The 1994 major-league baseball season came to an abrupt end on August 11 because of a player strike. The strike lasted for 232 days, which meant that the 1994 postseason was not played. This was the first time a major professional sports league did not play a postseason because of labor struggles. Before the strike ended on April 2, 1995, teams began spring training using replacement players.
While the members of the Players Association were waiting for their union and the owners to come to agreement, players who had dreamed of playing in the major leagues now had a window of opportunity to achieve their dreams. Many of them players had seen time in the minor leagues while others played independent ball. When the strike ended, many of those players were cast aside with only a few earning minor-league contracts.
Los Angeles Times writer Mike DiGiovanna characterized the opening of the 1995 season as a six-week fantasy camp, as an embarrassment when reflecting on his experience as a writer in a 2019 article, “MLB 1994 strike: Replacement Players Provided Comic Relief, Farcical Baseball.”1 The last time the major leagues used “replacement players” was during World War II, when many established major leaguers were in the armed forces.
During World War II, more than 5,000 major- and minor-league players served in the military or worked in defense plants. The void created by their absence sent club owners and executives scrambling in search of serviceable talent. More than 400 ballplayers made their big-league debuts between 1943 and 1945, the period that saw the largest concentration of departing players. In baseball, it sometimes doesn’t hurt to be in the right place at the right time.2 Massachusetts native Bill Mills was in the right place and the right time and able to record his only major-league hit in the 1944 season.
William Henry Mills Jr. was born on November 2, 1919, in Boston, the second of four children of Massachusetts natives William and Mary Mills. Mills Sr. was a veteran of World War I and worked as a wholesale meat salesman.
Young Bill played football and baseball at Arlington (Massachusetts) High School and was the captain of both teams in his senior year. After high school, he attended Coburn Classical Prep in Waterville, Maine, where he played football and baseball, and he continued to play both sports at the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Bill began his college studies and baseball career at Holy Cross in 1939. At about the same time, World War II began. In September of 1940, with the United States not yet in the war, Congress established a military draft, at first calling up men for one year of service. Mills registered for the draft, but was rejected for military service because of a perforated eardrum. By the time Mills was a senior, the existence of military programs on campus led to extensive curriculum changes, with more focus on mathematics, physical sciences, and physical training, and less on philosophy and the classics.
In the spring of 1943, opposition groups were uniting to overthrow Mussolini in Italy. In Massachusetts, Mills, by now a senior at Holy Cross, became the captain of the baseball team. That season he batted .586, leading the league in batting average. When word got out that the Crusaders had on their roster a catcher with a great hitting eye, above-average speed, and a fantastic arm, scouts made their way to Worcester.
Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics were struggling. After the breakup of their pennant-winning teams from 1929-31, the A’s declined rapidly. Since 1935 they had consistently finished the season in last place. During the war, Athletics fans hoped that the losses to military service by other teams would maybe level the playing field for the A’s, but that was not the case, especially after Sam Chapman and Benny McCoy went off to war in 1942; the A’s record that season fell to 55-99, and in 1943 it dropped to 49-105. The A’s struggled in many categories particularly in hitting. In 1943 the team batting average was .232. The team’s catchers, Hal Wagner and Bob Swift, together batted .218. Since Mills had put up impressive numbers in college and Mack was in need of some offense, the A’s manager signed Mills in the fall of 1943 as an amateur free agent. In The Sporting News, Stan Baumgartner reported that Mills was “described by some to have all the actions and physical characteristics (minus the ears) of Mickey Cochrane.”3 It was anticipated that he would team with Hal Wagner.
In November 1943, Mills married Grace Marie Herlihy of Winchester, Massachusetts. He worked that winter as a physical-education instructor at the Sidney Hill Health Institute in Boston.4
Mills was right-handed, stood 5-feet-10, and was listed at 175 pounds. He joined the A’s for spring training at Frederick, Maryland.
Before spring training began, the Athletics reacquired Frankie Hayes, who became the team’s primary catcher in 1944, playing in every game that year.
Mills began the 1944 season in the minor leagues. When spring training ended, his hitting ability was not a concern, but it was feared that his throwing arm was not strong enough for him to make the Opening Day roster, and he was sent to the Toronto Maple Leafs of the Double-A International League. He played in eight games and was 3-for-17, two of his hits being a double and a triple. On May 7, the Athletics traded catcher Wagner to the Boston Red Sox for Ford Garrison, and this created an opening for Mills. Despite his .176 batting average, the evident need of the A’s was enough to get him called up to the major leagues.
On Friday, May 19, 1944, the 24-year-old Mills made his major-league debut, against the Cleveland Indians in Philadelphia. He entered the game as a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning, facing Indians starter Al Smith with one out. He singled and later moved up to second base but was stranded there. The next day against Cleveland, he pinch-hit again, in the eighth inning with runners on first and second and one out, but hit into an inning-ending double play. His third plate appearance came on the road – again facing the Indians during a May 28 doubleheader in Cleveland, he walked in the top of the ninth inning of the second game. The A’s were down, 5-1, and his walk loaded the bases with one out. He was retired on a force play, but a throwing error allowed two runs to score. Cleveland won, 5-3.
