Maury Wills' legacy is defined by speed and persistence. The legendary Dodgers shortstop passes away at age 89.
— Dodger Insider (@DodgerInsider) September 20, 2022
Many of us “veteran” LAD fans have keen memories of the infamous…Go Go Go chant for Maury Wills. We fondly remember the 1962 MVP season when he batted .299, hit 13 doubles, 10 triples, six long balls and scored 130 runs. Oh yeah, he also stole 104 bases.
Maurice Morning Wills was born October 2, 1932, in Washington DC. Wills grew up in the district’s Anacostia neighborhood, along with four brothers and eight sisters. His father, Guy Wills, born in 1900 in Maryland, worked as a machinist at the Washington Navy Yard and part-time as a Baptist minister. His mother, Mable Wills, born in 1902, also in Maryland, worked as an elevator operator.
He earned All-City honors as a quarterback in football, in basketball and as a pitcher in baseball when he was nicknamed Sonny. He did have colleges look at him for football, but Wills signed with the Dodgers in the summer of 1950. Wills was hoping for a $6,000 bonus. Brooklyn scouts Rex Bowen and John Curry countered with a new suit of clothes. The negotiations continued. Finally, the scouts got up to leave. Bowen offered $500. “Take or leave it,” he said. Guy Wills thought about it for a second. “We’ll take it,” he said.
Wills reported to the Hornell (New York) Dodgers of the Class-D Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York League, in 1951. He batted .280 and stole 54 bases. The Dodgers promoted him to the Class-C Santa Barbara Dodgers of the California League in 1952. Wills, though, felt comfortable in New York and asked to stay there for one more season. He did and stole another 54 bases.
In 1958, Wills was assigned to the Spokane Indians in the PCL. His manager in Spokane was Bobby Bragan who would go on to become a big mentor for Maury.
“He took a big interest in me and just being around him made my baseball life worth living,” Wills said. “I had just about given up on myself.”
Bragan improved Wills’ attitude and encouraged him to switch-hit. The natural right-hander could reach first base even faster by batting left-handed. Why not try it? Bragan asked. Wills replied, “Bobby, I’ll try anything once.”
It only took 8 ½ years before Wills would reach the Major Leagues. Pee Wee Reese was the established SS for the Dodgers, and blocked Wills. But Reese retired after 1958 season and the Dodgers needed another SS. They first turned to Bobby Lillis who also was a long time MiLB player. Lillis batted .391 in 20 games for LA in 1958. He began slowly in 1959 and lost his job to six year veteran Don Zimmer. However, Zim broke his toe in early June, and Wills’ former mentor, Bobby Bragan, recommended Wills for a promotion to Los Angeles. Wills, was hitting .313 with 25 stolen bases at Spokane, and not surprisingly, said,
“I sure was hoping to get a chance to play in the majors.”
Finally, that chance came on June 6, 1959, facing the Milwaukee Braves, and Maury went 0-4. In 83 games, he finished the season batting .260/.298/.298/.596, but only 7 SB.
“As a kid, my greatest wish was to play in the big leagues,” Wills told MLB.com in 2004. “When I was 14, I heard about Jackie Robinson and I wanted to play for the Dodgers. I spent 8 1/2 years in the Minors, and it appeared it would not happen. I wanted to play with Jackie Robinson and didn’t get to do that, but I did play for the Dodgers.”
It was in 1960 that Wills began to become the Maury we remember. He did not start the season as he wanted offensively. He got frustrated as Walter Alston began to pinch hit for Wills as early as the 3rd inning. Looking for help, Wills looked to coach Pete Reiser. Reiser, a former Brooklyn Dodgers phenom, told Wills to meet him at the Coliseum the following morning.
Reiser stood on the pitcher’s mound at the Dodgers’ home field and threw one ball after another, instructing Wills to hit each pitch to the opposite field. At one point, Wills complained about the heat wave. Reiser retorted
“Would you rather take a little heat here with the Dodgers or go back to the ‘bus and wool-shirt circuit’ in Spokane.”
The slump continued for a while, but Wills went on to have a very productive season, and led the league in stolen bases with 50. This would be the first of six consecutive seasons with leading the league is stolen bases. He wound up with 17th in MVP vote for the year.
Wills enjoyed another solid season in 1961. He batted .282 and led the league with 35 SB. He would go on to make his first All-Star team, win his first Gold Glove and finish ninth in the MVP voting.
1962 was a season to remember. Ty Cobb set the stolen base mark of 96 in 1915. Wills did not have the record as goal. He set 50 as his goal. He hit 50 stolen bases in Game 104 (July 27). At the end of August, Wills had 73 SB. He was battered and bruised and the record seemed a long way away. Stealing bases nearly every day didn’t come easy. Wills’ hamstrings burned from all the sudden starting and stopping on the basepaths. He kept running. Some opposing groundskeepers packed sand into the clay around first base to make the dirt soft and slippery and more difficult for Wills to get traction.
Wills chuckled at the memory of the shenanigans years later in a 2021 interview with The Times’ Houston Mitchell. “I was flattered that they would go through all that trouble to try to stop me,” he said.
He kept running. Wills stole four bases on September 7, giving him 82 for the season and breaking the National League mark of 81, set by Bob Bescher of the Cincinnati Reds in 1911. He was closing in on Cobb. On Sunday, September 23, against the St. Louis Cardinals, Maury singled and stole 2nd off Larry Jackson in the 3rd inning to tie Ty Cobb. In the 7th, Wills stole singled and stole 2nd base again off Larry Jackson to set the single season record.
