Aircraft Wrencher-Turned-Big League Hurler
With multiple projects presently underway, research is a constant undertaking with constant discoveries being made as leads are thoroughly chased to exhaustion. Byproducts of conducting detailed research are the constant discoveries and the ensuing, ever-branching, investigative threads. In the midst of researching one Navy veteran’s baseball background, the discovery of another ballplaying sailor led to an exhaustive effort to uncover and document his story. However, since Chevrons and Diamonds’ biographical narratives are always centered upon an artifact associated with the player or players, we were in need of a tangible piece of history to wrap this story around.
Major league baseball players who served during the two World Wars are well documented, as are those with armed forces service during subsequent conflicts. Our research reveals that ballplayers with military service that took place within the 20-year span between 1919 and 1939, the era commonly referred to as the interwar period, are largely undocumented. The player we inadvertently discovered not only served during the early 1930s but also played baseball while serving.
Ephemera such as scorecards, programs and ticket stubs have always factored significantly in the curation of our collection. In 2018, our unsuccessful bid to land a program from an exhibition game played between the Pacific Coast League’s Seattle Indians and the Minutemen of the aircraft carrier USS Lexington (CV-2) left us with bitter disappointment. However, the research we conducted regarding the game uncovered a wealth of information (see: Despite the Auction Loss, Victory is Found in the Discovery). During the 1930’s, the USS Lexington’s baseball team developed into a perennial champion in various naval leagues, beginning in 1933. The absence of the 1932 program meant that this was a story still in need of an artifact.
Poring over newspaper stories from the early 1930s in search of one player, another name began to stand out among dozens of articles covering the USS Lexington’s rise to prominence. Each successive article added details to a story that was nearly unbelievable. In the Oxford Dictionary, the term “phenom” is defined as “a person who is outstandingly talented or admired, especially an up-and-comer,” which would have been appropriately applied to the inadvertently discovered baseball player.
Howard Robinson “Lefty” Mills was born in Dedham, Massachusetts, on May 12, 1910, and was educated up through his second year at Dedham High School, leaving early out of financial necessity. Mills never played sports as a youth. While his friends around the neighborhood were active in football, basketball and baseball, Mills sought means to earn money, working as an errand boy and caddying at the nearby Norfolk County Golf Club. Mills had no interest in sports. In a September 15, 1938, article by nationally syndicated columnist Dick Farrington (Lefty Mills, Ex-Gob Who Sails Fast Ones for Browns, Never Took Part in Game ‘Till He Was 21 Years Old), Mills’ path to pitching stardom was detailed. Inspired by recruiting posters and the call to “See the World,” Howard entered the Navy in 1928 in Boston before his 18th birthday, requiring his father’s consent.
While attending 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 needed to be filled by enlisted personnel. Seizing upon 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 completion of his schooling, Mills was assigned to Naval Air Station North Island (Coronado Island, San Diego, California), where he spent the remainder of his four-year enlistment.
In 1931, Aviation Machinist’s Mate 3/c Mills’ next assignment was aboard the USS Lexington. After returning to San Pedro 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 team practices and games. “I got to feeling like a sap seeing those fellows getting some time off and me sticking to the ship,” Mills relayed to Dick Farrington. Mills, with no experience in sports, let alone baseball, played loose with the truth in the hope of sharing in the added benefits bestowed upon the baseball team. “So, one day I got up enough courage to tell the fellows that I could play ball and wanted a chance,” Mills shared.
Clearly Mills was naturally gifted with athletic and persuasive abilities. Following a tryout with the team, the left-handed aviation mechanic was soon working out with the USS Lexington’s Minutemen as he developed his baseball acumen. The team’s manager, Lieutenant Joe Rucker, was in the process of transforming the men into a cohesive and competitive unit to contend in their battleship division after years of futility. Rucker worked Mills into the lineup, initially putting him at first base, a natural position for a lefty. When he was not playing, Mills continued to learn the ropes as a pitcher. In need of extra pitching, manager Rucker called upon Mills to fill in from the mound, giving the lefty the chance he needed. Mills “came through in great style” according to Farrington.
By 1932, Gunner’s Mate Chief “Pop” Fenton was at the Lexington Minutemen’s helm and helped to further develop Mills into a pitcher. The growth of the team into a competitive force coincided with Mill’s hurling expertise surpassing the abilities of the competition. Despite Lefty’s occasional wildness, he dominated opponents, often stacking up strikeouts in double digits when he took to the mound. The 1932 match-up against the Seattle Indians listed Mills as one of five Lexington pitchers.
