Obituary: Maury Wills (1932-2022)

RIP to Maury Wills, an MVP, an All-Star, a Gold Glove winner and the stolen base king of the 1960s. He died on September 19 at his home in Sedona, Arizona. He was 89 years old. His daring on the basepaths helped make the stolen base important again, and he paved the way for future stolen base champs like Lou Brock, Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines. Wills played for the Los Angeles Dodgers (1959-66, 1969-72), Pittsburgh Pirates (1967-68) and Montreal Expos (1969). He also managed the Seattle Mariners in 1980 and ’81 and was a long-time instructor for multiple teams. He is survived by his wife Carla and six children, Barry, Micki, Elliott (aka Bump Wills), Anita, Susan Quam and Wendi Jo.

Maurice Morning Wills was born in Washington D.C. on October 2, 1932. He was one of 13 children, and parents Guy (a minister) and Mabel Wills both worked day jobs to make ends meet. Maury grew up playing on sandlot teams around the city. He played baseball at Cardozo High School, and he was a very effective pitcher. Wills, who was still called “Maurice” at this time, struck out 17 batters and allowed just 1 hit in a 6-0 win over Phelps Vocational on May 8, 1950. When Wills graduated from Cardozo later that summer, he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers and scout Rex Bowen. He was drafted as a pitcher, but when Wills found himself among a surplus of young pitchers, he switched over to the infield, where there was less competition.

There are players who look like sure-thing major leaguers in the minor leaguers, but Wills didn’t have that aura at first. He hit well; in his first two seasons playing for Hornell in the Pony League, he batted .280 in 1951 and .300 in ’52. His defense in the infield and outfield was a work in progress, and power mostly was limited to doubles. However, his greatest asset — speed — was not really valued in the major leagues at the time. The first year that Baseball Reference has stolen base statistics available for Wills is 1953, when he swiped a combined 28 bases for Pueblo and Miami. Had Wills been playing in the majors at the time, he would have led the National League. As it so happened, Wills was playing for the one organization that really valued stolen bases. While Milwaukee’s Bill Bruton led the NL with 26 stolen bases in 1953, the next four players — Pee Wee Reese, Jim Gilliam, Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider — were all Brooklyn Dodgers. Even so, it took Wills eight years before getting his first chance at the majors.

“The successful player is not necessarily the record-maker but the one who uses all his tools properly,” Wills said in an interview with The Pittsburgh Press in 1968. “I had good legs and a good arm, and I had these tools in the minors but didn’t use all of them.”

Wills slumped to a .203 batting average in his first season of more advanced ball — Fort Worth of the Double-A Texas League in 1955. He returned to Class-A ball the following year and batted .302 for Pueblo of the Western League, with a career high 10 home runs. The Dodgers moved Wills to the Pacific Coast League starting in 1957, and he spent the next two-and-a-half seasons there. While at Spokane in 1958, manager Bobby Bragan worked with Wills to get him to switch-hit. In one series against Sacramento, Wills beat out five bunts for hits while batting as a lefty and showed some decent power when he swung away. “Here’s a guy who has the glove and the speed to go in the majors, and this left-handed hitting thing could put him there,” Bragan said. Wills liked Spokane so much that he made it his permanent home, along with wife Gertie and young children.

Wills got to the majors with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1959, but it was almost with Detroit instead. The Tigers had claimed Wills over the winter and tried him out in spring training. However, the Tigers returned him to Spokane before the start of the season. Wills was 26 and not exactly a prospect, but he hadn’t had much of a chance to show his skills as a new switch hitter. The Dodgers finally give him his chance in the majors in early June of 1959, when he was sent from Spokane to Los Angeles in exchange for shortstop Bob Lillis. Wills had moved into a great opportunity with the Dodgers. Shortstop Pee Wee Reese had retired in 1958, and attempts to replace him had been a bust. Lillis hit .229, and Don Zimmer hit .165 over the course of the season and broke his toe, prompting Wills’ promotion. Wills got off to a slow start himself. In his second start on June 7, he singled off Milwaukee’s Bob Buhl for his first major-league hit. He hit under .200 for most of the season and didn’t steal a base until July 15, after more than a month of regular play. His bat didn’t wake up until September. He had a 4-for-4 day on September 10 and a 5-for-5 day on the 15th to get going, and by the time the Dodgers finished the season, he’d improved his batting average to a solid .260. Los Angeles faced the Chicago White Sox in the World Series, and Wills batted .250 with a stolen base. He also made a game-saving relay throw in Game Two to cut down Sherm Lollar with the potential tying run, and he singled in a run and scored in the Dodgers’ clinching 9-3 win in Game Six.

