“I said. A contract’s. A contract.”
On an instinctive level, just about everyone feels that it must have been much easier to become a professional athlete a hundred years ago than it is now. Part of that stems from our general belief in progress—each year we get stronger, faster, better at writing hilarious jokes about American topics. Shut up, it’s called intangibles, ask a scout. Another part of this belief comes from the leaps and bounds our scientific knowledge about human physiology has made in the past century. We know how to handle, and prevent, injuries, how to train our bodies in the most efficient ways- we’re no longer blindly hoping that we were born as naturally athletic freaks like Jesse Owens. Oh, and speaking of that, we also stopped limiting our professional athletics to random white guys who tended to get lucky enough to get exposed to sports right when they were being invented. That’s a huge step.
The distinct disparity between, say, baseball athletes today and those during the Dead Ball Era might not have anything to do with this article, but it is important to note that Rupert Mills, who you have never heard of (unless you caught a brief story about him in our article about silly baseball team names), almost definitely would not have been considered a world class athlete if he were competing today. And that’s okay! Hell, he wasn’t considered a world class athlete when he was competing 100 years ago! But maybe, in a weird way, the ability for “good but not stellar” athletes to play on a national stage in the 19th century was a blessing in disguise, because sometimes the best stories happen when a sport’s not yet at the point where it’s fully taken seriously. Because while the level of play in 2015 might be higher than it was in 1916, you’ll never see a player show up to an empty field every day in order to take advantage of a loophole in his contract to get paid.
That’s what Rupert Mills did, and Rupert Mills was hilarious and amazing, and that’s only part of his story.
Rupert Mills: The One-Man Team of the 1916 Federalist League
By any metric, Rupert Mills is the definition of a forgettable baseball player. In 1915, at the age of 22, he played 41 games as the first baseman of the Newark Peppers in the Federalist League. He took 134 at bats, batting .201 with five doubles, a triple, 16 RBIs, and six stolen bases. He had no home runs, an On Base Percentage of .241, and was once hit by a pitch. We are really really stretching ways to talk about his importance to Major League Baseball, mainly because he had almost no importance at all except for one exceptionally wonderful anecdote. But before we get into that, we’re going to talk about the life of Rupert Mills, who was fairly extraordinary off the field, even if he totally peaked in college.
Rupert Mills was born on October 12, 1892, in Newark, New Jersey. Attending Baringer high school, Mills lettered in four different sports, winning the state’s high jump title in Track. He also played basketball and football well enough to stay on the team, but it was baseball that he most excelled at, and he was good enough to attract professional baseball contract offers at the time of graduation (this being in a time where professional baseball players were paid practically peanuts, because as greedy as you might think professional owners now, they were far, far worse in the early 20th century).
Instead of going straight to the majors, he decided to attend Notre Dame, where he played football, track, baseball, and basketball (at 6’2” he was the team’s starting Center for three years, to really drive home the point we made in this article’s opening sentence). He was just the second athlete to earn monograms in those sports at Notre Dame, and only two pulled off the feat after him. He also participated in theater, and was the president of the Senior Law Class as he received an undergraduate Law degree. That latter part will come in later.
Mills, who went solely by the moderately underwhelming nickname of “Rupe,” hit .394 for the Fighting Irish in 1914, playing first and second base and when he graduated, he signed with the Newark Peppers of the Federal League, who the previous year had won the league’s championship as the Indianapolis Hoosiers. While the Federal League was floundering in its attempt to compete with the National and American Leagues, they did have one thing going for them—money. Namely, they tried to lure players away from the other leagues by offering a more fair wage. He was given a $3,000 a year contract, which was the equivalent of about $70,000 today. That’s not on par with what professional athletes make now, but it definitely qualifies as a living wage.
The important thing to keep in mind, however, was the “a year” part of this contract. It was a two year deal, but after the 1915 season, which again was hardly memorable for either the Peppers or for Rupe, a funny thing happened. The Federal League folded after the 1915 season, leaving Rupert Mills with a contract he couldn’t fulfill, and a legal knowledge granting him the ability to know exactly how to make sure he could still get his money. Pat Powers, the president of the Newark Peppers, offered to buy out his contract for $500 while placing him on a minor league squad. Mills said, politely, “Fuck no, give me my money” to which Powers said, and again we can only assume this is the exact phrasing used, “Bitch, if you want your money, then you gotta work for it.”