Late in the year, Commissioner Ford C. Frick declared that Wills would have to break Cobb’s stolen-base mark in 154 games, the same number of scheduled games in 1915. Cobb actually played in 156 games for the Tigers in 1915. Two games ended in ties, and the Georgia Peach notched a stolen base in one of them.
As it turns out, September 23, was the 156th game. When asked, Wills replied,
“As far as I’m concerned, I was right on schedule,” Wills said. “He (Cobb) did it in 156 games and what’s good enough for Cobb is good enough for me.” He also declared, “I’m going for 100 steals.”
He got his 100th SB on September 26 when he stole 3B off George Brunet (Houston). That was it until Game 2 of the playoff series against SF when he stole 101. In Game 3, he stole 3 bases to reach 104.
Wills not only stole a record 104 bases, opposing catchers threw him out just 13 times. He also set a major-league record in 1962 by playing in 165 games. He went to bat 695 times and hit safely 208 times for a .299 batting average. Wills topped the NL with 10 triples. And he smacked a career-high six home runs. Writers voted him the league’s Most Valuable Player.
“This is the best award a player can get,” Wills said.
All that running and sliding, though, left Wills battered. Late in the season, Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray wrote,
“His body is so bruised he constantly looks as if he had just crawled out of a plane wreck.”
Three of the next four years the team had much better run and went to the World Series, winning twice (1963 and 1964) and losing in 1966 when Wills went 1-13.
“We couldn’t do anything right.” Wills said, “I’m embarrassed, but I’m not ashamed.”
But things got worse for Maury after the season.
Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley had organized a postseason goodwill trip to Japan. Several players, including Wills, asked for permission to skip the event. Denied permission, he left anyway. Instead of flying directly to Los Angeles and getting treatment, he stopped for a week in Honolulu, where he joined singer Don Ho in his act, playing his banjo, singing and joking. Buzzie Bavasi, vacationing in Hawaii with his wife, happened to catch the act one evening.
O’Malley, probably already in a foul mood after Sandy Koufax announced his retirement on November 18, ordered Bavasi to ship Wills out of Los Angeles. Bavasi wrote that O’Malley told him,
“Not only did he embarrass the Dodgers, but he embarrassed the nation of Japan.”
When discussing the trade, Bavasi told Sports Illustrated:
“A lot of our ballplayers just plain didn’t hit it off with him. Maybe he was a little too intense for their taste, I don’t know.”
Wills said of the trade:
“I don’t want to be traded. I’ve spent all my life playing for the Dodgers. The Dodgers are my life.”
Wills would play two years in Pittsburgh (1967 – 1968). On October 14, 1968, the Montreal Expos selected Wills from the Pirates as the 21st pick in the expansion draft. Wills batted first in the lineup for the inaugural game of the Expos on April 8, 1969. He went 3-for-6 with one RBI and one stolen base in the 11–10 win. Not happy in Montreal, he briefly retired from the Expos but returned. On June 11, 1969, Wills was traded back to the Dodgers for Ron Fairly and Paul Popovich.
Wills retired after the 1972 season. His final game was against Atlanta on October 4, 1972. He pinch ran for Ron Cey and finished the game at 3B. He started his career against the Braves when they were in Milwaukee, and finished his career against the Braves when they were in Atlanta.
Wills went on to have a career with NBC as a baseball analyst. He would also manage in the Mexican Leagues.
In 1980, the Seattle Mariners fired Darrell Johnson mid-season and hired Wills to manage the team. He finished the season with a 20-38 record. After a 6-18 start in 1981, new owner George Argyros fired Wills on May 6, 1981, with the Mariners deep in last place. That gave him a career record of 26-56.
Wills had trouble with drugs, but with help from the Dodgers, principally Don Newcombe, he got sober.
In 2000, he returned to the Dodgers as an instructor. The field where he taught the finer points of base-running was called “Maury’s Pit.” It was there, in the spring of 2002, when Wills made a prophecy to a speedy outfielder named Dave Roberts.
“Dave,” Wills told his pupil, “one day you’re going to be on first base and get the steal sign, and there’s not going to be the element of surprise.”
Two years later, then with the Boston Red Sox, Roberts heard Wills’ voice in his ear as he arrived at first base as a pinch runner in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. One defeat away from winter, the Red Sox asked Roberts to steal second base to keep the season alive. He did and the Red Sox would go on to win a World Series for the first time since 1918.
Maury Wills finished his big league career with 586 total stolen bases. He posted a career batting line of .281/.330/.331/.661. He is a Dodgers legend, playing 12 of his 15 seasons in LA. He was an MVP (1962), an All Star MVP (also 1962), 7 X All Star, 2 X Gold Glove, 3 X World Series Champion, ML Player of the Year.
He also served as color commentator for the Fargo-Moorhead (N.D.) RedHawks in the independent American Assn. for 22 years, retiring in 2017. He credited the low-key atmosphere in North Dakota for helping him maintain sobriety.
Dodgers CEO Stan Kasten released a statement following the death of Maury Wills.
“Maury Wills was one of the most exciting Dodgers of all-time. He changed baseball with his base-running and made the stolen base an important part of the game. He was very instrumental in the success of the Dodgers with three world championships.”
Dave Roberts on a pregame discussion.
The Los Angeles Dodgers are saddened by the passing of Dodger legend Maury Wills. Our thoughts are with Wills’ family, teammates and friends. pic.twitter.com/zCtmuSUB0o
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) September 20, 2022