In spring 1941, at the age of 31, “Lefty” Mills’ career seemingly was finished just seven years after he signed his first professional baseball contract. Six years later, after he served in the military during World War II, Mills attempted a comeback. It was short-lived. Mills was scratched from a scheduled start for Charley Pedrotti’s Rosabell Plumbers against a stacked Rawak Candy team in a January 5, 1947, Southern California semipro AAA-League game. Since he joined the Plumbers in 1946, Mills had pitched through arm pain.1 The left-handed pitcher’s career, which ended once and for all that January day in 1947, was anything but conventional.
Howard Robinson Mills was born May 12, 1910, in Dedham, Massachusetts, to Charles Pigeon and Mabel Esther Robinson Mills.2 Howard was the fourth of five children and the youngest of Charles and Mabel’s three sons. Charles immigrated to the United States from St. John, New Brunswick, in 1880 and worked as a machinist and carpenter.3
While other boys his age played various sports in his Dedham neighborhood and at school, young Howard sought to earn money, including working as an errand boy and caddying at nearby Norfolk County Golf Club. Mills never played sports,4 completed just two years of high school, and likely worked to help to support his family.5
Inspired by an alluring recruiting poster that called young men to “See the World,” Mills enlisted in the US Navy in Boston, Massachusetts, on June 1, 1928.6 While he attended initial training at Newport Naval Station in Rhode Island, Mills learned about the Navy’s rapid expansion of aviation and the associated specialized roles that had to be filled by enlisted personnel.7 Seizing the opportunity Apprentice Seaman Mills requested aviation mechanic schooling and was sent to Great Lakes Naval Training Station, where he spent the next four months. After his training was complete Mills was assigned to Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego, California, where he served the balance of his enlistment term.8
Upon completion in 1931 Aviation Machinist’s Mate 3/c Mills re-enlisted for two more years and was assigned to the USS Lexington (CV-2), one of three US aircraft carriers. After he returned to San Pedro, California, from a cruise to the Hawaiian Islands, Mills took notice of the special privileges afforded the ship’s baseball team players, such as being excused from the work routine and extra days ashore for practices and games. “I got to feeling like a sap seeing those fellows getting some time off and me sticking to the ship,” Mills later said.9 Mills, who had no sports experience, let alone baseball, played loose with the truth about his experience. “So, one day I got up enough courage to tell the fellows that I could play ball and wanted a chance,” Mills shared.10“We practiced at San Pedro, California and I must have looked terrible to the other fellows, but it was better than hanging around on the Lexington.”11 But he took to the game and by summer, Mills was playing first base for the Minutemen in a 15-inning loss to a club from Juarez, Mexico. The July 27 game was played in West Anaheim, California, and saw Mills come up empty-handed in six plate appearances against Juarez’s pitcher.12
Observing Mills’ developing left-handed throwing skills, his coach soon had Mills throwing from the mound, and by the next season, Mills had worked his way into the pitching rotation.13 But it was not until 1933 when the tall left-hander made headlines across Southern California and drew the attention of professional baseball scouts.
Mills struck out 13 in an April 18 game against the varsity team from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). The Minutemen downed the Bruins, 9–6. Professional scouts took notice. The Lexington squad faced industrial teams from Hollywood, including Hartwell-Warner and 20th Century Fox. Mills pitched the last two innings against Hartwell-Warner and silenced the opponents’ bats to preserve a 6–5 lead taken by the Minutemen in the bottom of the seventh inning. Mills did not allow a hit and struck out two.14
Lexington’s undefeated season included lopsided victories over battleship teams, including those from the USS Pennsylvania (15-1), USS Texas (37-10), USS Arizona (12-1), and USS Nevada (26-3). They outscored their 10 opponents 136–32 overall.15
On June 17, Lexington manager Chief Gunners Mate “Pop” Fenton, with the Battleship Division title on the line in a tight game against the San Pedro Navy All-Stars, inserted Mills as a defensive substitution. Mills took over in left field against a team that featured a hired gun in former St. Louis Browns catcher Ike Danning, who led his team’s offensive onslaught. With the upcoming battle-force championship on the docket and Mills scheduled to start the opening match, inserting him into the outfield was a risk that soon appeared to have dire consequences. On a line drive off the bat of San Pedro’s left fielder, Kordich, Mills came up lame attempting to make the out with an injury to his side.16