Okay we’re pretty sure that’s not how it went down.
Because no one gets away with calling Rupert Mills a bitch.
This is where things get amazing. Basically, Mills was determined to get his contract money, and Powers figured that if he made Mills literally fulfill his contract, Mills would drop the issue. So, Powers essentially told Mills that, yes, he could get his money, so long as he showed up to the ball park every day, in uniform.
The empty ball park.
To “play” the full season.
We’re not sure how much of this was Pat Powers trying to screw with Rupert Mills’s head as some sort of weird bargaining tactic, all we know is that Rupert Mills went ahead and did just exactly that.
*tumbleweed rolls by*
After being told that, every day, seven days a week, for 22 weeks, he would need to show up to a deserted ball park at 10AM, work out until noon, get back at 2PM and stay until 6PM, he said, “Sure, whatever, let’s do it, good excuse to get in shape.” A ballpark is not a gym, mind you, so while he spent the whole time “getting game-ready” that basically means that he was…what, running? Doing jumping jacks?
He was interviewed by the Newark News when people caught wind that there was a professional baseball player earning his salary by showing up to an empty field and pretending to play a game of baseball every day, and Rupe Mills was happy to oblige their humored report with some tongue and cheek quotes. These are actual quotes from Mills in the interview, by the way.
“I’ve played 12 games since the season started and won ‘em all.”
“it’s kinda hard to slam ‘em out, beat the ball down to first and then have to call myself out. The first thing I know I’ll be chasing myself to the club-house and Pat Powers is liable to fine me $10.”
“If I don’t lead the league in everything but errors it won’t be my fault.”
“Everything is a hit because Rupe Mills is official scorer. I simply can’t fail to hit safely, because I do my own pitching.”
Rupe Mills was a goddamn riot.
Pictured here, either in costume for his senior play at Notre Dame, or possibly invoking a clause in his contract that gives him a bonus for dressing like Robin Hood.
He did this for two whole months before his contract was finally bought out for the full sum, at which point he played with a minor league team in Harrisburg, batting .256 in 70 games, which goes along with his playing stats of “eh.” He had a much stronger year playing for Denver’s minor league team in the Western League in 1917, hitting .285 and leading the league in doubles, assists, and fielding percentage. He actually could have made the majors again to bask in the glory of being a glorified bench player, except that World War I had to go and crop up its ugly head. He enlisted in the Army, serving as a lieutenant in France with the 11th field artillery division. He still managed to play some baseball in war, being selected to the Army stars baseball team that was based in France in August, 1918, though they probably had a hard time finding anyone to play them since baseball wasn’t exactly a multinational sport at the time (to be fair, it’s hardly one even now).
Once he was discharged, he entered the law field and began partaking in local politics, eventually serving as a State Senator and as the Undersheriff of Essex County in New Jersey, and by the end of the 1920s he was the Republican candidate for Sheriff there, where he was expected to win easily. Really, he was destined to become one of the great politicians—he had already established a long reputation of getting paid while pretending to keep yourself busy while in actuality accomplishing nothing at all, but unfortunately his career was cut tragically short when on June 20th, 1929. Mills, then 35, had gone canoeing with a former New Jersey assemblyman and friend, Louis Freeman, on Lake Hopatcong. The boat capsized and Freeman, who could not swim, began to panic (despite having a life vest on, the big baby).
Mills sprang into action, rescuing Freeman and swimming him to shore by pushing him with an oar when, just twenty feet away from land, Mills suffered a massive heart attack, and sank below the water. Despite staying active in athletics, his heart wasn’t able to take the strain, and though he successfully saved his friend, it took 34 minutes to get him out of the water, at which point they were unable to revive him, leaving behind enough of a legacy that it was reported that 20,000 people lined up for his funeral procession
We don’t like to end fun facts on this kind of a note—talking about the untimely passing of a truly exceptional American who had so much more to offer. So we’re not. Instead, we’ll just put another quote from Rupe Mills about playing baseball against himself in order to get the full contract we negotiated, because Rupe Mills was a goddamn under-appreciated American hero.
“I do mostly pitching in the morning to get wise to my curves for the afternoon game. So far this year I haven’t been in any extra inning games.”
There’s Rupe at the top left.
God speed, you ghost-playing son of a bitch.