Wednesday, July 17, 2013

156. Torpedo Mills: Sinking the Opposition

One of my other passions in life, besides baseball, drawing and my soon to be wife, is military history. I'm especially drawn towards the United States Navy in China due to watching Steve McQueen in "The Sand Pebbles" as a kid. It's a fascinating topic, so don't get me started. Anyway, while working on a series of illustrations depicting the various uniforms worn by our Navy in China, I picked up a rare 1933-34 Navy Sports Annual. It's a nicely done hardback yearbook that depicts all the Navy's sports teams from golf and swimming to football and baseball. While flipping through it, I found a reference to a sailor named Torpedo Mills who was "going on to make good in the majors..." I was intrigued and looked him up - sure enough he did make it to the majors. So, thanks to obscure military history, a rare book and countless hours in newspaper archives, I bring you Howard "Torpedo" Mills...

The ex-sailor was big - 6-1, 190lbs - so the St. Louis sports writers gathered around him listened: you can call him "Lefty" or even "Torpedo", but you'd better not call him "Popeye The Sailor Man". Sitting in the Browns dugout at Sportsman's Park that August afternoon in 1934, Howard "Torpedo" Mills had sure come a long way...

Growing up in Dedham, Massachusetts, Howard Mills missed all the best parts of being a kid. Always on the scrounge for money, he chose odd jobs and caddying for swells at a golf course over playing baseball or football with the boys. He liked mechanics and tinkering, but regular school work just didn't interest him - years later they said someone had to burn down the schoolhouse to get Mills out of the 5th grade. When the Great Depression loomed over his corner of Massachusetts, the big 17 year-old found himself with no education or trade to speak of. With an eye to the future, the only viable option was the service. At least there he'd get a bed, three squares and learn a trade. Army, Navy or Marines? Throw in a young man's thirst to see the world and the choice was obvious: Navy.

Mills got his father's signature on the enlistment papers and set off to see the world. With his interest in mechanics, Mills gravitated towards airplanes and he was sent to training at North Island Navy Base in San Diego. Much to his chagrin, there he remained ashore for over 2 years before finally being posted to the U.S.S. Lexington, the Navy's premier aircraft carrier.

Life aboard the Lady Lex wasn't bad, especially considering that all around the country men were out of work and scrounging just to get by. The Lexington was based out of San Pedro, just south of Los Angeles, where the weather was as near perfect as could be and the Navy provided everything he needed. Still, every day while on the flight deck repairing the Boeing F4B-2's and Martin BM-1's, Mills could see a bunch of gobs who had it even easier than him - the sailors who played for the Lexington Minutemen - the carrier's baseball team.

Between the wars, the Navy as well as the other services fielded extremely competitive athletic teams. Winning trophies was a feather in any commanding officer's cap and soldiers and sailors who were especially adapt at athletics could expect fast promotions and easy duties. If  you've ever read the book or seen the movie "From Here To Eternity", you can get the idea of how rampant the favoritism showered on athletes was in the interwar military. In the Navy, the ships in the different fleets competed against each other and the winners advanced to championship series. MVP's were chosen and trophies awarded, it was a big moral booster for the thousands of sailors who cheered on their ships, helping to forge a tight esprit de corps. Football, boxing, rowing, golf, swimming and baseball all had a year-end series with the winning ship awarded the title of All-Navy Champion.

So every afternoon, Aviation Machinist's Mate 2/c Mills, wiping the grease from his hands after a hard day of keeping Boeing F4B-2's running, couldn't help but envy the boys who got off duty just to throw a ball around. Win or lose, the ballplayers even got extra shore leave. One morning Mills told his Chief Petty Officer he wanted the day off to try out for the baseball team. The Chief looked him over and eventually acquiesced - if a sailor from his section panned out, it would look good on the Chief. In the Navy, the good as well as the bad, tended to trickle down like that. 

Mills, who had never played baseball before, went ashore and headed towards the base ball fields. 