The injury turned out to be insignificant, however, as Mills pitched a 14–1 no-hitter while striking out 21 against a strong USS Wright (AV-1) squad. Days later, he led his team to the battle-force championship with a 15-strikeout, 7–2 victory in the second game against Wright.17
Mills’ enlistment term was in its final year as major-league scouts began to approach the 23-year-old to sign a contract as soon as his obligation was finished. There was speculation that Mills already signed a contract with the St. Louis Browns and that the Yankees sought to negotiate a more favorable deal. Scouts from other clubs also tracked the left-handed pitcher. Considering that Mills was a newcomer to the game and in two years developed enough skill to garner attention from major-league scouts, his baseball future seemed promising.18
In recognition of Mills’ outstanding 1933 season, he was presented the Joe E. Brown trophy by the actor and comedian himself in early January 1934 following a polling of United States Navy Magazine.19
In January 1934 the Navy announced that Mills would be granted an early discharge to accommodate his new career as a professional baseball player. His official date of release was March 1, but he was granted leave to report to the St. Louis Browns’ spring training camp in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Plenty of excitement surrounded his arrival. “Mills, of course, will be signed to a minor league contract,” Browns scout, L.C. McEvoy told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “But reports of his ability are so glowing that we expect him to make the grade in the American Association and he looks like such a good prospect that [Browns managerRogers Hornsby will take him to training camp at West Palm Beach.” J. Roy Stockton wrote that McEvoy shared clippings from Pacific Coast League newspapers that demonstrated how league scouts held Mills in high regard. Stockton also relayed that during his time with the Lexington team, Mills pitched multiple no-hitters and was reportedly the greatest baseball player to come from the ranks of the US Navy.20
Mills was a late arrival to spring camp because of the timing of his release, and his cross-country travel from San Pedro afforded him little time to acclimate to the pace and intensity of a major-league training camp. His spring work also was limited by an ankle sprain that he sustained while in camp.21 By March 21 Mills was sent to San Antonio to gain necessary professional experience within the Texas League.22
Mills’ tenure with the Missions was brief, however, as he quickly adapted to his role as a starting pitcher and reliever. By the middle of May the 10-12 Browns, already trailing in the American League by six games, purchased Mills and brought him north to bolster a pitching staff that would finish the season with all four starting pitchers having losing records.23 Only three of the 11 pitchers employed by Hornsby—relievers Jack Knott (10-3), Jim Weaver (2-0), and Bill McAfee (1-0)—finished the season on the plus-side in the win column. Mills spent less than eight weeks with St. Louis and saw action in just four games in relief.
Mills’ debut was less than stellar. On June 10 in Cleveland, Mills entered the game in the bottom of the eighth inning with the Indians ahead 4–1. Swinging on Mills’ first pitch, Odell Hale laced a double to left field. Hal Trosky singled on a two-strike count, driving in Hale. Frankie Pytlak followed with another single that put Trosky into scoring position, which put Mills in a pressure situation with two runners on and no outs. Fortunately, Bob Seeds’ attempted bunt failed, as the ball went to third to force Trosky for the first out. With Pytlak at second and Seeds at first, Willie Kamm singled past shortstop Ollie Bejma to score Pytlak. A bad throw allowed Seeds to advance to third, and Kamm wound up at second. With the score now 6–1, two runners in scoring position, and still just one out, Mills coaxed Bob Weiland to ground to second, which kept the runners from advancing. Mills then got Sam Rice to fly to center to end the inning.
Mills’ next two appearances were more indicative of what scouts had seen in 1933. At Fenway Park against the Red Sox on June 18, he pitched two scoreless innings in relief, surrendering a single and two walks and striking out one batter in a 14–9 loss. Six days later in Washington, Mills pitched a scoreless eighth inning, allowing a single and a walk as the Senators handed the Browns a 7–0 shutout.
In his final 1934 appearance for the Browns, Mills pitched the final 4 2/3 innings against the visiting Detroit Tigers on July 1. Starter Bobo Newsom was ineffective and lasted just 2 1/3 innings. Mills entered with one out in the fifth and the Browns trailing 10–3. Despite control problems—he issued eight free passes—Mills was the best of the three Browns pitchers in the 12–3 loss.