Mills’s next chance at the plate came five days later, on June 2, when he pinch-hit against the St. Louis Browns on June 2 at Sportsman’s Park. Facing Bob Muncrief with two on and one out, he hit into a double play that ended the fifth inning in a game the Browns won, 3-0.
Mills played his final major-league game the next day. In an 18-8 blowout loss, Mills was able to get some playing time behind the plate. With the Browns leading 8-1 in the bottom of the fourth inning, Mack sent Mills behind the plate to give starting catcher Frankie Hayes a rest. In his final at-bat as a major-leaguer, Mills struck out. In the sixth inning, as the Browns were scoring five more runs, he split his finger on a foul ball off the bat of Mark Christman and had to leave the game, replaced by Tony Parisse.5
After five major-league plate appearances, Mills was sent down to the minor leagues – reportedly at his own request, so he could get more work, given that Hayes was catching every game. He played 17 games for the Lancaster Red Roses of the Class-B Interstate League.6 In 47 at-bats, Mills batted .277.
After the season, Mills was traded by the Athletics to the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association for Jim Pruett, cash, and a player to be named later. For reasons unknown to us today, he went on the voluntarily retired list from April 1945 until March 1946.
At the age of 26, Mills returned to baseball in 1946 to play for the Providence Chiefs of the Class-B New England League. Splitting time between playing for the Chiefs (who actually played in adjoining Cranston) and working as a junior-high teacher and coach in Pawtucket, Mills spent four seasons on the Chiefs roster, mostly part-time after the first season.
In 1949, at the age of 29, Mills played his last season in Organized Baseball. He continued his newfound profession as a math teacher and baseball and football coach at Goff Junior High School in Pawtucket. Sources differ on where he lived and worked after his baseball career. He retired from teaching and coaching in 1976.7 In retirement, Mills and his wife, Rita, spent the summer on Cape Cod and the winters in Port Charlotte, Florida. The couple were married for 37 years and had one son and three daughters. Mills died in hospice at Gainesville, Florida, on August 9, 2019.8 At the age of 99, he was the second oldest living major leaguer.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com, Retrosheet.org, thebaseballcube, statmuse.com, and the following:
“A’s Spring Training 1944,” Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society. January 9, 2019. https://www.philadelphiaathletics.org/history/as-spring-training-1944/.
“Holy Cross: 1900-1949.” https://www.holycross.edu/175th-anniversary/historical-timeline-holy-cross/1900-1949.
Rose, George. One Hit Wonders: Baseball Stories. IUniverse, 2004.
Nowlin, Bill, ed. Who’s on First: Replacement Players in World War II (Phoenix: Society for American Baseball Research, 2015).
Ancestry.com. U.S. WWII Draft Cards Young Men, 1940-1947 [database on-line]. Lehi, Utah, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.
1 Mike DiGiovanna, “MLB 1994 Strike: Replacement Players Provided Comic Relief, Farcical Baseball,” Los Angeles Times, August 12, 2019. https://www.latimes.com/sports/dodgers/story/2019-08-11/mlb-1994-strike-anniversary-replacement-players-provided-comic-relief.
2 Craig Allen Cleve, Hardball on the Home Front (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2004), 2.
3 Stan Baumgartner, “Phillies Lose to Uncle Sam, Judge Landis,” The Sporting News, November 11, 1943: 6.
4 “A’s Buster Mills Weds,” The Sporting News, December 23, 1943: 16.
5 See the Retrosheet game account at https://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1944/B06030SLA1944.htm.
6 “Interstate League,” The Sporting News, June 22, 1944: 18.
7 Legacy.com, and Legacy. “William Mills Obituary (1919 – 2019) – The Providence Journal.” Legacy.com. August 19, 2019. https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/providence/obituary.aspx?n=william-h-mills&pid=193658540.
8 Sam Gazdziak, ”Obituary: Bill Mills (1919-2019),” RIP Baseball, August 19, 2019. https://ripbaseball.com/2019/08/19/obituary-bill-mills-1919-2019/. One former student, Jane Cairns, offered a touching posthumous memory of him as a teacher, writing in part, “I attended Goff from 1966 to 1969. Mr. Mills was my math teacher for 8th grade. Just seeing this passing of him reminds me of how kind he was to me. It is because of him that I loved math. He treated his class with a sweet and loving manner. I was a shy student so it meant a lot to me to have him be so open.” https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/providence/obituary.aspx?n=william-h-mills&pid=193658540.
William Henry Mills
November 2, 1919 at Boston, MA (USA)
August 9, 2019 at Gainesville, FL (USA)
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