Jerry Summers: Willard Millsaps - Soddy Slugger

Sunday, May 24, 2020 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

Willard Newton Millsaps was born in Soddy, Tennessee on June 5, 1902, and was a star athlete at Soddy High School.  He and his lifelong friend, Ty Coppinger, Sr., who attended Sale Creek High, were considered two of the best baseball players from the north end of Hamilton County.

After graduating in 1920 he entered Milligan College, Elizabethton, Tn., in 1921 where he was captain of the baseball team and also played basketball, graduating in 1925.  From 1925-1929 he played professional baseball for several minor league teams including the High Point Pointers, Danville Leafs, Lynn Papooses, Providence Grays and Columbus Foxes.

During these years he completed a lifetime batting average of .323, with 66 home runs as a second basemen.  Retired Chattanooga Times sports editor Buck Johnson is quoted as saying about Willard Millsaps that “He rode his bat off Mowbray Mountain.”

During his last season, he married Lucille Springfield who was the older sister of future Red Bank basketball coach Carlos Springfield.  He and Willard had been teammates on several amateur teams in the Chattanooga area.  It is rumored that their honeymoon consisted of Willard going back to his High Point team.  Prior to playing professional baseball, he was employed by one of the coal mining companies in the Coalfield league that hired ballplayers instead of ordinary miners. The star players were recruited to play in the tough league and were told by management to stay out of sight during the working day and spend time with fellow players in the woods playing cards. During the off season he found employment as the head athletic coach and math teacher at Rockwood High School.

In 1930 head football coach Dean Peterson left Chattanooga Central High School and was replaced by George McCoy.  McCoy then hired Willard Millsaps as an assistant football coach.  Millsaps was an assistant to McCoy, then Peterson through the 1934 season and also was an assistant baseball coach under W.T. “Bang Bang” Bales, who was also a former minor league baseball player. 

Millsaps also taught general science and math at Central from 1930-1942, then enlisted in the Army for the duration of World War II.  He initially taught for two years at Soddy Daisy High and then returned to Central in 1948. He ended his teaching career in 1966 at Central, where he taught algebra, geometry, trigonometry, then advanced math/calculus. He was the head of the math department from 1956 until his retirement.

While teaching at Central he also earned a Master’s Degree in Mathematics from the University of Chattanooga.  He also served as a member of the Board of Directors at the Electric Power Board for 19 years.  He belonged to several fraternal organizations such as the Elks as well as several teachers associations. Millsaps was also elected to the Chattanooga Oldtimers Sports Hall of Fame in baseball.

He maintained a love of sports whether it was playing softball for the Elks or teaching his two grandsons how to hit a baseball in the backyard.  In 1959, at the age of 57, he came out to the diamond at Frawley Field to watch the Central baseball team practice one day.  Although he was dressed in a coat and tie he was kiddingly urged to step up to the plate and take a few swings.  He accepted the good-natured challenge and immediately proceeded to knock several balls into the bushes in left field scattering some chickens that had made their nest in that area.

After his beloved wife Lucille died in May 1975, Millsaps moved to Virginia Beach, Virginia ,to be near his daughter, Betty Jones (Central Class of 1958) and two grandsons.  He passed on December 7, 1982, at the age of 80.  His daughter related that her dad told her that when he was playing for the Lynn, Mass., team on May 21, 1927, “that the game was halted for the announcement of Charles Lindbergh’s successful non-stop flight to Paris.”

Millsaps’ junior year book at Milligan College, The Buffalo, described Willard in 1924 this way: “He says very little, but does much without noise.”  To the hundreds of students at Central and Soddy Daisy who had the privilege of being in one of his classes it is an accurate description.

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Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com  

Willard Millsaps in 1925
Willard Millsaps in 1925

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