Wills stole just 7 bases in his half-season with the Dodgers in 1959. Having established himself as the starting shortstop, he led the National League in stolen bases each season from 1960 through 1965. He batted anywhere from .275 to .302 in that span, demonstrating that the switch-hitting shortstop was more than just a good baserunner. Wills and Dodgers coach Pete Reiser put in many hours, adjusting the shortstop’s batting stance and teaching him how to hit to the opposite field. “I used to see only half the ball, but now I see the whole ball,” Wills said of his hitting development.

Wills’ hitting lessons improved his batting average, but they never helped him gain much power. He never hit as many as 20 doubles in a season. He hit his first career home run off the Cubs’ Jack Curtis on August 6, 1961 — in his 1,167th major-league at-bat. His teammates naturally gave him the silent treatment until Wills threw his helmet in anger, and then they mobbed him for handshakes. That year, Wills was named to his first All-Star Games — they played two per season for a brief time — and won his first Gold Glove Award.

When it came to baserunning, Wills was far and away the class of the NL. He stole 50 bases in 1960, his first full year in the majors. The next-closest competitor in the league was Cincinnati’s Vada Pinson, who was 18 steals behind at 32. Wills’ only contemporary in the major leagues was Luis Aparicio of the White Sox, who stole 51 that season. Wills slipped to 35 in 1961 and also led baseball by being caught 15 times. He then dispelled any notion that he might slowing with a historic 1962 season. It was the year that he set the major-league record with 104 stolen bases, shattering Ty Cobb’s old record of 96 from 1915.

Wills started off slowly and had just 8 steals in April. He warned up in May and June and was named to both All-Star Games. He won the first one, on July 10, with his speed. He entered the scoreless game in the top of the sixth inning as a pinch-runner after Stan Musial singled off Camilo Pascual. Wills promptly stole second and scored the first run of the game on a Dick Groat single. Later, Wills led off the top of the eighth inning with a single, advanced to third on a Jim Davenport base hit and scored on a foul sacrifice fly by Felipe Alou, making the final score 3-1.

Once the regular season resumed, Wills ran even faster. He had 22 steals in August and then, with the record in sight, stole 31 bases in 30 games in September and October, batting .361 over that span. He stole 4 bases in a game against Pittsburgh on September 7 and added 4 more thefts over the rest of the 3-game series. Pirates catcher Smoky Burgess stopped saying hello to Wills whenever the Dodgers infielder came to the plate to hit. Even the killjoy Commissioner Ford Frick couldn’t throw a damper on Wills’ stealing spree. He ruled that, like Roger Maris’ home run chase in 1961, Wills must break the record within 154 games for the record to count. Wills stole two bases in the Dodgers’ 156th game of the season, on September 23 in St. Louis, to give him 97 on the year. He reached 100 on September 26 against Houston and then added 4 more steals in a 3-game playoff series against San Francisco to determine the NL pennant. As much as Wills tried to run the Dodgers into the World Series, the Giants won the final game to advance to the World Series.

Source: Detroit Free Press, August 14, 1980.

The 3 playoff games were simply added to the regular season, so Wills set a major-league record by playing in 165 games in 1962, and that record will likely never be broken. He led the league in plate appearances (759), at-bats (695), singles (179), triples (10), as well as steals and caught stealing (13). He slashed .299/.347/.373 and reached 200 hits (208 to be exact) for the only time in his career. He scored a career-best 130 times and also set career highs with 6 home runs and 48 RBIs. His 104 stolen bases were more than any major-league team accumulated. After the season, Wills edged out Willie Mays to win the Most Valuable Player Award, 208 points to 202. Mays hit .304 with 49 home runs and beat Wills in WAR, 10.5 to 6.0. However, voters chose to recognize Wills’ record-setting accomplishments, making it one of the few times that speed trumped power in modern-era baseball.

