LOS ANGELES — Maury Wills, the speedy switch-hitting shortstop who helped bring the stolen base back into fashion and tutored generations of players on the art of base stealing, bunting, and sliding, died at his home in Sedona, Arizona on Monday night, at age 89.
Signed by the Dodgers out of Washington D.C. in 1951, Maurice Morning Wills’ path to stardom was arduous. He spent eight and a half years in the minor leagues before reaching the majors, and grew discouraged along the way.
With Triple-A Spokane in 1958 and 1959, manager Bobby Bragan had an idea to better utilize the speed of Wills, who up to that point was a right-handed hitter.
“You’re in a seven-year slump from the right side,” Bragan said, per Mike Waldener in the Daily Breeze in 2013. “Why don’t you come out early tomorrow and we’ll work on you hitting left handed.”
Able to reach base faster from the left side, the now switch-hitting Wills hit .313/.387/.391 with Spokane and got his first call-up to the Dodgers in June 1959, when shortstop Don Zimmer broke his toe.
In his book ‘It Pays to Steal,’ Wills later said of Bragan, “He took a big interest in me and just being around him made my baseball life worth living. I had just about given up on myself.”
Wills took over as the everyday shortstop in Los Angeles and started all six games of the World Series in his first year. He was with the Dodgers to stay.
In his second year, Wills led the league with 50 stolen bases, a gaudy total at the time with only one National League player stealing even 40 bases in a season during the previous three decades. He led the league in steals again in 1961, making his first All-Star team, but it was 1962 that was Wills’ signature season.
Wills was among the Dodgers’ many attractions in the first year at Dodger Stadium, setting career highs with 208 hits and 130 runs, the latter the fourth-most in franchise history during the modern era. Because of the new 162-game schedule and the Dodgers’ three-game playoff to decide the pennant, Wills that year played in all 165 games, setting a major league record that might never be broken.
But it was what Wills did once he got on base that captured everyone’s emotions.
With thousands in the ballpark chanting, “Go, go, go” with Wills on base, and opposing teams knowing he was running, Wills stole bases at a record clip. His 104 steals, at an also unfathomable 88.9-percent success rate, broke Ty Cobb’s major league record of 96 steals, set 47 years earlier during the dead ball era.
Wills had an incredible finishing kick that year with 44 steals in the Dodgers’ final 44 games, a total that hadn’t been reached in a season in the National League since 1927.
Despite the Dodgers losing the pennant to the Giants in a three-game playoff, Wills was voted National League MVP over San Francisco star Willie Mays in one of the closest MVP votes of all-time.
Wills led the National League in steals for six consecutive years, and his 490 steals in 12 years with the Dodgers is the most in franchise history.
He was an All-Star in five seasons and a Gold Glover twice. He started every game at shortstop for the Dodgers in four World Series (1959, 1963, 1965, 1966), winning three championships.
Wills spent the full 15 years on the writers’ ballot for the Hall of Fame but was never elected, topping out at 40.6 percent in 1981. Wills also fell short on several iterations of the veterans committee, including last December when he received fewer than three votes from the 16-member Golden Era committee that elected Gil Hodges and three others.
Losing Wills means another connection to the Dodgers’ past is gone, which seems to happen with far too much frequency of late.
It’s not just that Wills would be around in some sort of ceremonial role, which he was at times. But Wills was also a fixture at Dodgers spring training, first in Vero Beach then bringing Maury’s Pit with him to Camelback Ranch in Arizona. Wills taught generations of Dodgers the finer points of bunting, of baserunning, stealing bases, and sliding.
“He just loved the game of baseball,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said Tuesday morning. “Loved working, loved the relationship with players.”
Roberts’ connection to Wills ran deep, beginning with his days as a player with the Dodgers from 2002-04.
“Maury was very impactful to me, personally, professionally. He’s going to be missed,” Roberts said while shedding tears. “He was a friend, a father, a mentor, all of the above for me. This one is a tough one.”
Roberts wears uniform number 30, the same number Wills wore, and with his blessing. Wills took Roberts under his wing, offering his advice day and night, including sometimes during games.
Wills’ impact was not only seen when he’d come down from the press box to near the dugout, telling the player Roberts that he needed to bunt. But it was in the years-long friendship and mentorship that ensued, and how Wills impacted Roberts as leader, with one of the best starts to any managerial career in major league history.
“He showed me to appreciate my craft, and what it is to be a big leaguer. He just loved to teach,” Roberts said. “A lot of where I get my excitement, my passion, my love for players is from him.”
The Dodgers plan to wear a uniform patch honoring Wills for the remainder of the 2022 season.