Ron Willis (THE TOPPS COMPANY)

Ron Willis

This article was written by Eric Vickrey

Ron Willis (THE TOPPS COMPANY)The St. Louis Cardinals teams that won back-to-back National League pennants in 1967 and 1968 included four future Hall of Famers (Orlando Cepeda, Lou Brock, Steve Carlton, and Bob Gibson), not to mention household names like Roger Maris, Tim McCarver, and Curt Flood. Therefore, it easy to overlook the contributions of players such as Ron Willis, a reliable right-handed reliever who pitched in 113 games during those two seasons. Willis debuted in 1966 and threw his last big-league pitch as a San Diego Padre in 1970. That his baseball career was cut short due to elbow trouble was unfortunate, but his untimely death at age 34 was a more tragic story.

Ronald Earl Willis was born on July 12, 1943. His birthplace is listed as Willisville, Tennessee, but you won’t find such a place on a map. Willisville was essentially a plot of land his family owned near the town of Newbern in the northwest part of the state. “There used to be a sawmill there, but it burned down. My Uncle Danny used to have a little place there called The Sugar Shack. He sold tobacco and they played a lot of dominoes,” Willis said in 1968.1

Ron was the first child born to Tolbert and Fay (née Autry), ahead of two daughters, Suzanne and Jan. In his younger days, Tolbert was a semipro catcher who weighed 300 pounds and was known as “the Babe Ruth of Dyer County.”2 By age five, Ron was playing baseball with his father in a field next to the family farm. Tolbert worked as a truck driver, and eventually a new job led the family to move to the St. Louis area.3

Ron played baseball in the Khoury League (a St. Louis area youth baseball program), at one time playing for three teams during the same summer.4 He would say that his mother never had to buy him any clothes because all he wore was a baseball uniform. Willis attended Brentwood Junior High School, where he also played basketball and football. “I could throw a football well, but it always ended up in the arms of someone on the other team,” he once said.5

He transferred to Kirkwood High School in his junior year and focused on baseball. During the summer he played for the Kirkwood American Legion team. Willis starred primarily as a center fielder but also did some pitching. Tall and lean at 6-foot-1 and 170 pounds, the right-hander’s accomplishments during his senior year included tossing a no-hitter against Ladue and hitting over .400.6 Willis helped lead Kirkwood to the school’s first state baseball championship as they defeated Ferguson in the title game at Busch Stadium.7 St. Louis Cardinals general manager Bing Devine attended the game and told one reporter of his team’s interest in Willis.8

The Cardinals had a need for outfielders, and scout George Hasser was high on Willis. “A great arm, and good power. There are very few young men in the country who can throw as well as this boy,” assessed Hasser.9 Fellow scout Joe Monahan saw Willis and agreed with his colleague’s report. The Kansas City Athletics had also scouted Willis and asked him to meet with owner Charlie Finley, but the prospect went with the Cardinals’ offer.10 Monahan signed Willis to a contract the day after his high school graduation. His signing bonus was passed on to his parents, who used the money to buy a farm and move back to Tennessee.11 The Cardinals assigned Willis to Johnson City of the Class D Appalachian League for the summer of 1961. He was primarily used as an outfielder and pitched only five innings, going 0-1 in three games. In 253 at-bats (273 plate appearances), Willis hit .217 with seven home runs and 24 RBIs.

In 1962, Willis played for Brunswick in the Georgia-Florida League, another Class D affiliate of the Cardinals. In 179 at-bats, he hit .251 and homered five times. After one game, Brunswick’s manager, Owen Friend, called Willis over and told him they wanted him to convert to pitcher. Subsequently, Willis pitched in 20 games (seven starts) and had a record of 7-6 with a 4.38 ERA. Late in the season Willis was moved up to Billings in the Class C Pioneer League. He was the winning pitcher in each of the two games he started (of a total of six appearances), including a complete game against the Boise Braves (a team featuring Sandy Alomar).