The MVP season was a mixed blessing for Wills. On the bright side, his profile was raised considerably, giving him new off-field opportunities. Wills was a very talented singer and also played banjo and guitar. With his name in the record books (or at least sharing the record with Cobb, per Frick’s asterisk rule), he was invited on talk shows to perform, and he was able to get offseason residencies in Las Vegas hotels. The downside was that those stolen bases took a physical toll. As Wills stole more bases, the tags from infielders got harder. Wills’ legs were continually bruised from all the blows.

“Late in the season I thought I couldn’t stand sliding the regular way, so I began going into the base head first,” Wills said after the season. “I took a couple of late tags right on the collarbone, hard, after I was in safe. I knew that wasn’t going to do my batting average or my collarbone any good. So I had to go back to sliding on my hip and legs again.”

Wills’ base-stealing tailed off in 1963 and ’64, though he still led the NL with 40 and 53, respectively. He won a second World Series championship with the Dodgers in 1963 when they swept the New York Yankees. Wills had a quiet Series, with just 2 hits and a stolen base in 15 at-bats. He slashed .286/.330/.329 in 1965, the year he stole 94 bases and finished third in the NL MVP vote. He also returned to the All-Star Game after a year’s absence. His thefts and runs scored (he scored 92 times) helped the Dodgers capture another NL pennant. Wills had 11 hits in the 7-game 1965 World Series against Minnesota for a .367 batting average, including 3 doubles. He stole 3 bases in 5 attempts and hit 3 doubles as well. When Sandy Koufax outdueled Jim Kaat in Game Seven, the Dodgers had won the third World Series of Wills’ tenure.

As valuable as Wills was — he was the team captain as well as the starting shortstop and leadoff hitter — his time with Los Angeles was running out. Now 33 years old, Wills had a very typical season in 1966, with a .273 batting average and steady play at shortstop. He also singled in the winning run at the All-Star Game. However, for the first time as a full-time player, Wills did not lead the NL in stolen bases. His 38 steals (in 62 attempts) were third-best, behind new stolen base champ Lou Brock of St. Louis and Sonny Jackson of Houston. Wills was bothered by loose cartilage in his right knee, and the injury killed his base stealing. He stole 1 base in July, 2 in August and 5 in September. Three of those came in one game against the Phillies on September 30. He was also a non-factor in the Dodgers’ loss to the Baltimore Orioles in the 1966 World Series. He had 1 hit in the 4-game sweep and stole 1 base.

All was not well with the Dodgers. Wills was the captain of the team and wasn’t shy about confronting players who he felt weren’t giving their all or weren’t paying attention. Late in the season, he and Tommy Davis had to be separated after Davis didn’t pay attention to a signal from the infield. After the Series, the Dodgers went on a goodwill tour of Japan for a series of exhibition games. Wills, fearing further damage to his aching knee, pulled out and went back home to Spokane. But first, he spent a week in Hawaii playing and singing in with Hawaiian entertainer Don Ho. Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley was irate over the “disloyalty,” as he put it, and demanded Wills be traded. On December 1, 1966, Wills was sent to the Pittsburgh Pirates for shortstop Gene Michael and third baseman/outfielder Bob Bailey.

“I’m sure that [Pirates GM] Joe Brown and the rest of the Pittsburgh staff realize Wills is not the Wills of five or six years ago,” said Dodgers general manager Buzzie Bavasi.

The Pirates had an excellent defender at shortstop already with Gene Alley, so Wills was moved to third base. He’d played the position occasionally in his career, but never full time. He was a league average fielder at the position, and he hit .302 in his first season with the Pirates, adding 29 stolen bases. The Dodgers used Michael and Dick Schofield at shortstop for most of 1967, and they hit a little over .200 with a combined 2 stolen bases — 1 apiece. The first time that the Pirates and Dodgers faced each other in the regular season, Wills had 6 hits in the 3-game series with a couple doubles and a stolen base in 2 attempts.

