Hey stolen bases. He stole championships. He stole the heart of a city.
Yet for all his accumulated riches, Maury Wills often lamented the one shiny object that was forever out of his reach.
He couldn’t sneak into Cooperstown. Incredibly, the inventor of the modern stolen base couldn’t run and slide into the baseball Hall of Fame.
Baseball writers snubbed him for 15 straight years. The veterans committee rejected him for another 10 years.
It pained and haunted him until his death on Monday at the age of 89.
“Why don’t they let me in the Hall of Fame?” he asked me once during a quiet moment at Dodger Stadium. “What else did I have to do?”
Wills was the Dodgers’ underrated legend, a three-time World Series champion and NL MVP who was traded due to off-the-field issues, a record-setting speedster who could not, however, escape the temptation of drugs and alcohol, a fabulous but imperfect hero.
In his later years he found redemption as an adviser to the Dodgers who is credited with saving Dave Roberts’ career and putting him on the path to becoming the team’s manager, but by then it was too late for the national recognition he deserved. .
“God, how I’ve come back,” Wills told me in 2002. “But what a price I’ve paid.”
He should be considered among baseball’s all-time greats. It literally changed the way the game was played. He joined the Dodgers in 1959 after spending nearly nine seasons in the minor leagues. Appearing out of nowhere, he was suddenly everywhere.
He led the league in stolen bases in his first full season with the Dodgers in 1960, and again in 1961, then in 1962 he went wild. That was the year he stole 104 bases, breaking a record that had stood for 47 years since Ty Cobb stole 96 in 1915. That was the year that changed everything.
Before Wills, baseball wasn’t about speed. Before Wills, baseball wasn’t about intelligence. Wills proved that the stolen base can be as powerful as a clutch hit, as unnerving as a big catch, and eventually as shocking as a home run.
“He brought speed to the game, and that speed fueled the Dodgers’ dynasty in the early 1960s,” said Dodgers historian Mark Langill. “Instead of the power of those last few years in Brooklyn, this new Los Angeles team won with shooting, defense and speed … and Maury was that speed.”
Wills stole so many bases, every time he got on base in 1962, fans at the newly opened Dodger Stadium would yell, “Come on! Let’s go! Let’s go!”
Wills heard them, as he shared with Houston Mitchell of The Times this summer in a speech transcript.
“On the days when it hurt a lot, hearing ‘Come on! Let’s go! Go, Maury, go! she kept me running,” Wills wrote.
It was a song that Chavez Ravine basically baptized. It was the kind of reaction that hasn’t been repeated since.
“It’s the only time there’s been that kind of interaction at Dodger Stadium between a player and the fans during the game,” Langill said. “He’s the only player that has had people constantly chanting for him, begging him, cheering for him to steal a base.”
Wills played such mind games with opponents, the groundskeepers at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park soaked the base paths to slow him down before a critical series in 1962.
“Maury was the man in the spotlight,” former Dodgers general manager Fred Claire said. “The attention he drew, the attendance he created, no one was more important to the Dodgers and generating interest in the team.”
However, his intensity on the field was matched by the party off the field. And even though he was shortstop on a team that won three World Series championships, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates after the 1966 season because he left a Dodgers tour of Japan without permission and was seen in Hawaii playing. the banjo and telling jokes. on stage with Don Ho.
Never mind that Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Wes Parker also missed that trip. Wills was considered a difficult personality and was therefore sent packing by Bob Bailey and Gene Michael, a trade that should never have been made. Wills should have been a Dodger for life, and though he returned to the team four years later, his impact was never the same. He retired after a 1972 season in which he stole exactly one base in 72 games.
“He changed the game with his skill and determination,” Claire said. “She was just a very special person.”
In 1980 he became the third black manager in baseball when he was hired to manage the Seattle Mariners, but he behaved erratically and didn’t last a full season when he began to turn to drugs and alcohol. The abuse lasted until the Dodgers helped him get clean and sober in 1989.
At one point during Wills’s lowest moments, Claire and former Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe drove to his boarded-up house and convinced him to check into a halfway house under the pseudonym “Don Claire.”
“It took him more than eight years in the minor leagues to find himself as a baseball player, and in life he also needed time to find himself,” Claire said. “But once he did, he changed his world again by helping others.”
In fact, Wills designed his life to come full circle when he returned to the Dodgers as a special adviser, working with players on bunts and stealing bases, focusing on one notable student.
From 2002 to mid-2004, he devoted most of his time to an energetic boy named Dave Roberts, helping him hone his game in pre-game workouts, in-game chats, and post-game phone calls. Not coincidentally, after being traded to the Boston Red Sox in July 2004, Roberts executed what became arguably the biggest stolen base in baseball history, a playoff hit against the New York Yankees that ultimately led the Red Sox to the first World Cup. Series title in 86 years.
When Roberts spoke to reporters about Wills on Tuesday, he did so with a tear rolling down his cheek.
“He just loved the game of baseball, he loved working and he loved the relationship with the players,” Roberts said. “We spend a lot of time together. He showed me how to appreciate my craft and what it’s like to be a major league player. He just loved teaching. So, I think a lot of where I get my enthusiasm and my passion and my love for the players is from Maury.”
In the end, the trailblazing baserunner doesn’t have a Hall of Fame bust, but maybe he was given something bigger. He may not have a retired shirt, but he has a living shirt that breathes.
While leading the team to annual success for the past seven years, Robert has deliberately dressed in No. 30
Yeah, it’s the number Maury Wills once used.