Willis returned to Billings for the 1963 season and was the starting pitcher on opening day for the Mustangs.12 The lid-lifter was played on a blustery 40-degree night in front of 712 fans in Pocatello, Idaho.13 Trying to stay warm in the dugout, Willis got too close to an electric heater, and his warmup jacket caught fire.14 Despite that and walking 11, he pitched a complete-game two-hitter while striking out nine. At the plate, he collected four hits, including two doubles. For the season, Willis pitched 166 innings, compiled a record of 13-7, started in 23 of his 27 appearances, and struck out 172 batters. Though he was a full-time hurler, he did post an impressive batting average of .316 in 76 at-bats.

Willis made the jump to Double-A Tulsa to start the 1964 season but struggled. He had an ERA of 5.82 in five games when he was sent to Single-A Raleigh in May. His manager was George Kissell, who had been with the Cardinal organization since 1948 and would remain an integral part of the team’s player development system for decades. Willis dominated the Carolina League with a 9-1 record and 2.31 ERA before being shut down in July with an ailing back.15 After missing the remainder of the regular season, he reemerged in the fall and pitched 33 innings for the Cardinals’ Florida East Coast Instructional League squad. Meanwhile, the parent club defeated the Yankees to capture their first World Series title since 1946.

Willis spent the winter in Memphis working as an engineer’s aide on a city surveying crew. The job was not exactly grueling. “It rained all the time and we just played checkers,” Willis later recalled.16 One night, while attending a hockey game, he met Becky Conrey. The two were engaged a month later and married the following May.

Willis returned to the Tulsa Oilers and the Texas League for the 1965 campaign. Tulsa had a talented roster, particularly on the mound. Teammates Larry Jaster, Hal Gilson, and Tom Hilgendorf, among others, saw time in the major leagues. The team finished with a record of 81-60, and Willis was a key contributor. In 39 games, 19 of them starts, he threw 157 innings, going 7-4 with a 3.61 ERA. Ike Futch, Tulsa’s second baseman, shared his memories of Willis in 2020: “Ron was a great guy and teammate. We won the Texas League East that season and Ron was a big part of that. He was a workhorse on the mound and went right after hitters. He was successful as a starter and in relief.”17

Willis returned to Florida in the fall of 1965 for another stint in the Instructional League. On November 14, St. Louis manager Red Schoendienst and general manager Bob Howsam were on hand to see Willis defeat the Mets while going 4-for-4 at the plate.18 This performance, along with his 6-2 record in 11 games (10 of them starts) and 2.96 ERA during the fall, surely caught the attention of the Cardinals’ brass. He continued to climb the minor league ladder in 1966, pitching in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League for Indianapolis, an affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, on loan from the Cardinals. Despite the tougher competition, he flourished. Pitching almost exclusively in relief, he led the team in appearances (51), ERA (2.34), and strikeouts (115), while posting a record of 10-7. Despite missing time in August with elbow tendinitis, Willis was called up to St. Louis in September and made his big-league debut on September 20 against the Atlanta Braves. With the Cardinals trailing, 5-1, he entered the game with one out in the seventh and retired Joe Torre and Rico Carty to end the inning.

Following two more scoreless appearances, Willis was truly put to the test in the penultimate game of the 1966 season. The Cardinals hosted the Chicago Cubs at Busch Stadium. Bob Gibson, the St. Louis starter, pitched into the ninth inning with a 4-2 lead. After Gibson loaded the bases with one out, reliever Hal Woodeshick walked Billy Williams to make it a 4-3 game. Willis was then called upon. In short order, he struck out Ron Santo and induced a pop-up by Ernie Banks to earn the save and secure Gibson’s 21st win of the season.

Joe Monahan, the scout who’d signed Willis five years earlier, attributed the righty’s success to a drop in his arm angle.19 The change from an overhand to a sidearm delivery was made at the recommendation of Billy Muffett, a coach in the Cardinals organization, and the alteration gave his fastball sinking action.20