On July 10 Mills was optioned back to San Antonio. Hornsby commented that Mills required a “little more experience.”24 In his return to the Missions, Mills showed flashes of brilliance. On July 27 versus Fort Worth, Mills struck out nine while holding the Cats scoreless on two hits in the seven-inning 1–0 nightcap of a doubleheader.25 On August 6 he struck out 10 Houston Buffaloes in an 8–4 victory.26 On September 3 Mills held off Beaumont in a 10–6 win as he struck out nine.27 One of the darker moments of his season, however, occurred against Tulsa when one of Mills’ off-speed pitches got away from him and struck Alex Hooks near his right temple, which sent the Oilers first baseman to the hospital for X-rays and overnight observation.28
Mills’ first season in professional baseball was neither stellar nor a bust. In 15 games with the Missions, he posted a 3-3 record with a 4.95 ERA. In the games in which he found his groove, Mills was nearly unhittable for San Antonio. While with the sixth-place Browns who finished 33 games behind the pennant-winning Detroit Tigers, Mills’ pitching seemed to show that with further seasoning, coaching, and development, he might become an asset for the club.
Mills was optioned to Class-AA St. Paul of the American Association in early April 1935. In 34 games Mills started 21 and finished the year with a 7-8 record and a 5.36 ERA. Dubbed “Torpedo” by local sports writers, Mills’ control was an issue, with 84 walks in 146 innings.
Mills started 1936 at the Browns’ spring-training camp but was sent to San Antonio. With the Missions the flashes of brilliance returned, and he posted a 12-6 record and a 2.52 ERA. He pitched 186 innings while appearing in 38 games and starting 23. Although his ability to keep runners from scoring improved, he still struggled with his control, surrendering 115 walks.
After he spent the 1937 season again in San Antonio, where he started 29 games and pitched 246 innings, Mills took his 14-12 record and 3.10 ERA to St. Louis in a late-season call-up. His first major-league victory came against the Detroit Tigers on September 29 as the 44-104 Browns played host to Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg and the Detroit Tigers. Mills made his first major-league start and was effective in a complete game. He struck out seven Tigers, including Greenberg, Jo-Jo White, and Rudy York. Mills was touched for six runs on eight hits, and he walked seven.
Browns manager Jim Bottomley, who had replaced Hornsby in July, sent Mills to the mound in the last game of the season against the White Sox and Monty Stratton, Chicago’s rising star moundsman. Mills lasted just 3 2/3 innings and was touched for seven runs on eight hits while matching his strikeouts and walks at three. Mills took the 7–2 loss to finish the season with a 1-1 record.
His pitching style still was developing when most 28-year-old major-league hurlers had a decade of experience under their belts. Dick Farrington described Mills as, “a steel-nerved, easy-working pitcher with a loose side-arm delivery. He has a zippy fast one, which he frequently throws from a three-quarter over-hand delivery. He also shoots the fast ball from the side-arm angle, mixing it up with a sneaky curve.”29
Mills’ offseason employment in the burgeoning Southern California aviation industry put to use his naval aviation experience. In addition to his regular work, Mills was tabbed to play baseball for his employer, North American Aviation, which in 1937 fielded a team that included a handful of professional ballplayers.30
Mills pitched his way onto the Browns roster during spring 1938 and spent the entire season with the big-league club. He earned a spot in the starting rotation, joining Bobo Newsom, Oral Hildebrand, and part-time relievers Jim Walkup and Russ Van Atta. Technically a rookie, Mills had the best season of his brief major-league career, posting a 10-12 record and a 5.31 ERA. He started 27 of his 30 games, with 15 of them complete. His best pitching performance of the year came against the Yankees. At Sportsman’s Park on June 18, Mills shut out the eventual champions on four hits. Frankie Crosetti stroked a double, and Jake Powell, who went 3-for-4 with a double, accounted for the four Yankees safeties. Mills held hitless future Hall of Famers Bill Dickey, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, and Joe Gordon. Gehrig (twice) and Gordon (twice) were among Mills’ eight strikeout victims. Mills also managed a hit off future Hall of Fame pitcher “Lefty” Gomez. The lone Browns run was scored by Harlond Clift, who was driven in by Beau Bell.
Mills, however, still was dogged by control problems, issuing 116 walks, although he struck out 134 batters for a 1.16 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Heading into the 1939 season Mills was projected by some sportswriters to be the Browns’ featured starting pitcher, presumably unseating Newsom. However, both pitchers were holdouts as spring training commenced. Mills arrived on March 10 to begin contract negotiations that lasted into the late hours of March 12 and resulted in a salary that was “an important increase over his salary of last year,” stated owner Bill DeWitt. “One reason why the Browns were so anxious to sign Howard Mills last month,” the St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported April 9, “was the realization that the southpaw is a first-class mechanic, which profession he could take up exclusively if his contract terms in baseball didn’t suit him.”31
His season proved a set-back. Mills was used as a starter and reliever, and his walks surpassed his strikeouts while his ERA increased to 6.55. Mills started 14 games in 1939, completing four, while posting a 4-11 record. He led the league in hitting eight batters. This trend continued downhill in 1940. His ERA ballooned to 7.78 as he failed to win a game while dropping six. He appeared in 26 games but pitched nearly one-third fewer innings than the previous year, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio was 0.35. Mills pitched his last major-league game August 29. Mills was entirely ineffective in relief of Vern Kennedy at Yankee Stadium, walking two and allowing three runs to score in his 1/3 of an inning.
