Obituary: Bill Mills (1919-2019)

R.I.P. to Bill Mills, a catcher who played in 5 games for the 1944 Philadelphia Athletics. He died at a hospice facility in Gainesville, Fla., on August 9. He was 99 years old, and at the time of his passing, he was the second-oldest living major-league ballplayer. There are now 10 surviving Philadelphia Athletics ballplayers (This list on Baseball Reference includes Tommy Giordano, who passed away earlier this year.)

Bill Mills was born in Boston on November 2, 1919. According to his obituary, he spent most of his life in New Emgland before moving part-time to Florida after retirement. He played both football and baseball at Arlington High School in Massachusetts and was the captain of both teams in his senior year. He continued his education at Coburn Classical Prep in Waterville, Maine, and the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. He played both sports throughout his higher education, and his play caught the attention of the Philadelphia Athletics and 82-year-old manager Connie Mack.

Mills was rated 4-F by the Army for reasons that I could not determine. That was an important factor in determining rosters during World War II, because any player who was physically capable of joining the military was likely to depart the team at some point. Teams were hard-pressed to fill their rosters; Mack signed 42-year-old Al Simmons as a player rather than a coach, for instance. Catching, though, was a source of depth for the A’s, as starting catcher Frankie Hayes was 4-F as well. With a few other catchers on hand in Spring Training, Mills was placed on waivers. His hitting ability wasn’t questioned, but it was feared that his throwing arm was too weak. Instead of making the Opening Day roster, he was sent to the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League.

Mills played in 8 games for the Leafs and hit .176. Of his 3 hits, one was a home run and one a double. He was brought to the majors and made his debut on May 19, 1944 as a pinch hitter against Cleveland. He singled off of Al Smith for his first and only MLB hit. He would pinch hit in three more games, walking once and grounding into a double play once. Mills’ only chance to work behind the plate came in an 18-8 blowout loss to the Browns on June 3. He struck out in his only at-bat in that game, leaving him with 1 hit in 4-at-bats in the major leagues. Shortly after that game, he was sent down to the minor leagues. He played 17 games for the Lancaster Red Roses and hit .277 in 17 games.

It wasn’t just Mills suffering from a severe lack of playing time behind the plate. Pretty much any player who was backing up Hayes was doomed to spend most of his time on the bench. Hayes played in 155 games and caught 1,331 of the A’s 1,397 defensive innings. Bob Garback saw the second-most work behind the plate with 48 innings, Jim Pruett caught 10 innings, Tony Parisse caught 5 and Hal Wagner caught 2. There’s some confusion as to how many innings Mills actually caught. Baseball Reference lists him with 1 inning behind the plate. Retrosheet, though, has an in-depth play-by-play of the Browns game, and it states that Mills was replaced by Lou Parisse after 2-2/3 innings of work when he split a finger on a foul ball off the bat of Mark Christman. Given the specific nature of the PBP, I’m inclined to believe the Retrosheet account.

In November 1944, Mills was traded to the minor-league Milwaukee Brewers with a batch of other players for earlier deals that had brought Pruett and outfielder Hal Peck to the A’s. Baseball Reference doesn’t show Mills playing for the Brewers, or any other team, in 1945. He did play for the Providence Chiefs of the New England League from 1946-1949, and he had some pretty good years there. He hit .303 with 25 doubles in 1946, and he hit a career-best 10 home runs in 1948, to go with a .296 batting average.

While he was playing for the Chiefs, Mills was also working as a teacher and coach for a junior high school in Pawtucket, R.I. He lived and worked in Rhode Island until 1976. In his retirement, Mills and his wife Rita summered in Cape Cod and wintered in Port Charlotte, Fla., and later Gainesville. They were married for 37 years.


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