In 1933, Howard Mills became the talk of Southern California papers from the San Pedro News-Pilot to the Los Angeles Times. His prowess on the pitching mound was considerable, as he was devastating for opposing batters. Several box and line scores recounted strikeout totals often in double digits. It was not until we came across the July 13, 1933, San Pedro News-Pilot article by Bynner Martin, Lefty to Make Bow Next Year, that we learned that it was just a matter of time before the Lexington’s dominant left-handed pitcher, Howard Mills, was destined for the major leagues.
Mills recorded 14 wins for the 1933 Minutemen without taking a loss. He not only pitched his team into a division title game, but he also closed out the ninth inning against the San Pedro Navy All-Stars in left field, plying his defensive skills in the late innings. While chasing down a line drive to make an out, Mills strained his side, which cast doubt upon his availability to pitch in the three-game battle force championship series against the USS Wright (AV-1). Fenton was chastised in the area newspapers following Mills’ injury but the lefthander silenced the dissent when he toed the rubber in the opening game, pitching a 14-1 no-hitter and striking out 21 Wright batsmen. With a few days’ rest, Fenton ran Mills out to pitch the second game with the hopes of riding the pitcher’s success to a championship. Lefty Mills prevailed yet again as he held Wright to a pair of runs as the Lexington claimed the title, 7-2.
The 1933 season opened the door of opportunity and recognition for Mills. With professional scouts from the major leagues and the Pacific Coast League attending his games and making note of his talent, the future was decidedly bright. Scouts from the St. Louis Browns and New York Yankees were jockeying for position to sign the pitcher. U.S. Navy Magazine conducted a poll for the “most popular athlete,” to which readers overwhelmingly elected Mills as the winner. In early January, 1934, actor-comedian and baseball fan Joe E. Brown presented Howard Mills with a trophy and keys to a new Ford coupe. Likely unaware of what the future held for him at that time, Mills was almost dumbfounded at the idea of receiving a car at that point in his Navy career. “What was I going to do with a motor car when I just had signed up for two more years in the Navy?” a question Mills later posed to writer Henry P. Edwards for a January 1, 1939 American League Service Bureau press release.
Ahead of the 1934 season, Mills was pressed by the Browns’ West Coast scout, Willis Butler, to make a commitment to the team. With four months left on his current enlistment, the head of the Browns’ scouting department, Ray Cahill, went to work on Mills’ behalf, working with Missouri congressman John J. Cochran in an attempt to secure an early release for the pitcher to report to spring training. With the Browns’ training camp well underway, the Navy relented and granted Mills his release from active duty on March 1, shaving one month off his two-year term.
Due to his date of release from the Navy and his lengthy cross-country trip from California, Mills was a late arrival to the Browns’ camp in Miami, Florida. Player-manager Rogers Hornsby was eager to get a good look at his new Navy southpaw recruit but anticipated that Mills would require seasoning in the minors. The pace of a major league training camp was undoubtedly much more rigorous and intense than he had experienced with the USS Lexington workouts and practices in his first three baseball seasons. Not only was he a rookie in camp but he was not versed in understanding his limitations and how to work into the tempo and rhythm of a professional program. Unfortunately for Mills, he suffered an ankle injury that further reduced his time in spring training. Once he recovered, he resumed his professional career with the Browns’ class “A” minor league club in the Texas League, the San Antonio Missions.
Mills was only with San Antonio for a few weeks before he was summoned to St. Louis in the middle of May. In his nearly eight weeks with the club, Lefty Mills made four appearances as a relief pitcher. In his first game on June 10, the rookie was shaky after entering the game in Cleveland with the Indians leading 4-1 in the bottom of the eighth inning. The first three batters Mills faced – Odell Hale, Hal Trosky and Frankie Pytlak – reached base with a double followed by two singles before he got his first out. With one out and a run in, Willie Kamm singled to shortstop Ollie Bejma, who made an errant throw to first, scoring Pytlak from second. Mills worked out of the jam, stranding the two runners, but ended the game with an 18.00 ERA after allowing two runs in the inning. The Indians won, 6-1.