Coming off his strong showing in late 1966, Willis made the Cardinals’ Opening Day roster out of spring training in 1967. The talented team included future Hall of Famers Gibson, Orlando Cepeda, Lou Brock, and Steve Carlton. Willis proved a workhorse out of the bullpen and became more reliable as the season progressed. At the All-Star break, he had a 1-3 record and 4.50 ERA in 32 appearances. In the season’s second half, he was nearly flawless. In 33 games covering 45 innings, he had a 5-2 record, six saves, and a sparkling 1.20 ERA. His sinker kept the ball in the park; he allowed only three home runs for the entire season. His 65 games pitched ranked third in the National League. Overall, he finished the season with a 6-5 record, 10 saves, and an ERA of 2.67. Willis’s explanation for his second-half success was simple: “What happened is that I’ve started throwing strikes. I’m making them hit the ball and when you’re going good, the ball just seems to land in someone’s glove.”21

The Cardinals finished with a record of 101-60 to win the National League pennant and faced the Boston Red Sox in the World Series. Gibson’s three complete game victories and Brock’s .414 batting average propelled St. Louis to a series win in seven games. Willis appeared in each of the Cardinals’ three losses and struggled. He walked four, allowed three earned runs, and recorded just three outs.

In 1968, Gibson had a historic season, posting a 1.12 ERA in 304 2/3 innings while completing 28 of his 34 starts. As a team, the Cardinals had 63 complete games. That left few opportunities for Willis and his bullpen mates. Despite the lack of regular work, he remained reliable when called upon. In spring training he had rediscovered his good curveball, a pitch he had abandoned as a rookie.22 Willis registered 12 straight scoreless appearances during one stretch from early May to mid-June, including stints of four and five innings in a series versus Cincinnati. On July 7, he picked up a save of 2 2/3 innings while navigating through a lineup with the likes of Willie McCovey and Willie Mays. For the season, Willis appeared in 48 games, had a record of 2-3, was credited with four saves, and posted an ERA of 3.39.

Players in the Cardinal clubhouse were known for some good-natured needling of each other, and Willis did not escape his teammates’ barbs. His nickname among teammates was No-Chin, a reference to his receding jawline. Willis often poked fun at himself. “You know this turtleneck style? I tried wearing one but every time I talked, I got lint in my mouth,” he once quipped.23 He roomed with Dick Hughes on road trips and spent time watching television in his room and hanging out in the hotel lobby, where he never turned down an autograph seeker.24

The Cardinals returned to the World Series in 1968 and took on the Detroit Tigers. Willis again relieved in three games. He had scoreless outings in Games Two and Five before allowing four earned runs in Game Six, a contest the Tigers won, 13-1. Detroit clinched the series when Mickey Lolich defeated Gibson in Game Seven.

During the off-season Willis was part of the Cardinal Caravan, a winter promotional tour for the team to connect with its fans across the Midwest. In Iowa, scheduled participants Stan Musial, Schoendienst, Mike Shannon, and Jack Buck could not make the trip for various reasons. Along with Bo Belinsky (who was briefly in the Cards organization that winter), Willis filled in admirably, displaying a dry wit and entertaining the 564 fans in attendance.25 In Louisiana, Willis again stole the show with his deadpan delivery and self-deprecating humor, many of his jokes revolving about his lack of a chin. “To tell the truth I’m getting tired of carrying this caravan…I have to feel I’m the main reason we’re where we are today. I came up in late ’66, and we won pennants in ’67 and ’68,” he said jokingly.26 “He has timing that compares with that of the best professional comedians,” said publicist Bob Harlan.27 The winter also included recognition of Willis by his old youth baseball organization. He was named Major League Baseball Player of the Year by the Khoury Baseball Association.

When Willis pitched in spring training of 1969, he experienced soreness in his right elbow. Unable to get his arm loose during bullpen sessions, he began experimenting with a palm ball until his pitching coach, Moffett, advised against it owing to concern of further stress on the arm.28 Willis continued to pitch through the pain and made 26 appearances out of the bullpen during the first three months of the season. After taking the loss in an extra-inning game versus the Mets on July 2, Willis had a 4.18 ERA and was sent back to Double-A Tulsa. He did not find much success there, posting a 1-4 record and 6.87 ERA in eight games (six starts).