After spending the offseason reading reports that he would be traded to the Yankees, Wills returned to Pittsburgh in 1968 and stole 52 bases, showing that his legs weren’t shot just yet. He was thrown out 21 times, so catchers were having a slightly easier time catching him than they were at his peak. Then again, Wills was 35 years old. He also hit .278 but slugged just .316, with 12 doubles and 6 triples as the only extra-base hits from his 174 safeties. He fell out of favor with the Pirates’ front office, and GM Brown fined him $150 after Wills skipped two physical exams. He was left unprotected in the expansion draft and was claimed by the Montreal Expos. Wills has the distinction of being the first Expo to ever bat in a regular-season game. He was the 1969 Opening Day shortstop and leadoff hitter and helped spark an 11-10 win over the New York Mets. He was 3-for-6 with 2 doubles, an RBI and 2 runs scored, and he recorded the first Expo stolen base. He struggled beyond that first game and spent the first couple of months with a batting average around .200 and sloppy defense at shortstop. Wills actually retired for a couple of days at the start of June because of his poor play, but he came back later to face the Dodgers and whacked 5 hits in the 3-game series. He also stole a base in each game. The Dodgers were apparently impressed enough with Wills that they traded for him on June 11. The deal saw Wills and Manny Mota head to the Dodgers in exchange for Ron Fairly and Paul Popovich.

Wills hit .222 with the Expos in 47 games. When he joined the Dodgers, he went on a 10-game hitting streak and hit nearly .500 during that span. He jumped right back into his role as leadoff hitter and shortstop and played as if the years hadn’t passed by at all. He hit .297 with L.A. with 25 stolen bases in 104 games, and he even cracked 4 home runs. He reenergized the Dodgers enough that the team competed for first place in the new NL West Division before settling into fourth place.

Wills spent two more seasons as the Dodgers’ starting shortstop. He remained a productive player, with a .270 average in 1970 and a .281 mark in 1971. Wills even finished sixth in the NL MVP vote in 1971. Wills was reduced to the role of a part-timer in 1972, when he was 39 years old. He hit .129 with only one stolen base. His last game came on October 4, two days after his 40th birthday. He pinch-ran for Ron Cey and scored on a Steve Yeager homer, and then he played an inning at third base. The Dodgers released him at the end of the season, bringing Wills’ playing career to a close.

Wills played 14 seasons in the majors and had a .281/.330/.331 slash line. His 2,134 hits included 177 doubles, 71 triples and 20 home runs. He stole 586 bases and was caught 208 times for a 73.8% success rate. He scored 1,067 runs. Wills was named to 7 All-Star Teams and won 2 Gold Glove Awards, to go with his MVP Award. During his career, Wills led the NL in stolen bases 6 times, singles 4 times, sacrifice hits once, plate appearances twice, games played once, at-bats twice and caught stealing 7 times. His 586 steals is still 20th all-time, and it’s unlikely he will fall out of the Top 20 anytime soon. The current active leader in stolen bases is Dee Strange-Gordon with 336.

Wills was interested in a further career in baseball. He managed a team in Mexico in the winter of 1970-71, while he was still an active player himself. His first post-retirement job was the color commentator for NBC’s “Game of the Week” broadcasts, after former teammate Sandy Koufax stepped down from the role. Wills’ stolen base record was shattered by Brock in 1974, just a few years into his retirement. It came as a great surprise to Wills, but he nevertheless lauded Brock for the accomplishment. “I never thought anyone would even approach the record this soon, probably not in my lifetime,” Wills said. The broadcaster added that Brock probably had a harder time than he did, because pitchers didn’t know how to keep runners close in his day. “But after 1962, which sort of revolutionized baseball, pitchers became more informed on how to keep an outstanding stealer close to the base and how to keep them from getting a good jump. He’s surpassed my total in spite of that, and that’s quite an accomplishment.”

