Many major league ballplayers have served their country in the military, but few did so before playing their first professional game. Art Mills served in the U.S. Navy as a 16-year-old just after World War I; and then went on to have a baseball career — as a player and World Series winning coach — that spanned three decades.
Arthur Grant Mills was born in Utica, NY in 1903, the son of former major league pitcher Willie Mills and his wife Nellie. Art Mills grew up playing ball in Utica, and following events in the Great War. Patriotism drove him to lie about his age and enlist in the Navy just after the end of the war.
Art Mills was just sixteen when he set sail on a brand new battleship, New Mexico, less than a year after the end of World War I. The ship (and the many others in the convoy that demonstrated America’s naval power) traveled down the East Coast and then through the Panama Canal. The Panama Canal was just five years old and was looked at with considerable awe. The armada of battleships and escorts traveled along the West Coast, stopping at ports along the way.
At some point shortly after the fleet arrived on the West Coast, disclosure of Art’s age led to him being discharged from the Navy. He was only a teenager and he had already seen more of the country and the world than most people of the era ever would. A baseball career allowed Art see most of the rest of America.
Art began playing serious ball as a 17-year-old in 1920 for teams in Utica’s Mercantile League. The players were technically amateurs, although many were paid. He began the 1920 season as a pitcher on the Charles Millar & Sons team. Unfortunately, it was not a successful season for either Mills or the team: the club finished 0-14 while Mills posted a 0-10 won-loss record in the 12 games he pitched. He did have an impressive 99 strikeouts for the season. His hitting outshone his pitching; he was 4th in the league with a .445 average. Art also spent the season playing for the Moose team with far better results. He was 7-1 for the Moose.
Art was becoming one of the premier ballplayers in the Utica area and his 1921 season offers a glimpse at a long-gone era in baseball’s history. Art’s pitching and hitting skills were much sought after; so much so that he played for 10 different ballclubs that year. He was able to do this because some leagues and teams played only during the week, while others played only on Saturday or Sunday.
Art kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings from the season and a note he made in it, “Pay at end of season,” proves he was getting paid to play amateur baseball. The scrapbook didn’t contain information for every game that Art played that year, but it did show he played at least 55 games for all the different teams.
He was the premier player in the Industrial League; leading the league with a .545 batting average (he also hit .391 in the Sunset League that year) and posting an 8-1 record on the mound. Based on the information in the scrapbook, overall he hit 12 home runs and posted a 19-3-1 record with 144 strikeouts, including one no-hitter and one one-hitter. While there were players who might be considered better hitters and others who were great pitchers, Art’s combination of both was exceptional.
For a player Art’s age (he was just 18-years-old) to post such impressive statistics was sure to get him noticed, especially in a region of the country known for producing major leaguers. By 1921, the area had produced nearly a dozen big league players.
The summer of 1922 was spent much like that of 1921. Once again, Mills played in about 60 games in four months and for the games for which box scores are available, he posted a 13-5 record.
The next season found Mills with his first professional team in Organized Baseball, the Binghamton Triplets of the NY-Penn League. As in the past, he was inconsistent at times, but he still made favorable impressions. He was with the team for a couple of weeks, but soon returned to Central New York. In August, 1923, Art went to Vermont to join the Barre-Montpelier Hyphens.
Barre-Montpelier won the league championship in a close race and Art Mills’ pitching contributed to the pennant drive, with Mills pitching a three-hitter to win his first game. In the games that he had newspaper clippings for, he posted a 7-2 record.
In 1924 Art Mills moved back to Organized Baseball with Pittsfield, Massachusetts in the Eastern League. He became an above-average professional pitcher in three seasons in the Eastern League, where he won a total of 37 games. In the Eastern League, he had two 14-win seasons; the most victories he had in a season during his career because he spent much of it as a relief pitcher.
In 1925, he pitched against Lou Gehrig’s Hartford team. Gehrig got a hit, but Mills won the game, 11-1.
His impressive pitching in 1926 led the National League’s Boston Braves to purchase his contract from Pittsfield towards the end of the season. They assigned him to Providence, meaning that Art went from the Eastern League’s last place team to its first place team. The Providence Grays were managed by Rube Marquard and he gave Art the honor of pitching the game that clinched the pennant for Providence. Mills won the game.
In 1927 Mills pitched well enough in spring training to earn a spot on the Boston Braves pitching staff. His first major league appearance occurred against the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 16. The Braves starter only lasted a third of an inning, and Art came in and pitched nearly seven innings, allowing only two hits and one run.
He spent three months with the Braves, but wasn’t getting enough work so he was sent to Rochester in the International League. Mills pitched in 15 games for each of the two teams, going 5-4 with Rochester and 0-1 with the Braves. The following season he made his final four appearances in the major leagues for the Braves before being sent back to Providence.
