Bob Wilson, longtime Mustangs president, dies at 71
A new $12.5 million Cobb Field is beginning to take shape on the corner of 27th Street and 9th Avenue North, but Billings' "Mr. Mustang" will not be around to see next season's first pitch.
Bob Wilson, whose long association with the Pioneer League baseball team dated back to the early 1970s, passed away Friday evening at St. Vincent Healthcare at the age of 71. He was most recently the team's president and Chief Operating Officer, but spent most of his years as the Mustangs' president and general manager.
No cause of death was given in a statement posted on the team's Web site, but Wilson combated a heart ailment over the years and also waged a battle against Parkinson's disease later in life. His health problems dramatically affected his workload with the rookie-league ballclub in recent seasons.
"Bob was a special person and an ambassador for the game of baseball at all levels," said general manager Gary Roller. "He represented everything that is good in this great game and embraced the competition and spirit, whether it was a professional game or his grandson's Little League game at the neighborhood park." Wilson joined the Mustangs Booster Club in 1971, shortly after moving his family to Billings from Los Angeles. He became president of the Mustangs in 1974 - the first season Billings was affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds - and became the team's full-time general manager in 1985.
"He was the heart and the soul of the ballclub for so many years," said Ron May, who spent 18 years as the chairman of the Mustangs' board of directors. "I used to refer to him as 'Bobby Baseball.' When you thought of Bob, you thought of the Mustangs. And when you thought of the Mustangs, you thought of Bob."
With Wilson in the front office, Billings captured 10 league championships - the most recent one coming in 2003. There were also seasons when as many as 100,000-plus fans went through the field's front gate to watch the Mustangs play.
"On countless occasions he would provide free admission to the game to underprivileged groups or kids who couldn't afford the price of a ticket just so they could experience the game," Roller said. "He will be remembered by his colleagues and peers as a gentleman and promoter of the game."
Wilson was inducted into the Mustangs' Hall of Fame in 1993.
In 2000, Wilson's peers in the Pioneer League honored him by awarding what they now call the "Bob Wilson Championship Trophy" to the league's title team.
Wilson also received national recognition at baseball's winter meetings in 2003 in New Orleans when Minor League Baseball named him the "King of Baseball." That award is given annually to one person in recognition of a lifetime of service to baseball.
"Billings has lost an exceptional man, and I'm so very saddened by it," said May. "But my Christian faith tells me that Bob is now running a ballclub in heaven and he's telling the second baseman to play a little deeper because the batter pulls the ball."
Wilson is survived by his wife, Peggy, three children; Todd, Greg and Jody, and six grandchildren.
There will be a visitation from 3-9 p.m. on Wednesday at Michelotti-Sawyers Mortuary. His funeral service will be at 1 p.m. Thursday at the First Presbyterian Church, 2420 13th Street West.
"I remember him telling me (over the years) that this heart (problem) and Parkinson's ... it's not fun," recalled Woody Hahn, who was the Mustangs' general manager from 1969-77. "But he always said 'it's not going to get me in regulation ... it's going to take extra innings.' I think he went extra innings. We're going to miss him."
Roller said the team will pay special recognition to Wilson prior to or during the coming season, but plans for the tribute are still being finalized.
"However, for sure we will remember him each day of the season by wearing a commemorative insignia attached to each of our jerseys," said Roller.
The new Cobb Field is scheduled to open this summer in time for the start of the 2008 season. Wilson served on the initial design committee.
"Billings needs a new ballpark," he said in a 2003 interview as the bid for a new field was getting under way. "It's close to being condemned. Here we are, we brag about how we're the best minor-league franchise in baseball, and we need a ballpark. The old lady has served her purpose. It's time to get a new dancing partner."
Billings voters approved a $12.5 million bond issue for a new baseball stadium in November 2006.
"I think it was a big part of what kept him going the last few years," Hahn said of Wilson's anticipation over the new Cobb Field. "He was really excited about it and his goal was to see it completed. I'm real sad he will not be able to take part in it."
Roller, who started with the Mustangs in 1993 as an intern, agreed.
"Unfortunately Bob won't see firsthand the opening of the new park this summer - the park that he dreamed of, the park that he held such high hopes for in becoming an icon for the city of Billings ... the park that would secure and serve the future of baseball in our community."
While Wilson fought Parkinson's disease late in life, he was also a candidate for a heart transplant in the early 1990s, but didn't undergo the operation. He did have surgery, however, a few years ago to help him control the tremors, stiffness and walking concerns associated with Parkinson's.
"I'm sure his love of baseball and his love of the Mustangs gave him the energy to go on through all of the health problems he's had," said May.
Wilson, a native of Missouri, was regarded as a kindly gentleman - benevolent when it came to supporting the local American Legion and Little League programs and also a fan's best friend when it came to handing out free tickets to a Mustang game.
But while he was compassionate, he also had a competitive side.
On one occasion in January 1992, Wilson, upset about three straight losing seasons, complained during a newspaper interview about the quality of players the Reds were sending to the Magic City for the summer.
"I think it's time we had some competitive baseball players here," Wilson remembered telling the Reds, while recalling the incident in a July 2003 interview. "If Cincinnati doesn't want to furnish a competitive team, then I think it's time for us to look elsewhere."
The Mustangs had put together a lackluster 83-119 record over the previous three years - and the 25 wins in 1991 ranked as the fewest victories in a single season since 1977.
Wilson, who was receiving flak from local fans over the team's losing ways, even had some harsh words for then-Reds owner Marge Schott. His comments - basically holding the Reds responsible - resonated loud and clear all the way to the front office in Cincinnati.
The Cincinnati hierarchy responded to his criticism not with anger, but cooperation. They sent several of their top draft picks to Billings over the next three seasons - leading to 159 wins and three consecutive league championships.
"I'd like to take credit for that, but not really," Wilson said in that 2003 interview. "Jim Bowden (the Reds' general manager at the time) and I had a heart-to-heart talk and this shows you how desirable Billings is.
"They didn't want to lose Billings as an affiliate, so they tried to work everything out the best that they could," said Wilson. "They gave us a competitive ballclub. As you know, when you put a team together in the first of June, you don't really know what you're going to do. We're just fortunate we got some producers."
Manager Donnie Scott, along with players like Chad Mottola, Jason Robbins, Aaron Boone and Ray Brown, were certainly producers during that three-year stretch.
The Mustangs were also fortunate to have Wilson around to get that championship ball rolling.
"I just feel his friendship and his connections (in professional baseball) were so beneficial to us in the city," Hahn said.
Wilson grew up in San Diego. He played baseball at the University of Arizona and two years in the minor-league system of the Cleveland Indians.
In his later days at Cobb Field, Wilson said he was content to mingle with friends, fans and his grandchildren.
"In the old days I could tell you the batting averages and ERAs of most every player in the major leagues," said Wilson. "But now I've kind of lost interest in that. It's more the beauty of baseball ... just the joy of watching it."
Wilson also said, in 2003, that his favorite moment in baseball involved his son, Todd, who played first base for the Mustangs during the 1990 season.
"I've had a lot of awards and great moments in baseball personally," he said, "but the best moment that I ever had was seeing Todd hit his first professional home run."