A Will to succeed
Woodstock’s Bob Will reflects on his years as a Chicago Cub
Woodstock resident Bob Will is like many of us. He worked hard all his life, raised a beautiful family and now enjoys the fruits of his labor in retirement on the outskirts of town.
Also like many of us, Bob Will loves baseball, perhaps just to a greater extent. The game has been his life for nearly 80 years. He has lived it, breathed it, dissected it and played it.
Sure, many of us played baseball. Bob Will just did it better, as a member of the Chicago Cubs in the 1950s and 1960s.
Born in Berwyn in 1931, Will excelled at football, basketball and baseball throughout his youth. He attended Northwestern University and then Minnesota State University in Mankato and was signed as an amateur free agent by the Cubs in 1954.
Will admits his time in the big leagues wasn’t easy, having toiled in the minor leagues for much of his 11-year professional career. Baseball in the ’50s was different than today’s game, since changed by media coverage and big dollars.
“When I signed to play professional baseball, they said it would take about 500 minor league games for you to reach the big leagues, even if you had the ability,” said Will. “Today they bring these kids right out of college. It’s too bad in a way.”
After three full seasons of minor league exposure, Will got his first taste of major league experience in 1957, appearing in 70 games in the Cubs outfield. Will broke camp with the club and started in center field on opening day at Wrigley Field. He learned quickly that success is fleeting and his time in the minor leagues was not yet over.
The opposing pitcher that day was Milwaukee Braves great and future Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn, who would go on to finish the 1957 season as the Cy Young Award winner. Will went hitless against Spahn, and, after a couple of rainouts, started in center field against St. Louis, where he would face the Cardinals’ knuckle ball-throwing pitcher, Murry Dickson.
“I’d never faced a knuckle-baller in my life,” said Will. “I [went] 1-for-5, or whatever. The next day, they sent me down. Can you imagine?
“This is when I started my internal drive. [They weren’t] going to keep me down.”
Will indeed made it back to the big club later that year and spent portions of the next six years with the Cubs on the major league roster. His best year as a Cub came in 1960, when he hit .255 in 138 games as the everyday right-fielder. Will was third on the club in five categories that year — walks, hits, doubles, runs and RBIs — and led the team in triples with nine.
Will spent much of his career victimized by the Cubs’ losing ways. High turnover rate and a revolving door for managers meant he would have to prove himself over again each year, often multiple times within a season.
In spite of their annual losing, the Cubs had many great players throughout Will’s time on the roster. He was privileged to play with such Cubs greats as Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Lou Brock and Ken Hubbs.
He has stories to tell about each player but still becomes visibly upset when asked to speak about Hubbs. The second baseman was Will’s teammate from 1961 through 1963 and won the Rookie of the Year award in 1962 before passing away tragically in a plane crash in 1964.
“Kenny was one of the nicest young men that I’ve ever met,” said Will. “When we went to the funeral, I didn’t realize how many friends he had. The procession [seemed] miles long. So he must have been what I thought he was – just a great kid.”
Will’s last season in the majors was 1963. After one final season of minor league baseball in 1964, he decided he had enough, trading in his baseball spikes for a suit and tie. Will began a 29-year career in the banking industry.
After retiring from banking, Will and his wife, Nancy, moved from Woodstock to spend their retirement between homes in Florida and the mountains of North Carolina. The Wills, college sweethearts who have been married happily for 58 years, returned to Woodstock in 2007 to be closer to their six children, 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
“They’re all up here,” said Will, pointing to a shelf in his study before reciting a passage one of his grandchildren wrote for him. “I look at them every day. [I] get stuff like that and they make stuff at school and tell me how much they love their grandpa.”
Will still watches the Cubs regularly, although these days he does so to the detriment of his health. Diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, Will has been given only a short time to live and has been instructed that reducing his level of anxiety will be of great benefit to his health.
“Now I want to throw things at the TV,” said Will. “I’m not supposed to look at things that make me sad or angry. I’m supposed to be happy, but it doesn’t work so well these days.”
Now Will uses the tenacity with which he extended his baseball career to extend his life, motivated by milking every possible moment out of the time he can share with his family. He walks each day, and, when his body allows, he does light weight work.
Will also spends some time each week answering fan mail. Fans who are willing to make a small donation to his favorite charity, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, receive an autographed picture of the former Cub.
Will lives life day by day, planning ahead so he continues to have something to reach for. He’s currently working on a book which he hopes will act as a legacy for his family after his death or perhaps even be published for public consumption.
“I set these goals to meet, so each day I try to do some exercises,” said Will. “I’ve accomplished many things in life.
“Nancy, my wife, she’s been terrific to help me get through this. We talked about it, and I said, ‘What more can I ask?’ I’ve got everything I’ve ever wanted and then some. So if you look at it that way it doesn’t bother me.”