Lefty loosened up for his next two appearances. Pitching in Fenway Park in Boston, Mills hurled the last two innings of a June 18 game, holding the Red Sox to a single while striking out one and walking two. Days later in Washington, Lefty pitched the bottom of the eighth inning, allowing a single and walking one. Both games were losses for the Browns. At home against Detroit, Mills entered the July 1 game in the fifth inning with a 10-0 deficit after starter Bobo Newsom and reliever Dick Coffman were utterly ineffective. Mills stopped the bleeding in the fifth inning and held the eventual pennant winners scoreless through the eighth. By the ninth, the Tigers got to Mills, touching him for two runs. The game was a rout but Mills allowed two runs on four hits with a strikeout. The potent Tigers lineup with Hank Greenberg, Goose Goslin, Charlie Gehringer and Mickey Cochrane would have shaken any young pitcher, but Mills held his own despite issuing eight free passes in the game.
In his four 1934 appearances, Mills posted an ERA of 4.15 in 8-2/3 innings, walking 11 and only fanning two. By almost any measure, his record warranted him being sent down to the minors for further development; however, the Browns pitching staff featured three starting pitchers with double-digit losing records. The four starting pitchers had ERAs of 4.01, 4.22, 4.35 and 4.53, each striking out fewer than they walked on a team that finished in sixth place with a won-loss-tie record of 67-85-2.
Mills pitched a five-hit shutout on July 25 against Fort Worth following his release by the Browns. Rogers Hornsby cited Lefty’s need for more experience. In the nightcap of a doubleheader that was limited to just seven innings, Mills struck out nine Cats batters. Lefty closed the year out with the Missions, posting a 3-3 record and a 4.95 ERA in 15 games. “Rajah” Hornsby’s decision seemed to be the correct one. A little more than a month after the season ended, Mills married the former Dana E. Rhodes on November 4, 1935.
The big left-hander spent the entire 1935 season in class “AA” with St. Paul of the American Association and the entire 1936 season back in class “A” with San Antonio. His record with the Missions showed marked improvement, as his 2.52 ERA and 12-6 record demonstrated that he was acclimating to the rigors of professional baseball. Mills spent the 1937 season again with San Antonio, where his 14-10 record and 3.10 ERA earned him a late-season call-up to St. Louis after pitching the Missions to a 2-1 victory over Oklahoma City and a 2-1 series lead in the Texas League playoffs on September 17.
With Browns manager Hornsby’s firing after 78 games, St. Louis had tabbed Jim Bottomley to lead the hapless club. The ex-Navy lefthander started two meaningless games against teams that were eliminated from post-season play. He faced Detroit on September 29, going the distance and allowing six runs on eight hits while matching his strikeouts and walks at seven. He came away with his first major league win despite spotting the Tigers two runs in the first inning without the benefit of a hit. Mills lasted 3-2/3 innings against the White Sox in the last game of the season on October 3, as he was touched for seven runs on eight hits. He again aligned his strikeouts and walks (three apiece) before being relieved. Mills was tagged with the 8-7 loss.
Since leaving the Navy, Mills had drawn upon his naval training and experience and found employment in the booming Southern California aviation industry during each offseason. His early interest in this field and his decision to pursue it as his Navy vocation proved to be profitable for him. In addition to his regular work, Mills was naturally tabbed to play baseball for his employer, North American Aviation, that in 1937 fielded a team that included professional ballplayers Jack Gartland, Chet Clemons, Joe Fox, Charles “Chuck” Winsell (Los Angeles Angels) and Don Curtis.
In 1938, the Mills that Browns scouts had seen five seasons previously in Southern California arrived. Making the team out of spring training, Mills 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 pitched his best season in 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. Two of Mills’ best pitching performances were against the eventual World Series champion New York Yankees at home. On June 18, Mills held the visiting Yankees to four hits in his only shutout of the year. Frankie Crosetti, who stroked a double and Jake Powell, who went three for four with a double, accounted for the four Yankees safeties. Future Hall of Famers Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, Lou Gehrig and Joe Gordon were hitless, with the latter two accounting for four of Mills’ eight fanned batters. In the game, Mills managed a hit off future Hall of Fame pitcher “Lefty” Gomez while the lone Browns run was scored by Harlond Clift, who was driven in by Beau Bell.
On September 19, Mills notched a six-hit gem against the visiting Yankees and matched his strikeout performance of June 18 with eight. Mills helped himself in the flood of scoring as he reached home twice after getting on base on a Joe Glenn passed ball strikeout and working walks from Wes Farrell and Ivy Andrews. Mills’ ninth win of the season was a 13-1 blowout over the “Bronx Bombers.” The win marked his second triumph over the champions for the season.