In February 1941 Mills was purchased by the Dodgers for $7,500.32 Mills understood his role as a prospective relief pitcher after he reported to Dodgers spring camp in Havana, Cuba. “They’re after my arm,” Mills joked to reporters.33
Mills’ ineffectiveness continued with Brooklyn at camp. During a March 7 game against Cleveland, the Indians collected seven hits off Dodger arms including Mills, tallying 15 runs. Although Hugh Casey and Whit Wyatt were unable to stem the bleeding, Mills was the center of attention of Dodgers management.34
As the Dodgers began their trek toward Brooklyn, Mills was given a chance to start for the “B” squad against the Knoxville Smokies in Tallahassee, Florida, on April 1. Mills surrendered five runs through five innings, leading to 5–3 loss.35 On April 15 the Dodgers sent Mills back to St. Louis, and the Browns in turn assigned him to Toledo on May 5. On July 7 Mills submitted his request for voluntary retirement. Instead of reporting to the Mud Hens, he had returned to California in search of other baseball opportunities.36
By summer, the 31-year-old Mills was pitching for the Atascadero National Youth Administration, a semiprofessional team competing in Southern California. Mills’ teammates included Atascadero NYA athletic director Jackie Robinson,37 and California minor-leaguers Jesse Hill, Cal Barnes, and Bud Dawson.
By 1943 Mills was serving in the US Army at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, as a member of the military police.38 Talk of a return to baseball for the retired major-league pitcher began to surface in the press. The Sporting News wrote, “Although Fort Monmouth, New Jersey may not have a post team, the 15th (Signal Training) Regiment plans to put one on the field. Available for the regimental nine are Don Richmond, former third baseman of the Philadelphia Athletics and Howard Mills, former St. Louis Browns southpaw.”39
Mills’ wartime army service did not include time on Army diamonds. Like many returning war veteran players, he sought to resume his baseball career upon release from duty. Following Mills’ discharge his request for reinstatement from the voluntary-retirement list was granted, and on January 30, 1946, the Browns added him to their 25-man roster and invited him to Anaheim, California, for spring training.
Starting in a March 11 spring contest against the Pirates, Mills surrendered a run in the first inning. During a March 15 game against the reigning National League champion Chicago Cubs, Mills pitched a perfect ninth inning in relief of Al Milnar and Fred Sanford to secure a 7–2 win. Mills survived a round of roster cuts as the Browns began their eastbound trek towards St. Louis for the start of the season.40 However he later was released outright to San Antonio in hopes of bolstering the Missions’ pitching staff.41 Instead Mills found himself out of Organized Baseball as San Antonio announced his release on May 11. For many players who served in World War II, the time away from baseball contributed to diminished skills and conditioning, especially for those who did not participate in service leagues or games. A half decade removed from his last major league camp with three years spent in the service made Mills’ comeback attempt an insurmountable task.
Thus he found himself at the same juncture as five years before when he refused to report to the minors after being cut by the Browns. By June he was a featured pitcher on the Rosabell Plumbers, which marked his second stint in the Southern California semiprofessional leagues.42
Mills posted an impressive 12-3 record during their 1946 campaign. However, he struggled with a nagging arm injury as the season wound down.43 On January 5, 1947, Mills was unable to start against Rawak Candy. Nevertheless he entered late in the game as Rawak abused Rosabell pitching, with 19 hits in their 14–11 win.44 It was the end of baseball for Mills at the age of 36, his career having come full circle. His years in baseball began and ended in sunny Southern California. In five major-league seasons that spanned eight years, Mills posted a 15-30 won-lost record with an ERA of 6.06 in 435 innings. He started 48 of the 96 games he appeared in, with 21 complete games and is credited with three saves, His June 18, 1938, shutout of the Yankees was the high-water mark of his career and his only blanking of an opponent. After his baseball career ended, Mills worked for AiResearch Aviation Services Company in the aircraft modification industry for 27 years.45
He was married twice. He married his second wife, the former Mildred Louise Denee, on October 18, 1974.46 After suffering from lymphocytic lymphoma for more than two years,47 Howard Robinson Mills passed away on September 23, 1982, in Riverside, California. He was 72. He is interred at Green Hills Memorial Park in Rancho Palos Verdes, California.48
This biography was reviewed by Bill Nowlin and Will Christensen and fact-checked by Dan Schoenholz.
