CINCINNATI — With 60 seasons in the big leagues, Millie Wilson is calling it quits.
“I’ve seen playoffs, World Series, All-Star Games,” she said. “There’s nothing new for me at the ballpark.”
Her career highlights would amount to fine print on the back of a baseball card. If, that is, they issued baseball cards for hot dog vendors.
“People would need a magnifying glass to read about what I’ve seen,” the 78-year- old native East Ender added, letting out a laugh while adjusting her black Reds baseball cap over her white hair.
“I’ve seen it all,” she said. “That’s why I’m hanging it up. My last game is Friday.” With that she went to work. Ninety minutes before game time, as Tuesday night’s Great American Ball Park crowd trickled in, bags of peanuts needed stacking. Hot dogs barked to be kept warm.
Ninety minutes later, Homer Bailey began his second career no-hitter.
“I’ve seen no-hitters,” Millie said. “A bunch.” Six, to be exact, counting Bailey’s latest gem.
The divorced mother of three — “only two are living, a boy in California, a girl in town” — bustled about the concession stand. Her station is at the end of the third-base line, on the View Level, across from Section 410, the all-you-can-eat seats. For Millie, the stand marks the end of the line for a career that began in 1954 at Crosley Field.
“That’s my favorite ballpark,” said this veteran of three Reds homes, Crosley, Riverfront Stadium and Great American. She leaned on the concession stand’s stainless-steel counter and looked out to see a green sliver of right field. In her mind’s eye, she could see all of Crosley Field.
“That was a true ballpark,” she said. “It was homey. The players walked by the concession stands on their way to the field. Their wives stopped by to talk with you. It was in a neighborhood. They should have kept that standing and left it for kids to play in. Instead, they tore down a piece of history.”
Millie’s rookie season coincided with the first big-league at bat for Chuck Harmon, her home team’s first black player. When he broke the Reds’ color line that year at home in April 1954, Millie was there. “I was at a concession stand,” she said, “selling hamburgers, brats, metts and hot dogs.”
Millie joked that it looks like she never got a promotion. “I’m just a plain, old worker,” she said.
Plain, old workers never amass these career stats: She outlasted 22 Reds managers. Reds skipper Dusty Baker is No. 23. She has watched no fewer than 932 Reds take the field. She has seen parts of 4,730 regular-season games. At work, she’s never seen a complete game. Someone is always coming up to her wanting something. A cold beer. A hot dog.
Millie turned up her nose at the mention of a hot dog. “Don’t like ’em,” she said. “Never have.”
Her eyes scanned the crowd. Two guys approached the stand.
“Sir! Can I help you?” Millie asked in a friendly, but firm, shout.
One of the two timid guys pointed a finger to his chest and said: “You talking to me?”
Millie nodded. From her 60 years of experience, she knows this is how to keep the customer satisfied and make money for her employer, Delaware North, the Reds’ concessionaire.
Kevin Kleman, a salesman from Ludlow Falls, Ohio, “75 miles, one way from Cincinnati,” stepped closer. He smiled and ordered two hot dogs with a side order of baseball chatter.
He noticed Millie’s white hair. He found out she was in her 60th season.
“You like the Reds?” he asked.
“Love ’em,” she replied.
He started grilling her like an underdone hot dog.
Her favorite Reds manager?
She told him she had none. But she has a soft spot in her heart for “Fred Hutchinson. He got cancer and died in 1964, long before his time. He took the Reds to the World Series in 1961.”
Her favorite Reds ballplayer?
Millie plays no favorites. “But I loved Pete Rose and the Big Red Machine. There will never be another team like that in a million years.”
Kleman mentioned Rose’s gambling problems.
“I like to gamble,” Millie piped up. “But I go to the casino. Never bet on baseball.”
Can’t say the same for Rose.
“If Pete had just gone to a casino,” Millie added, “he might still be in baseball.”
Kleman turned to go. He asked Millie if she was going to come back next year for her 61st season. “Nope,” she happily replied. “After Friday night’s game, I’m done.”
Kleman reached out and rubbed her arm “for luck tonight for the Reds and for luck for you in your retirement.”
His touch got to Millie. She tried not to let it show.
But that got her talking about why she is retiring in midseason. “My ride was one of the girls who worked at the ballpark,” she said. “She got herself fired. Now, I’m taking the bus. My kids don’t like me coming home by myself late at night, crossing two busy streets and walking past 25 houses before I get home.”
She handed over four bags of peanuts to two customers. The men were in the all-you-can-eat section. After they lumbered away, Millie insisted she won’t miss spending her days and nights at the ballpark. “Been doing this since I was 19,” she said. “My aunt got me the job. I used to work at River Downs and Cincinnati Gardens, too.”
Always at a concession stand. Never in the stands. Always handling hot dogs.
“The only thing I miss is Crosley Field,” she added.
“Baseball was different then. It wasn’t all about money.
“Today,” she said, handing over two more hot dogs to two more customers, “things have changed. Baseball is like every other business.”
Except for one thing: Every business doesn’t have a Millie Wilson.