Also at Tulsa that year was former big-league first baseman Jeoff Long, who shared memories of his old teammate in 2020. “My recollection of Ron Willis is that he was a great person first of all, but here is my most memorable moment. In or around 1967 when I was out of the game, I contracted pericarditis. I was hospitalized, and it was pretty serious. Guess who visited me in the hospital…Ron Willis. I don’t know how he found out I was in, and the Cardinals had to be in Cincinnati. I will never forget his thoughtfulness at that time. I might add that Ron had one hell of a sinking fastball.”29

In August, the Houston Astros purchased the rights to Willis for an undisclosed sum. The righty appeared in just three games without a decision for the Astros and did not allow a run. In November, the Cardinals repurchased Willis’s contract from Houston. In previous off-seasons, Willis had taken jobs unloading boxcars and selling insurance. In the winter of 1969-70, he performed manual labor in St. Louis. He showed up at the Teamsters Union Hall at 6 a.m. and performed whatever jobs were needed, including delivering furniture, cutting lumber, and driving forklifts. After a dockhand at a trucking firm suffered a broken leg, Willis was offered that position. He dropped seven pounds from his frame and maybe added a little muscle. “I’ve added about 1-100th of an inch to my biceps,” he quipped at the time.30

To Willis’s disappointment, the Cardinals did not invite him to their big-league camp for spring training. “I thought about quitting baseball. And on the other hand, I was confident I could get guys out in the majors. So, in the end, I decided to try to prove that to people who didn’t think so,” Willis said in 1970.31 St. Louis assigned him to Double-A Arkansas to start the 1970 season. He regained confidence and effectiveness on the mound, going 2-4 with 13 saves while recording an ERA of 1.67 in 26 games for the Travelers. Despite his success, the Cardinals did not give him another opportunity at the big-league level, something that perplexed Willis.32 Another team, the San Diego Padres, gave him a chance in June when they purchased his contract from Arkansas and in in exchange sold Bob Etheridge to Tulsa. Ken Boyer, Willis’s manager at Arkansas, had recommended his pitcher to the Padres.33

Willis was thrilled to be in San Diego. “I feel like I’ve received a new lease on life,” he said after the move west. Despite not being able to extend his elbow beyond 45 degrees, he was an effective reliever with his new team.34 He made his Padres debut on June 17 against St. Louis and threw a scoreless inning. San Diego manager Preston Gomez used Willis frequently. He pitched in 15 out of 22 games and allowed just one earned run in his first 25 innings. Willis eventually went through a rough stretch in August and ended the season with a 2-2 record and an ERA of 4.02 for the last-place Padres. In November, San Diego sent him outright to the Hawaii Islanders of the Pacific Coast League.

In 1971, Willis pitched for the Islanders at their spring training camp in California but was released after two weeks. Rather than accept another minor league job, he decided to head back to Memphis and call it quits. “My arm was acting up again and, at 27, I’m about over the hill as far as baseball is concerned. I’m happy being at home with my wife and kids every day,” said Willis.35

For his major league career, Willis finished with an 11-12 record, 19 saves, 128 strikeouts, and a 3.32 ERA. He was 80 days shy of the minimum amount of service time needed to receive a pension.36 Ron and Becky had three children (Angela, Brad, and Christy), and Ron found other ways to support his family. He did not completely give up baseball, however. He played outfield for S&W Construction Company in the Memphis Adult League while training to sell municipal bonds.37 He found being on the phone all day selling bonds unappealing, so he tried his hand at other jobs. He sold chemicals, started his own company selling electronics, and went back to working in the insurance business.

In 1975, he was named general manager of the Memphis Blues, the Triple-A affiliate of the Montreal Expos. The team did not play well, attendance fell, and there was a disastrous promotional event. Willis recruited Hank Aaron and the Milwaukee Brewers to play the Atlanta Braves in an exhibition game. Because the Blues stadium only held 6,000, Willis arranged for the game to be played at Memphis Memorial Stadium, a facility built for football.38 With a baseball configuration, the right field foul pole was 174 feet from home plate.39 The second baseman played right field, and Aaron hit a home run on what normally would be a shallow pop up. The event lost money, and there was criticism from fans and the press. Willis was fired in mid-season and found another job selling houseware products.