1 “Rosabell Plumbers’ Record for 1946 is Impressive,” Highland Park News-Herald, January 3, 1947: 10.
2 WWII Draft Cards, Ancestry.com, accessed November 18, 2021.
3 Federal Census, 1920, 1930, Ancestry.com, accessed November 18, 2021.
4 Dick Farrington, “Lefty Mills, Ex-Gob Who Sails Fast Ones for Browns, Never Took Part in Game ‘Til He was 21 Years Old,” The Sporting News, September 15, 1938: 8.
12 “Lex. Loses in Fifteenth, 7-6,” San Pedro News-Pilot, June 27, 1931: 7.
13 M.S. Hennessy, “Despite the Auction Loss, Victory is Found in the Discovery,” Chevrons and Diamonds, accessed November 20, 2021, https://chevronsanddiamonds.wordpress.com/2018/08/28/despite-the-auction-loss-victory-is-found-in-the-discovery/.
14 “Battleships Baseball Finish,” San Pedro News-Pilot, June 19, 1933: 7.
15 LT. J. E. (Pop) Jones, “Lex, Wright to Vie for Ball Title,” San Pedro News-Pilot, June 19, 1933: 7.
17 Bynner Martin, “Lefty to Make Bow Next Year,” San Pedro News-Pilot, July 17, 1933: 7.
19 Long Beach Press Telegram, January 7, 1934: 12.
20 J. Roy Stockton, “Baseball Star of Navy Draws Release to Play for the Browns,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 28, 1934: 38.
21 “Browns to Release Mills to Texas Club,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, July 10, 1934: 8.
22 “Lefty Mills Ordered to San Antonio,” Evening Vanguard (Venice, California), March 21, 1934: 3.
23 Bixby Bulletin (Bixby, Oklahoma), May 17, 1934: 2. (NO TITLE?)
24 “Browns to Release Mills to Texas Club,” St. Louis Globe Democrat, July 10, 1934: 8.
25 “Howard Mills Allows Cats but Two Safe Blows in Second Win by 1-0,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, July 27, 1934: 12
26 “League Leaders Score Five Runs in Last Frame,” Valley Morning Star, August 7, 1934: 5.
27 “San Antonio Splits Two with Beaumont,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, September 4, 1934: 16.
28 “Hooks Hit on Head, Not Badly Injured,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, August 28, 1934: 13.
30 “Culver-Palms Boys to Play Sunday,” Evening Vanguard, October 16, 1937: 6.
31 “Potpourri,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, April 9, 1939: 22.
32 Daily News (New York), February 6, 1941: 53.
33 Daily News (New York), February 21, 1941: 324.
34 “Torrid Tuneup Test Confronting Tribe,” The Sporting News, March 13, 1941: 2.
35 “Smokies Win, 5-3,” Tennessean (Nashville), April 2, 1941: 13.
36 “Southpaw Mills is Returned to Browns,” St. Louis Star and Times, April 15, 1941: 14.
37 Lon Allan, “When Jackie Robinson worked in Atascadero,” San Luis Obispo Tribune, April 29, 2013, accessed November 18, 2021, https://www.sanluisobispo.com/news/local/community/columns-blogs_/about-the-colony/article39442869.html.
38 “Service Department,” Daily Record (Long Branch, New Jersey), February 23, 1943: 7.
39 “In The Service,” The Sporting News, March 18, 1943: 8.
40 Glen L. Wallar, “Browns Cut Six Adrift as Trek Home Begins; Axe to Fall Again,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, March 29, 1946: 15.
41 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 6, 1946: 6.
42 “Local Elks Nine to Play Strong Rosa Bell Team,” Bakersfield Californian, June 22, 1946:7.
43 “Rosabell Plumbers’ Record for 1946 is Impressive,” Highland Park News-Herald, January 3, 1947: 10.
44 Chris L. Redondo, “Rosabell Plumbers Meet Rawak Candy in Return Game,” Highland Park News-Herald, June 10, 1947: 15.
45 State of California Certificate of Death, Certified Copy, October 1, 1982.
46 “Bride, 1970-79,” California State Marriage Index, page 7,489.
47 State of California Certificate of Death, Certified Copy, October 1, 1982.
48 Find a Grave, accessed November 20, 2021, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/53328834/lefty-mills.