The Lex had a pretty good baseball team. The bigger ships of the fleet - the carriers, battleships and cruisers - tended to have the best teams due to their larger compliment of sailors. Plus, the larger ships could afford to carry a few extra ringers aboard who just played ball. The smaller ships didn't have that luxury. While the Minutemen had a decent team, since 1926 the U.S.S. Wright held the All-Navy Championship title. Try as they might, for seven long years the aircraft tender beat off all challengers to their trophy. That afternoon on the ball field at San Pedro, no one on the team figured the key to the All-Navy Championship was the tall, sturdy aircraft mechanic who asked for a tryout.

By all reports, Mills was terrible at first. Remember, he'd never played the game before. Still, visions of all the extra time ashore in San Pedro danced in his head and Mills set his mind to making the club. After a few days practice, it became evident that the newcomer could throw pretty fast from the port side. The coach, an old Chief Gunner's Mate by the name of Fenton, took the eager gob aside and taught him some pitches. Chief Fenton had coached Navy ball clubs for 32 years and knew a thing or two about pitching. Mills couldn't have asked for a better teacher and the Chief couldn't have asked for a better pupil. His fastball had something natural to it - someone said it "hops like two frogs going somewhere". And once the season started, it was soon clear that Mills' fastball wasn't the only thing going somewhere...

The 1933 Pacific Fleet Baseball League was made up of the Navy's most imposing ships, the battleships Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Maryland, West Virginia, Tennessee, Nevada, Pennsylvania and the Lexington's sister carrier Saratoga. One by one, Mills, now nicknamed "Torpedo" by his fellow gobs on the Lexington, mowed them down. 

It was obvious by the third game of the season that Mills was something special. Against the U.S.S. Maryland, the lefty beat the powerful battleship 8-1, his own throwing error being the only thing that kept him from tossing a shutout. On June 7, the Minutemen faced the California Bears, defending Pacific Fleet Champs. In front of two thousand bluejackets, Mills pitched a three hitter and struck-out 15 to beat the mighty battleship 4-2.

Meanwhile, the perk of being a ball playing bluejacket began to pay off. All that extra shore leave gave Mills the time to court Dana Rhodes, a local L.A. girl who would eventually become his wife.

Easily taking the Pacific Fleet title, the Lexington now faced the U.S.S. Wright, undefeated for seven years in the Battle Force Championship. In the whole history of the series, no Pacific Fleet ship had won. The Lexington aimed to change that. The best of three series was held at Trona Field in San Pedro. Over 8,000 sailors and civilians packed the ballpark for the first game. In every port that had a U.S. Navy ship in it, money changed hands over the big game. The odds were pretty even, the Wright was the seasoned veterans, but the Lexington had Torpedo Mills, undefeated all year. From Shanghai to Newport News, navy men crowded around their ships radio shack for the play-by-play transmitted over the wire. 

From the start, Mills and the Minutemen were in control. After setting down the Wrights 1-2-3 in the top of the first, the Minutemen got a hit, followed by a sacrifice and a homer and by the time Mills took the mound to start the 2nd, he had a for run lead. The Wrights scored a run thanks to a single and two errors by the second baseman in the fifth but came back with three more runs to wrap up the game 7-1. Mills struck out 15 and went 2 for 1 at the plate, a double.

A few days later Mills took the mound again for the Lexington. As 8,000 sailors watched from the stands and countless others followed around the world, Lefty Mills no-hit the Wrights as the Minutemen scored 14 runs to sweep the Battle Force Championship. 

Among the ecstatic bluejackets in the crowd was Willis Butler, west coast scout for the St. Louis Browns. Within weeks he had Mills' signature on a Browns contract. Problem was, to the Browns he may be Torpedo Mills - pitching prospect, but to the U.S. Navy he was still Aviation Machinist's Mate 2/c Mills. The Browns, perennial losers in the American League, were desperate for anyone who could put a spark in their line up. To the front office in St. Louis, Mills looked like that shining star every struggling ball club hopes for, except for one thing: his Navy contract. 

Mills had reenlisted for a two-year hitch the year before he picked up a baseball and was due to be discharged in the summer of 1934. The Browns wanted him asap and went so far as to enlist the help of congressman John J. Cochran to lobby the Navy for Mills' emancipation. The Navy refused to budge. Besides the fact that trained aircraft mechanics were highly prized, there was still another series to be played.