Art later recalled being sent down: “Jack Slattery, who coached Boston College for years, took over as Braves manager in 1928, but Rogers Hornsby vowed to become the coach. And Hornsby got the job, too. After my release June 20, I told the club I was entitled to $1,000 because my contract called for it if I stayed beyond the June 15th cutdown date. The club balked, but Hornsby went to bat for me. And he got me that $1,000.”
Soon after reaching Providence, Art was traded to Buffalo for three players. Mills became a favorite of Buffalo Bisons’ fans as he helped lead them to a first place tie. Mills won nine games and posted the league’s 2nd best ERA at 2.82.
Mills was signed by the Bisons for the 1929 season and in an otherwise unidentified newspaper article headlined “Is Man of Leisure in Off-Season” Mills described how he spent his off-season.
“I sleep until 10 o’clock each morning, then eat breakfast, read the paper and hang around the house until 12. After lunch, a show or movie, then dinner at night and after that a bridge party, dance or show.” He also said he felt that Buffalo was the “best town I ever played in, bar none.”
Mills was well-liked in Buffalo and spent three seasons there, winning a total of 24 games. Art was successful on the field and had some interesting stories from both on and off the field. He recalled an embarrassing story, “When I played for Buffalo during prohibition we went over into Canada to a distillery to get some whiskey. They gave it to us in 20, two-ounce bottles which we hid in our socks, and in our waistbands. When we got to the bridge the customs agent asked us if we were bringing anything in. I said ‘no.’ The guy I was with also said ‘no,’ but his face got red. They brought us inside, made us undress and we had to pay a five-dollar fine on each bottle. That was $100.
The next day the headlines called us the world’s biggest dumbbells for bringing in those little bottles. We could have brought in a quart bottle and the fine would have been only $5.”
In 1931, Art was traded from Buffalo to Toronto in the International League. By now, Art was an experienced veteran who could be expected to give his team a good effort every time he pitched. He posted a 5-6 record for the 1931 Maple Leafs club and obviously impressed manager Steve O’Neill. O’Neill later helped provide Art with his greatest success in baseball. Mills returned to Toronto for the 1932 season, but it was not a good one for him. During a game on May 31st against Buffalo, Mills broke his knee. The seriousness of the injury caused Art to miss two seasons.
Art Mills returned to baseball in fine form with the 1934 Williamsport Grays. The Grays were in the NY-Penn League (Single-A). Mills contributed with perhaps his finest all-around season as a professional. He posted a 12-7 record on the mound and hit .324 with 7 doubles in 35 games. The Grays beat Binghamton in the playoffs to win the league championship. Also with the team was son Billy as batboy. Art asked for a pay raise when negotiating his 1935 contract, but his request was denied. So he went home and never played professional baseball again.
After his professional playing days ended, Art returned to Utica and was soon a part of the local semi-pro baseball circuit. In 1936, he became manager of the Rome team in the Central New York League. Art played occasionally for Rome, usually at first base, but sometimes he also pitched.
Joining Rome in the league were teams from across New York State like the Cortland Cobakcos, Syracuse Marksons, Auburn Imps, Oneonta Merchants, Camden Braves, Deferiet Chiefs, and Schenectady Mohawk Giants. The Mohawk Giants were one of the premier “Negro” teams of the era. Another Negro team was the Brooklyn Cuban Giants, who brought their portable lights to play a night game, which was rare in Rome. Brooklyn won the game 15-13, with Art Mills collecting three hits, scoring two runs and driving in two.
The Rome club struggled through a losing season, but there were bright spots, such as when Art pitched his 2-9 Romans to a victory over the 10-1 Camden team.
Even while involved with semi-pro baseball, Art needed to support his family. By his own admission, over the next decade, he held “a thousand jobs,” including operating the Art Mills Grill for about a year and a half. Son Billy was prompted to write a jingle for the place. Sung to the tune for “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” the jingle went:
Take me out to Art Mills Grill,
Take me out with the crowd.
Buy me some beer and a little snack,
I don’t care if we ever get back.
And we’ll root, root, root for a good time,
Of fun you’ll have your fill.
It’s not one, two, three drinks and you’re out
at the Art Mills Grill.
In 1943, Art caught the biggest break of his career when the Detroit Tigers came to McConnell Field in Utica to play an exhibition game against the Utica Braves of the Eastern League. Detroit’s manager was Steve O’Neill, whom Art had become friends with back in the minor leagues.