With Gabby Street at the helm, the Browns did not see improvement, though Mills seemed to prosper. The year would end up being the best in his major league career.
With high hopes for Mills heading into the 1939 season and a new Browns ownership and field manager, he was projected by some sportswriters to be St, Louis’ featured starting pitcher, unseating Bobo Newsom. Despite a 1.16 strikeout-to-walk ratio, Mills’ 116 free passes showed that he was still dogged by control issues. Mills, along with Newsom, began the season as an unsigned holdout. Mills arrived on March 10 to begin contract negotiations that lasted into the late hours of March 12 and resulted in an increased 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 on 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.” Rookie manager Fred Haney was eager to get Mills and Newsom into camp and working on what was hoped to be a promising season.
Unfortunately for both Mills and the Browns, 1939 and 1940 marked a decline in his effectiveness. Hoping to find the pitcher’s niche, Haney used Mills as both a starter and reliever with poor results regardless of the role Lefty was placed in. Mills’ inconsistency worsened as he walked more than he struck out and his ERA increased to 6.55. For 1939, Mills started 14 games, completed four and posted a 4-11 record. Mills plunked eight batters, matching his 1938 total, but this time he led the league. His trend continued downhill in 1940. Failing to win a game while dropping six, Lefty’s ERA was a whopping 7.78. He appeared in 26 games for Haney but pitched nearly 1/3 fewer innings than in his previous year and his strikeout-to-walk ratio was .35. It was obvious that Haney was running on empty when it came to options for the mound and the Browns kept Mills on the roster through the season’s end. After pitching 1/3 of an inning at Yankee Stadium on August 29 in which he walked two, surrendered a single and allowed three runs to score, Mills’ season was effectively over. Mills never pitched in a regular season major league game again.
In late January 1941, Mills was sold to the Brooklyn Dodgers. After signing his Dodgers contract on February 11, Lefty reported to spring training in Havana, Cuba. “They’re after my arm,” joked Mills to Daily News (New York) reporters. Unfortunately for the ex-Browns pitcher, he was unable to convince team president Larry McPhail and manager Leo Durocher that his previous two seasons were a fluke. He was ineffective in his spring appearances and was abused by Knoxville Smokies’ batters in an April 1 exhibition contest in Tallahassee, Florida, as the team was making its way north for the start of the season. For the Brooklyn “B” squad game, he allowed five runs in five innings to the class “A-1” Southern Association club, including a two-run bomb by infielder Glen Stewart.
Mills was shipped back to St. Louis on April 14 and was subsequently assigned to Toledo on May 5. After refusing to report to the minor league club, Mills submitted his notice of voluntary retirement and went home to Southern California, presumably returning to his work in the aviation industry. On the baseball front, Mills joined former University of California at Los Angeles football, track and baseball star Jackie Robinson on the Atascadero National Youth Administration (NYA) team. Robinson, a recent graduate, was serving as the NYA athletic director and anchored the team that included former professionals Jess Hill, Cal Barnes and Bud Dawson. Mills was featured on the team in mid to late July.
Undoubtedly, Howard Mills continued working in aviation throughout 1941 as the winds of war were blowing in Europe and the Pacific. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, his aviation mechanic role became vital to the war effort. Now 31 years of age and having registered for Selective Service in October of 1940, Mills was unlikely to be drafted for war service. However, in 1943, Howard Mills enlisted for service in the Army and was assigned to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. Conflicting newspaper articles show Mills as receiving signal training and serving as a member of the fort’s military police. At the time, the post did not have a baseball team but speculation in the press was that one would be formed in the spring of 1943 with Mills and another Army trainee, Don Richmond, being foundational players on the roster. While Richmond played on the 15th Signal Training Regiment team, Mills did not. Unfortunately, records have yet to surface to indicate where Sergeant Mills spent the balance of his war service.
Following his discharge in January, 1946, Howard Mills attempted to restart his major league career and requested reinstatement to baseball. He reported to the Browns’ camp after signing a contract and being added to the club’s 25-man roster ahead of spring training in nearby Anaheim, California. Despite demonstrating some flashes of his 1938 form, Mills failed to impress manager Luke Sewell and did not survive the final rounds of roster cuts. Lefty Mills was once again assigned to San Antonio in April and on May 11 was released without appearing in a game. Lefty Mills, now 36 years old, was out of professional baseball for good.
