RIP Maury Wills, Who Turned the Stolen Base Into Grand Theft
Maury Wills was one of those players who shows up in sports from time to time. He wasn’t quite a Hall of Famer, but he was a very good player and he did something that fascinated millions of fans.
The game was baseball and what Wills did was steal bases.
In 1962, playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers, he stole 104 of them, breaking the modern record of 96 set by Ty Cobb in 1915.
Wills died Monday at the age of 89, and 60 years later it may seem quaint that there once was national sports buzz over stolen bases.
These days, it’s not even a huge national story that the Yankees’s Aaron Judge is poised to break the Babe Ruth/Roger Maris record for most home runs in a season by someone not pumped up on steroids. For better or worse, baseball isn’t our alpha sports obsession any more, having receded over six decades while football has ascended.
That doesn’t make Wills’s story, which wasn’t easy and wasn’t always happy, any less interesting.
He grew up in Washington, D.C., during and after World War II, when the Nation’s Capitol was still largely a Jim Crow town. He got something of a pass because even though he only stood five-eleven and weighed 170, he was a three-sport prodigy, lettering in baseball, basketball and football for three years at Cardozo High School.
The year he graduated, 1950, he signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers, then spent the next eight years kicking around in the minor leagues. That’s a long time to live in rooming houses, take long bus rides and eat lunch meat sandwiches, and it was an even longer time if you were a black player. The fact Wills stuck it out speaks strongly to his persistence and determination, since eight years for anyone in the minors also says you’re not considered a prime prospect. Wills was drafted from the Dodgers’s organization by Cincinnati in 1956 and Cincinnati sent him back. He was traded to Detroit after the 1958 season and Detroit sent him back.
He finally got his shot in 1959 when the Dodgers, now in Los Angeles, ran out of shortstops. Pee Wee Reese had retired, Bob Lillis didn’t work out and Don Zimmer broke his toe. For the last two months of the 1959 season Wills was the last shortstop standing, and while he was not an immediate star, the Dodgers did win the World Series. Wills kept the job.
In 1960 he batted .295 and led the league with 50 stolen bases. The next year he won his first Golden Glove and set the stage for 1962, when he had one of those years that usually happen only in dreams.
He had a staggering 759 plate appearances, collected 208 hits, batted .299, led the league in triples, won another Golden Glove and, oh yes, stole 104 bases.
The stolen base wasn’t exactly a lost art. But where in the early years of the 20th century, there were routinely more than 3,000 stolen bases a season, between 1932 and 1960 the total exceeded 1,000 only twice.
In fact, baseball strategists have never agreed whether the stolen base is a good thing. Is advancing a runner worth the risk of losing that runner altogether? It’s a debate that goes on, pounded mercilessly in recent years by the analytics posse.
Maury Wills, more than any other player, changed that conversation in the early 1960s. In 1962, there were 1,348 stolen bases and the number since then has never fallen below 1,000. By 1973 it was up to 2,000 and by 1976 it was 3,000. It hasn’t fallen below 2,200 since. Wills’s single-season mark was eclipsed by Lou Brock in 1974 with 118 and he in turn was passed by Rickey Henderson in 1982, with 130.
But it was Wills’s run that got fans’ attention, if only because Cobb’s record seemed untouchable. In the 47 years since he set it, no player had stolen more than 63.
Wills set out to change that. He was a contact hitter, choking up on the bat and getting a lot of singles. With Tommy Davis, Willie Davis and Frank Howard coming up behind him, he wanted to be where they could drive him in, meaning he had to get to second.
With decent speed and remarkable acceleration, he became a student of opposing pitchers. He was thrown out only 13 times while stealing those 104 bases, a success rate that’s insane.
A good base stealer also distracts the pitcher. Roger Craig of the Mets once threw over to first base 12 times in an attempt to keep Wills close. On the first pitch Craig threw to the plate, Wills stole second.
With Wills in the lead and Sandy Koufax having become Sandy Koufax, 1962 should have been spectacular for the Dodgers. Unfortunately, the Giants also had a great season, matching the Dodgers’s 101 wins. A three-game playoff followed, which the Giants won by coming from behind in the third game, much as they had done 11 years earlier in New York.
So there was a bittersweet side to Wills’s record, and that could also be said of his career and life.
Stealing that many bases meant constant sliding, which wore down his legs so much that he had to bandage them before every game. In 1963 he led the league in stolen bases again, but this time with only 40. It wasn’t until 1965 that he made the full push, this time stealing 94. He was on pace to beat his 1962 record, he later noted, but all that sliding caused his legs to start to bleed internally and he had to back off late in the season.
Wills played through 1972, spending two seasons in Pittsburgh and a few games in Montreal before returning to the Dodgers and having one last great season in 1971. The consensus on his career is that he was a very good shortstop and solid contact hitter as well as a game-changing base stealer, an assessment that so far has left him just short of the Hall of Fame.
After he retired he coached for a while and briefly managed the Seattle Mariners, with a notable lack of success. He wrote in his autobiography that he spent much of the ’70s and ’80s with a serious cocaine and alcohol addiction, finally sobering up in 1989. He returned to the Dodgers as a coach in 1996 and 1997, after which he was a guest spring training instructor for about 20 years in addition to making public relations appearances.
When the season started he headed for North Dakota, where he served as the radio broadcaster for the Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks. He kept that gig for two decades until he retired in 2017, and as long as he was there, he opened the Maury Wills museum at the Fargo stadium.
Off the diamond he was a professional musician, playing the banjo, ukulele and guitar seriously enough to make two records, one that featured his vocals with the Lionel Hampton band. When he was playing in Pittsburgh he opened a nightclub called the Stolen Base, at which he was often the musical attraction on nights when the Pirates weren’t playing.
Wills never minded making his life look colorful. He wrote in his book about an affair with Doris Day, which Ms. Day in her own book denied. There were those who said he could be as slick in life as he was on the basepaths.
But Dodgers fan never stopped loving him or forgot 1962. Back in D.C, Cardozo named its baseball diamond for him. Those who salute his baseball mentorship include Dave Roberts, the current Dodgers’ manager.
Think of base-stealing like this, Wills famously told Roberts. Someday you will be in a situation where everyone in the ballpark knows you need to steal second base, including the other team. Their whole focus will be on stopping you. You must be mentally tough enough to steal that base anyway.
As Red Sox fans know, that day came for Roberts in 2004. You could say that in 1962, for Maury Wills, it came every game.