Mills' vision put Bulls in Durham

The Carolina League -- having dwindled to four baseball teams -- was on the brink of extinction in the 1970s.

Then Jim Mills was chosen league president in 1977 and the league's outlook soon turned from bleak to bright.

"He saved the Carolina League,'' said Miles Wolff, former owner of the Durham Bulls. "Baseball wanted to fold it into the Western Carolina League. He worked tirelessly to expand, brought it back to eight [teams], and it has been a strong league the last 30 years."

The league's championship trophy bears his name.

Mills, an Apex native who died Friday at age 89 in Southern Pines, enjoyed a distinguished and versatile career in baseball for 50 years.

While trying to grow the Carolina League, he approached Wolff, who owned the Savannah Braves, about establishing a team in Durham.

"He always thought Durham should have baseball; he pushed it,'' Wolff said. "Jim helped me get the Bulls."

Under Wolff's ownership, the minor league franchise became a financial bonanza, nationally renowned, and the basis for the movie "Bull Durham."

Mills served as league president until 1983, and he continued to work as a special consultant for current Bulls owner Jim Goodmon into the 1990s.

In baseball, Mills did it all.

After a two-sport career at N.C. State, he played briefly in the Boston Red Sox farm system. Later, Mills was a manager, general manager, umpire, scout, league president and field representative for the National Association of Professional Baseball.

"His influence in so many areas was so strong,'' Wolff said. "[And] everywhere he'd go, people would say: 'Hi Jim, how're you doing?' He liked everybody, had a winning personality."

Mills' prowess in baseball, in particular, and in athletics in general, led to his enshrinements in the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame and in the North Carolina High School Sports Hall of Fame.

Mills and his deceased twin brother, Joe, were acclaimed as college basketball officials.

"They were legends in the ACC, well-respected," said Lou Pucillo, an N.C. State All-America guard.

Distinguishing one from the other often had people doing double takes. As the story goes, they would wear their watches on different wrists, their way of letting people who needed to tell them apart know who was Jim and who was Joe.

Services for Mills were held Monday. He is survived by his wife, Florence; his daughters, Judi Holland, Diane Jones and Nancy Mills-Smith; and a son, Jim.