In 1977, Willis underwent surgery to evaluate persistent headaches. The seven-hour operation revealed a malignant brain tumor. Maintaining his wit while dealing with the diagnosis, Willis said, “I told the doctor while he was fishing around in my head to see if he could find my chin in there.”40 He underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and the medical bills added up. His former teammates came to his aid and held several fundraisers. The Cardinals hired Willis as a part-time scout after his diagnosis. He underwent a second surgery in July, but ultimately his cancer was terminal.

Ron Willis died on November 21, 1977 at the age of 34. He was buried at Zion Cemetery in Obion, Tennessee.

 

Acknowledgments

Special thanks to Ike Futch and Jeoff Long for sharing memories of their former teammate and to Rory Costello for contacting Long.

This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author relied on Baseball-Reference.com

 

Notes

1 Neal Russo, “Lot of Laughs in Rough Years,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 12, 1968: 57.

2 Bob Broeg, “Muffett’s Help Spurred Ron Willis to Success,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 15, 1967: 34.

3 Neal Russo, “Willisville Has Claim to Fame,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 12, 1967: 45.

4 Russo, “Lot of Laughs in Rough Years.”

5 Russo, “Lot of Laughs in Rough Years.”

6 Bob Posen, “Ron Willis is Signed by Cards,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 10, 1961: 6.

7 Bob Posen, “Kirkwood Wins State Championship on One-Hitter by Landes,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 4, 1961: 34.

8 Broeg, “Muffett’s Help.”

9 Posen. “Ron Willis is Signed by Cards.”

10 Broeg, “Muffett’s Help.”

11 Russo, “Lot of Laughs in Rough Years.”

12 “Mustangs Open in Pocatello,” The Billings Gazette, April 21, 1963: 17.

13 “Mustangs Win Opener,” The Billings Gazette, April 25, 1963: 22.

14 Russo, “Lot of Laughs in Rough Years.”

15 “Chuck Pearson Sent to Tulsa,” The News and Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina), July 22, 1964: 15.

16 Russo, “Lot of Laughs in Rough Years.”

17 Communication between the author and Ike Futch via electronic message, December 14, 2020.

18 “Howsam, Red Get Winning Card Eyeful,” Tampa Bay Times, November 15, 1965: 16.

19 Neal Russo, “Gibson Wins No. 21,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 2, 1966: 89.

20 Broeg, “Muffett’s Help.”

21 “Ron Willis Gains Bullpen Confidence,” Tucson Daily Citizen, August 7, 1967: 23.

22 Neal Russo, “Hoerner Toots Whistle on Card Relief Rappers,” The Sporting News, May 11, 1968: 8.

23 Bill McIntyre, “Chinny, Chin, Chin,” The Times (Shreveport, Louisiana), January 23, 1969: 25.

24 Russo, “Lot of Laughs in Rough Years.”

25 Jack Ogden, “Stars Missing: Willis and Bo Steal the Show,” February 4, 1969: 13.

26 McIntyre, “Chinny, Chin, Chin.”

27 Arnold Irish, “Willis Most Likely Success,” Southern Illinoisan, March 23, 1969: 12.

28 Bob Broeg, “Willis’s Arm is Card Question,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 22, 1969: 5.

29 Email correspondence between Rory Costello and Jeoff Long, December 18, 2020.

30 Neal Russo, “Muscling in on Spring Training,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 14, 1970: 79.

31 “Arthritical Willis Big Help to Padres,” Times-Advocate (Escondido, California), July 29, 1970: 18.

32 “Willis, Arm Okay, Develops Palm Ball,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 17, 1970: 20.

33 “Willis Halts Cincy,” The Tribune (Coshocton, Ohio), July 9, 1970: 15.

34 “Arthritical Willis Big Help to Padres.”

35 “Pressure off Willis in Memphis League,” The Tennessean, May 14, 1971: 37.

36 Ron Cobb, “Willis’s Chin Up Despite Tragedy,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 23, 1977: 28.

37 “Pressure off Willis in Memphis League.”

38 Cobb.

39 Cobb.

40 Cobb.

Full Name

Ronald Earl Willis

Born

July 12, 1943 at Willisville, TN (USA)

Died

November 21, 1977 at Memphis, TN (USA)

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