Over the winter, Mills and O’Neill kept in touch and O’Neill offered Art a coaching job with the Tigers for the 1944 season. Mills accepted the offer without hesitation. It had taken fifteen years, but Art Mills was back in the major leagues.
Mills joined a Tiger ballclub that had finished in 5th place in 1943. Maybe Art’s quiet demeanor was a good influence on the war-time squad, because the team improved to 2nd place, just one game behind the St. Louis Browns, in 1944. The following season, Detroit won the American League pennant and faced the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. Led by the league’s Most Valuable Player, pitcher Hal Newhouser, and returning veteran slugger Hank Greenberg, the Tigers won the series in seven games.
Art remained friends with pitcher Hal Newhouser for many years. It is difficult to know exactly how much influence Mills may have had on Newhouser as a coach, but the following facts are indisputable. In each of the two seasons before Mills arrived, Newhouser won 8 games for the Tigers. In the five seasons Mills was coach, Newhouser posted won-loss records of 29-9, 25-9, 26-9, 17-17, and 21-12. While certainly his talent was incredible, it is hard to imagine a pitcher posting an astounding 118-56 record without having some helpful contributions from his coach.
Due to the war, Art was the only coach on the team, so the fact that he was both a good pitcher and good hitter was a definite asset. This may be one of the reasons O’Neill had hired him; his abilities allowed him to coach players on more than one aspect of the game.
After the series ended, Commissioner Happy Chandler sent the Detroit players and coaches a letter listing the amount they each would be paid from the total World Series receipts of $199,743.20. Mills received a full share of $6,443.33. For some reason, he was the only one to have taxes withheld. He ended up with just under $5,000, which was partially used to buy a car.
Detroit improved to 92 wins in 1946, but it wasn’t enough as the post-war Boston Red Sox won the pennant; led by returning veteran and league MVP Ted Williams.
It was fitting that the 1946 All-Star Game was held at Fenway Park in Boston as eight Red Sox made the All-Star club. The managers of each league’s 1945 pennant winners were the managers of the All-Star teams. Steve O’Neill then selected two coaches for the game — Luke Sewell, the St. Louis Browns manager, and Art Mills.
The game, won by the American League 12-0, produced what Art Mills described as his most memorable moment in baseball. “The night before the game, O’Neill had dinner with Charlie Grimm, the National League manager. O’Neill asked Grimm if the opportunity presented itself, to have [Pittsburgh’s] Rip Sewell pitch his famous blooper pitch. In the eighth inning, Sewell threw that pitch to Ted Williams. Ted missed it by two feet. But Sewell came back with the pitch and Williams hit it into the right field seats.”
While in Boston for the All-Star Game, the always well-dressed Art made a name for himself when a newspaper reported, “Art (Flash) Mills summer ensemble has been knocking ’em dead in the hotel lobbies.”
In 1947, Detroit once again finished in second place, this time behind the New York Yankees. In 1948, the Tigers finished in the second division for the first time since Mills was hired.
After a 5th place finish in 1948, the Tiger’s felt they needed to make changes, starting with manager Steve O’Neill. Once he was gone, the three coaches figured it was only a matter of time before they were also let go. Coach Bill Sweeney resigned to become manager of the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League. Art Mills asked for his release so that he could try to find another team to work for. He did find another ballclub to work for, but his days in the major leagues were over. After Bill Sweeney joined Portland, he hired Art to be a coach for the Beavers.
Art coached in Portland for three seasons with the club finishing in 6th, 4th, and 4th. He and Sweeney got along well. Sweeney was something of a character, though. Once, when he was managing on crutches because of an injured leg, he got himself thrown out of a game by throwing a crutch at an umpire who made a call he didn’t like. Luckily for both, he missed the ump, but was fined $50.
On September 9, 1951 Art was released by Portland. Over 30 years after first playing semi-pro ball in Utica, Art Mills never again drew a salary from baseball. He returned to Utica and eventually got a job with General Electric. He retired from GE in 1968. In Utica, the Mills’ lived at 16 Noyes Street and Art acted as a kind of handyman for the small apartment building. The building’s owner thought so much of Art that he put up a sign naming the building “The Arthur Mills Apartments.” Decades later, the faded (but readable) sign is still there.
In 1972, Art was inducted into the Utica College Hall of Fame. Among the congratulations he received were telegrams from the Detroit Tigers and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Three years later he passed away at 72 years of age. In 2001, he received further honors when he joined his son Billy as inductees in the Greater Utica Sports Hall of Fame.
Art’s son Billy made 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.
The sources used for this bio included the Utica Daily Press, Utica Sunday Tribune, New York Times, Utica Observer-Dispatch, Art Mills scrapbook (which contained many unidentified newspaper clippings), and interviews with his son Billy.