All across the globe, Navy and Marine Corps ball clubs competed in their divisions, vying to get to the All-Navy Championship, the best of three series held in September. The U.S.S. Dobbin, a destroyer tender, emerged the winner. The San Diego-based Dobbin was a dark horse - back then the Navy's fleet was based in San Pedro and no one knew much about the Dobbin. With a dearth of Navy ships to play against, the Dobbin's men honed their skills playing against strong San Diego semi-pro teams - the same baseball hotbed that gave birth to Ted Williams. First winning the Destroyer Squadron title, then the Scouting Force Championship, the Dobbins weighted anchor and headed to San Pedro to face the Lexington. 

The first game was a slug fest. Mills gave up 10 runs on 10 hits but still the Minutemen prevailed, scoring 16 runs. It wasn't pretty but it was a win. With the next game in 2 days, Mills' season was through. Anderson took the mound for the Minutemen and held fast as the Lex won 13-6. The U.S.S. Lexington were the Champions of Navy baseball.

In 14 games Mills was undefeated and with the exception of a 17-10 win over the Texas, he'd kept the opposition to under 3 runs a game and averaged 16 strike-outs every time he took the mound. At the end of the year a service-wide pole conducted by Navy Magazine voted him "The Navy's No. 1 Athlete". Better yet, a trophy and new Ford Coupe came with the title. It was a hell of a season for a guy who never played the game before and with a big league contract waiting for him when he got out of the service, the future looked bright indeed.

As most baseball fans know, the St. Louis Browns were one of the lowliest franchises in the history of the game. Once more popular than the Cardinals who shared their ballpark, the Browns began a quick decline in the 1920's that soon made then the worst team in the American League. While other teams embraced the farm system, the Browns tried to trade their way to the first division resulting in even more humiliating losing seasons. Time after time decent pitchers were sent to the Browns only to become run-down and discouraged by the lack of defense and run support. It was into this maelstrom that the newly civilianized Torpedo Mills stepped in 1934.

First he was sent to the San Antonio Missions of the Texas League. The newly civilianized Mills went 3-3 in 15 games and the Browns called him up to St. Louis in August. He got into his first game in Cleveland on August 10th when manager Rogers Hornsby threw the newcomer in to relieve Dick Coffman in the 8th inning. Down 4-1, Mills gave up 4 hits and two runs before he was able to get out of the inning. It wasn't an ideal start, but it was the major leagues.

The rest of the summer Mills pitched batting practice and rode the pines as Hornsby used the former bluejacket sparingly in 3 more games. He worked 7 .2 innings and gave up 6 hits  and 2 runs, but walked an unacceptable 11 batters. The old wildness was a continual hindrance in the majors against patient and seasoned batters. The Browns sent him back down, this time to the St. Paul Saints. Used as a starter, Mills turned in a 7-8 record for a miserable team. His control seemed to improve though, and in 146 inning he gave up 84 walks.

In the off season Mills returned to Southern California and married his girlfriend Dana, a by-product of his bonus baseball shore leave from the Lexington. Making their home in Manhattan Beach, Mills used his spare time to coach his younger brother, also called "Lefty" and making a name for himself in Navy baseball as a first baseman. When spring came, Mills headed to San Antonio for the 1936 season.

Things started to come together now as he got a little more control of his fastball and finished the season 12-6, followed by 14-12 the next year. The Browns brought him up at the end of the 1937 season to give him a look. Mills started 2 games and split the decisions. In 12 innings he struck out 10 but walked the same number and relinquished 16 hits. It was a mixture of promise and catastrophe, but on the Browns, who managed to win only 46 games that year, it was a fresh arm.

When the 1938 season opened Lefty Mills was a Browns regular and the most promising thing on the team. Early on, the sports writers who covered the Browns seized on the former sailor's story. It was a feel-good tale, tailor-made for a country still stuck in the doldrums of the Great Depression. Mills was open with the writers who covered the Browns but cautioned them: calling him "Torpedo" or "Lefty" was fine, but "Popeye The Sailor Man" was out of the question. At 6-1, 190lbs, none of the writers argued the point. Once the season started, compared to anything else wearing a Browns uniform, Lefty Mills was the team's star.