Our search for an artifact to accompany Mills’ story came to an end upon discovering that we already possessed a treasure that we had obtained from another Browns player who served during World War II, Chuck Stevens. The artifact, a 1946 St. Louis Browns spring training roster sheet and guide, includes 52 players, many of whom served during WWII. Among the pitchers listed, Mills is shown as coming to the club after having been voluntarily retired rather than showing that he served in the Army.
With its year-round summer weather, Southern California baseball was an incubator for baseball talent that fed the local schools and minor leagues in the early years of the twentieth century. Rivaling the National and American Leagues in attendance, the Pacific Coast League, with teams located in San Diego, Los Angeles and Hollywood, drew from area sandlots, high schools and colleges. Southern California also featured robust and highly competitive semi-professional baseball leagues that like the minor leagues featured both rising talent and aging veteran professionals. One of the most notable teams in the Southern California semipro leagues was the Rosabell Plumbers team that was founded in 1936.
In 1920, entrepreneur Charles Pedrotti opened his plumbing business in the Highland Park area of Los Angeles, less than a mile south of Chavez Ravine, where the Dodgers franchise would call home in 1962. Connecting his enterprise to its location on 836 Rosabell Street, Pedrotti named his shop Rosabell Plumbing Company. Combining his success in business with his passion for the game, Charley Pedrotti established his Rosabell Plumbers semipro club in 1936 and fielded a competitive roster of players year after year. Early on, Pedrotti himself played for the club.
Pedrotti was able to continue drawing top-tier talent to his roster after the war, especially once the major and minor league seasons finished and local area players returned home for the offseason. Seeking to augment their income and to maintain baseball skills, Rosabell and many other area semipro rosters were greatly improved for winter league competition when the likes of Max West, Ed and Hank Sauer, and Steve Mesner returned home in 1946. The Rosabell Plumbers, in addition to playing in a highly competitive semipro league, faced off against barnstorming teams that included Negro League stars along with exhibition contests with professional ball clubs. The Plumbers were the West Coast equivalent to the famed Brooklyn Bushwicks.
Pedrotti’s club was highly competitive and he was able to draw notable major leaguers such as Lou “The Mad Russian” Novikoff and Vince DiMaggio, who were working in essential war production jobs in the off-season during World War II. With wartime fuel rationing and blackout rules for ballpark lighting in effect from 1942 to 1944, league play was reduced and the championship games were cancelled.
By the fall of 1946, the Rosabell Plumbers were in front of the league as they were drawing close to securing the Southern California AAA League championship. Standing in their way of the crown was the Rawak Candy team, managed by Washington Senators star second baseman Jerry Priddy. The Plumbers were fresh from their 3-1 victory over Clayton Manufacturing as Rosabell’s star pitcher, Howard Mills, held his opponents to just three hits. Mills pitched for Rosabell throughout the season, keeping the Plumbers out in front of the league since joining the club in the spring. The Rawak Candy roster, in addition to Priddy, featured a Boston Red Sox prospect, first baseman Ralph Atkins, Yankees pitcher Al Lyons, Columbus Red Birds catcher Eddie Malone and Browns infielder Bob Dillinger. Rosabell’s pitcher Red Adams silenced Rawak’s bats with a four-hit shutout and slugged a home run to preserve the Plumbers’ undefeated streak while claiming their sixth league crown.
By January, 1947, Rosabell was moving on without Mills because he had a nagging arm injury that had plagued him since the previous December. At the age of 36, Mills’ fifteen years in baseball came to a quiet end. What began as a means to get out of work developed into a career; however, the career that introduced him to the game would provide for him throughout his life. Howard Mills worked for Air Research-Aviation in the aircraft modification industry for 27 years. He passed away on September 23, 1982 following a two-year battle with lymphocytic lymphoma. He was 72.
Posted on November 30, 2021, in Ephemera and Other Items, Programs, WWII and tagged Atascadero NYA, Lefty Mills, National Youth Administration, Navy Veteran, NYA, Rosabell Plumbers, San Antonio Missions, Southern California Semi Pro Baseball, St. Louis Browns, St. Paul Saints, Two-Service Veteran, USS Lexington, WWII Veteran Baseball Players. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.