much. The National League’s New York Giants had expressed an interest in Willie Mills earlier in the spring.
Major league clubs did not have farm clubs as they do now; the major league teams would purchase the contracts of minor league players directly from the minor league teams. Mills was contacted by the Giants and asked to secure his release from Allie Brown’s club. Apparently, at first Allie Brown wouldn’t take the money the Giants were offering, so Mills was forced to remain with Schenectady. He posted a 15-3 record — which made him even more valuable and more sought after. Finally, on July 9, the Utica newspapers reported that Allie Brown of the Schenectady club had sold Mills for $1,000 to the New York Giants.
Willie Mills boarded a train and headed west to meet the Giants, who were on a road trip. On July 13, 1901, he took the mound to face the St. Louis Cardinals. Unfortunately, it was not a successful big league debut as the Cards beat Mills 8-2. “Wee Willie” pitched a complete game, giving up ten hits (including two home runs, two triples and two doubles). He was a little more successful at the plate, contributing a double to the losing cause. He didn’t completely shoulder the blame for the loss, as the comments from the following newspapers show.
From the New York World:
Mills did well for five innings, during which he struggled along with very bad support…Mills showed his nerve by pitching the game without allowing the Cardinals a single hit in their last two innings.
From the St. Louis Republic:
The Giants played real yellow ball, and must have made Pitcher Mills wonder how they had managed to stay so near the top for the last three months. Mills received rank support for the first few innings, both in the field and on offensive work. He seems to be a clever twirler…
All in all, Mills has reason to complain against the work done behind him yesterday, and he may yet win many games for the New York club.”
Mills would have a chance to show his stuff just four days later, when he toed the slab against the Cubs in Chicago. The Giants held a 4-3 lead after five innings, but the Cubs scored four runs in the 6th to beat Mills 7-4. Almost as quickly as it started, Willie Mills’ major league career ended. The Giants had apparently seen enough, and Mills was released. It is a shame that the results of two road games were the basis for the decision. Perhaps if Mills had been with the team slightly longer, he could have picked up a tip or two from a teammate in his first big league season, future Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson. Mathewson won the first 20 games of his career, for a team that only won 52 all year.
After the Giants released him, Mills figured he was free to sign with any team that wanted him…and Utica wanted him. Mills looked forward to returning to his adopted hometown and his wife Nellie. The two sides reached an agreement and everything looked like it would work out all right. But, Schenectady had other ideas — claiming that Mills was not sold to the Giants — he was merely loaned to them for a month-long tryout. If the Giants didn’t keep Mills, he would still be under contract with Schenectady. Wee Willie said he had no knowledge of this agreement between the clubs, and he never would have consented to be sent to the Giants had he known it was only on a trial basis.
President John Farrell of the NYSL was forced to suspend Mills so that he wouldn’t pitch for any team until Farrell could consider the evidence and make a ruling as to which team Mills should play for. At the end of July, Farrell ruled that Schenectady still had the rights to Mills’ contract. Mills, likely upset by this, doesn’t appear to have reported to Schenectady for the remainder of the season. He did turn up in the Northern League with the Canton, New York club. After that team folded, he ended up in one of the highest classified minor leagues, the Eastern League, when he was signed by the Montreal Royals.
His final game of the 1901 season put him in the record books, though not in a positive way. On September 7th, he took the mound for Montreal in Toronto. In the first inning, he did everything a pitcher could do. He gave up two bases on balls, hit a batter, committed a balk, made a wild pitch, struck out a hitter, allowed two hits and a sacrifice, and made an error. Toronto scored five runs and went on to win 11-2.
All in all, the 1901 season must have been both a promising and disappointing one for Mills. Disappointing, because he wasn’t allowed to sign with his hometown club and probably felt he wasn’t given a good opportunity to show the Giants his pitching ability. Promising, because he posted an extraordinary 15-3 record for Schenectady and had pitched his first two major league games. Besides, he was 24 and there was no reason to believe he wouldn’t be returning to the big leagues in the near future.
On April 30, 1902, Mills once again took the mound for a game in Utica, but pitching for the Montreal Royals, playing a pre-season exhibition game in his hometown. Utica won the game 3-0. Willie pitched for Montreal for a couple of months, but he wasn’t happy with the pay he was getting and threatened to leave for the independent California League. In mid-July, after pitching a shutout against Jersey City, he did just that, becoming a member of the Los Angeles club. Mills posted a 12-11 record on the West Coast.
Willie returned to Utica in the off-season and on March 2, 1903, his son Arthur Grant Mills was born. While in Utica, Willie did some coaching for Utica Free Academy, working with the high school’s three pitchers in the gymnasium.
When the baseball season started, Mills reported to the Eastern League’s Baltimore Orioles. Eventually, he was traded to Rochester and then Toronto. For the entire season, he posted a 19-19 record. The following season, Mills played for the same three teams, although in the reverse order. He wasn’t nearly as successful, winning only nine games against twenty losses. Mills was hampered by a knee injury towards the end of the season.
Less than four years after appearing in the major leagues, Wee Willie was on his way back down through the minor leagues. The 1905 season brought him back to Utica, but he was not the pitcher Utica fans had seen lead them to the NYSL championship in 1900. Mills went 9-11 before being suspended and fined $50 in mid-August. The reason for the suspension wasn’t disclosed, but the Utica Daily Press commented that the “punishment handed out to Mills was deserved.” On August 19, 1905 Willie Mills dropped off his locker key, picked up his final check, and left town. There were rumors that he played for an independent team in Northern New York, but he probably didn’t play in Organized Baseball again.
Less than a decade later, Willie would be dead at age 36. Struck by a train in Norwood, New York, his body was so badly mutilated that identification was made by tracing a grocery slip in his pocket that showed where he had made purchases in North Lawrence, New York.
It’s possible that Willie suffered an injury around the time of his two-game stint in the majors. There’s no denying he was a different man afterward. He had an extraordinary 64-31 record (.673 winning pct) before he pitched for the Giants. Afterward, he was 49-61 in the games we have a record of. Was he hurt in some way or did he possibly lose confidence because he felt the Giants didn’t give him a fair chance? We will never know, but luckily his baseball skill was passed down to his son, who was even more successful than Wee Willie was.
Willie’s son Art Mills had a long minor league career and spent parts of two seasons as a major league pitcher. He also spent time coaching in the minors and majors. He coached for the Detroit Tigers for several seasons, including Detroit’s 1945 World Series champions.
Art’s son Billy would make a name for himself as a baseball comedian who traveled the country in the 1950s entertaining in hundreds of minor league and major league ballparks. Billy’s was best known for his serious impersonation of Babe Ruth’s called shot. In 1953, the National Baseball Congress honored Billy for his contributions to the game. All three generations of Mills were represented in the Legends of Leatherstocking Country exhibit that opened at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in December of 1998. Willie, Art, and Billy were among 23 gentlemen from Central New York State recognized for their contributions to our National Pastime.
In addition to the newspapers cited in the biography, I have consulted the Utica Daily Press, Utica Observer-Dispatch, Utica Sunday Tribune, New York Evening Journal, and the subject’s grandson Billy Mills.