Houston hired Wills in 1975 as a spring training instructor. Manager Preston Gomez wanted him to coach speedsters like Cesar Cedeno and Roger Metzger as well as work with pitchers on how to keep runners close. Wills went on to work with several other major-league clubs as an instructor. He also had a regular gig with the Dodgers in spring training and winter ball. One of his finest pupils was his son Bump Wills, who reached the majors in 1977 with the Texas Rangers and played through 1982. Wills remained interested in a permanent role as a manager, but the one offer he received, with San Francisco for the 1977 season, came right after he had signed an extension with NBC sports as a broadcaster. His relationship with NBC ended in 1979, and he finally got a chance as manager when Seattle hired him in August of 1980. Darrell Johnson had guided the team to a 39-65-1 record before getting fired. Wills was the third African-American manager in the majors after Frank Robinson and Larry Doby, and it was widely believed that his skin color had been the reason he had to wait for so long to land a job.

“He’d see other people getting jobs, and the frustration would be tremendous,” said his son Bump. “I’m not trying to put down some of the other managers around, but you get the idea. I see some of the managers today, and I put their credentials up against my father’s, and…”

Maury Wills talks with Expos teammate Ron Brand, left. Source: The Tampa Tribune, June 10, 1969.

Wills’ time in Seattle was not successful, unfortunately. The Mariners couldn’t hit or pitch well and lost 103 games in 1980. The team got off to a 6-18 start in 1981 when Wills was fired, leaving him with a 26-56 record as manager. He made several strategic mistakes and occasionally forgot who was on the roster. He said he would bring outfielder Steve Stroughter to spring training as a non-roster player in 1981, but Stroughter had been traded to Minnesota weeks earlier. He left lefty catcher Brad Gulden bat against a lefty reliever and didn’t bring in a right-handed pinch-hitter until Gulden had worked a 3-1 count. Then he put the blame on Gulden and his coaches for not notifying him that a lefty reliever was in the game. The most egregious error came when he had the Seattle groundskeepers extend the batters box by an extra foot against Oakland. Wills was caught and suspended for two games. He was fired soon after.

Wills battled depression and drug addiction over the next couple of years. He later estimated that he spent $1 million on cocaine for his own use. The Dodgers did their best to help him get clean. Don Newcombe, who helped many ballplayers with addiction after his own demons ended his playing career, worked regularly with Wills. After several touch-and-go years, Wills was welcomed back to the Dodger family as a guest instructor again. “I don’t count the days behind me. I don’t count the days in front of me. All that counts is today. I can’t promise you about tomorrow,” he said in 1987. Wills became sober in 1989.

Wills co-authored two books, It Pays to Steal in 1963 and On the Run: The Never Dull and Often Shocking Life of Maury Wills in 1992. He didn’t hold back in disclosing the deepest depths of his drug addiction in the latter book. He continued instructing willing Dodger players into the 2010s, and one of his most apt pupils was outfielder (and current Dodgers manager) Dave Roberts. They gelled so well together during the spring of 2002 that then-manager Jim Tracy called it a father-son relationship and not a player-coach relationship. Roberts today wears Number 30, which is Wills’ old number. The Dodgers never retired it, but Roberts’ use of it is a fitting tribute, too.

Wills was not elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame during his eligibility period and was overlooked by veterans committees, but he had (and continues to have) advocates. Wills’ WAR and OPS+ scores are low because the numbers don’t place a significant value on stolen bases. A singles hitter like Wills gets downgraded, even if he could steal his way to second or third base easily. However, Wills deserves credit for taking the dying art of the stolen base and making it significant again. His speed helped the Dodgers win three World Series, and other teams began to see the benefit of having that extra dimension in their lineups. Wills may not be considered the best Dodger ever, but he is generally called the most exciting Dodger ever, and there is value in that, both in terms of team success and fan enjoyment.

Wills spoke frequently about the secrets of his base-stealing success. Aside from the physical aspects of baserunning, there was a mental part as well. His one secret? “That is positive thinking. When I get on base I feel that I am better than the pitcher, that he just can’t stop me. If you’re going to be effective you have to eliminate any doubt about being thrown out. You have the eliminate the fear of failing,” he would say. “I don’t believe in wearing my confidence on my shirt. I believe in it deep down.”

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