In his first start Mills beat the Washington Senators 4-3 in a 13 inning stand-off, scattering 10 hits before the Brownies could eek out the winning run. He then pitched 5 innings of shut-out ball against the A's before the game was called by rain, followed by a heady 1-0 blanking of the Yankees, out-dueling their ace Lefty Gomez. Unfortunately, the Browns were still a terrible team and Mills' 10 wins were accompanied by 12 losses. He was still wild, as the August 31st game in Boston showed. Allowing only seven hits, Mills put 5 Red Sox on base, 4 of whom scored as the Browns lost 6-3. But, wild or not, he was the second best hurler the Browns had, next to Bobo Newsom who somehow managed 20 wins that year. 

When spring came, Mills' refused to sign with St. Louis unless he received a raise. After he and Newsom held out, the Browns relented and bumped their ace lefty from $2400 to a staggering $6000. Not a bad increase from the $1000 a year he was banking as an Aviation Machinist's Mate 2/c.

1939 just didn't turn out the way Torpedo Mills expected. On May 18th he got pounded off the mound at Yankee Stadium, unable to get out of the third and giving up 6 runs on 4 hits, 3 walks and a wild pitch. He continued to pitch erratically throughout the summer, the wildness compounding the inept backing he received from his teammates. On July 2nd a little of the old magic came back as Mills tossed a 5 hitter against a strong Cleveland team, but lost his next 7 starts.

September 17th he pitched a complete game win over Lefty Gomez, winning 3-1. He spread 6 hits over 9 innings, the only Yankee run coming off a Babe Dahlgren solo homer in the 5th. It brought his record to 4-11 and was the last game he'd ever win in the majors. The Browns finished dead last again, managing only 43 wins, a staggering 64.5 games behind the first place Yankees.

By the beginning of the 1940 season it was obvious that Mills' career in the big leagues was nearing its end. In first game of the season Cleveland roughed him up for 5 runs in the first  and sent him to the showers without retiring a batter. He was relegated to the bullpen, the lowliest spot on the lousiest ball club in the majors. In 59 innings he walked 52 and gave up 55 runs. During the winter St. Louis sold him to Brooklyn, who added the condition that the Browns would buy him back if he failed to make the Dodgers.

Spring, 1941 found the Brooklyn ball club getting into shape in hospitable Havana, Cuba. Torpedo Mills was in camp, vying with a dozen other left handers to make Leo Durocher's rotation. With a pitching staff that included Whit Wyatt, Kirbe Higbe, Kurt Davis, Freddie Fitzsimmons and Hugh Casey, Brooklyn had no use for Mills and he was returned to the Browns in April. St. Louis in turn sent him to their Toledo club, but there's no evidence that he ever pitched for the Mud Hens. In fact, there's no evidence of anything else from Torpedo Mills.

Not to leave you hanging, but as so often happens when researching obscure ballplayers, Mills just disappears from the record. He and his wife Dana are in the 1940 census, living together in Manhattan Beach, California. I tracked down his date of death as September 23, 1982 in nearby Riverside. Online, there's even a photo floating around of his headstone, but oddly enough, while there's room for a spouse, Dana's name is not on it. Perhaps she's still around or their marriage just didn't go the distance, I can't say. 

Most of the big battleships whose baseball teams Mills defeated in 1933 were at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. The Arizona and Oklahoma were destroyed but the others went on to have admirable war records. The Dobbin, who the Lady Lex defeated for the All-Navy Championship, was also at Pearl Harbor that fateful morning. Her crew heroically manned their small boats and under fire rescued countless wounded sailors adrift in the harbor set aflame by burning oil. His old ship, the U.S.S. Lexington went down fighting in the Battle of Coral Sea in May, 1942.

Regardless what happened to Torpedo Mills, his was a fun story to research, illustrating a heck of an off-beat way to make it to the big leagues!

1 comment:

  1. Just heard about the Acerra brothers baseball team. Sounds like a good future subject.