Fifty years ago, Maury Wills made crime pay off for the Dodgers
In the good old days, say 50 years ago, the Dodgers’ heroes were actual players, not equity fund executives and magical former basketball stars.
Case in point: Maurice Morning Wills.
Maury Wills, now 79, first stepped onto the field in Dodger blue on June 6, 1959. He came from the minor leagues and his arrival stirred minimal excitement. After all, he was playing a position made sacred by a retiring Pee Wee Reese, and he was joining a team that had underwhelmed Los Angeles in its inaugural 1958 season with a next-to-last finish, 21 games out of first place.
Wills launched his career at a time when big was in — big fins on big gas-guzzling cars and, in 1961, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle chasing the celebrated record for big bombs in baseball, Babe Ruth’s 60-homer season.
Big was better, sexier. Baseball fans craved excitement and found it in big flies clearing outfield fences. The Dodgers were not built that way, nor was Wills, all of 5 feet 10 and 160 pounds. The team lived on the pitching of Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax and had to subsist on 1-0 and 2-1 wins.
That was enough in 1959, when the Dodgers had a reversal of fortune and won the World Series as Wills established himself as a slick-fielding shortstop and ideal switch-hitting leadoff man.
Still, few expected what happened in 1962, when Wills literally stole the show.
In the first two games of the season, he stole five bases. Drysdale and Koufax were still shutting teams down and most of the 1-0 and 2-1 wins were traceable to Wills. By September, he had stolen 73 bases and a once-untouchable record was within reach.
In 1915, Ty Cobb had stolen 96 bases. Before Wills and the 1962 season came along, the average number of steals in a National League season was 300 — for all the teams combined. After Wills changed the thinking — and the way the game was played — that number surpassed 1,000 by 1970.
Every time he got on base, Dodger Stadium echoed a request: “Go, go. Go, Maury, go!”
He stole base No. 93 against the Milwaukee Braves in game No. 151 — against some catcher named Joe Torre. Wills was almost unstoppable. In a game in Chicago against the Cubs, he took off for second base and, as the ball was flying over the mound, he heard the umpire’s call.
“Safe,” said Jocko Conlan.
The Cubs protested, saying that Conlan made the call well before the ball had even arrived at second base. To which Conlan replied, “You ain’t got him all year. Why would you think you’d get him this time?”
Wills stole No. 95 in game No. 154, and a reporter told him the next day that, because Cobb’s 96 had been in 154 games and the schedule was now 162, baseball would list both as records — as it had Roger Maris’ 61st home run the year before.
Wills, like Maris, would get an asterisk.
“I was kind of OK with that. I understood,” Wills says. “But I wanted to get it as fast as I could.”
Two nights later, during game No. 156 in St. Louis, he knew it was time.
“The writers were always asking me who was the easiest pitcher to steal off of,” Wills says. “I never told them, but the truth was it was Curt Simmons. I think I could steal off him today.”
Simmons was scheduled to pitch, but when it got to game time Wills found out there had been a change.
“The toughest guy to steal off was Larry Jackson,” Wills says. “Suddenly, he was on the mound. I found out later that Simmons had given him the ball. The Cardinals didn’t want to give up the record.”
Wills says he could still feel it, that this would be his record-setting night. He says he had as much trouble getting a hit against Jackson as he did stealing on him, but he managed a hit in the first inning and stole second. Record tied at 96.
“Tying it is nothing,” Wills says. “When you get that far, you want it alone.”
In the ninth inning, there were two out and still two batters ahead of him, but it all went his way:
Jackson went to 0-2 with Wills, who fouled off a couple of pitches and then dribbled a single between first and second. Better still, there was no runner at second ahead of him.
Then the real fun began.
“Jackson threw over to first 16 times,” Wills says. “Bill White was the first baseman and every time I went diving back into first base, he’d slap the ball down hard on my head or face. They were killing me.”
Eventually, a conversation he’d had with Dodgers general manager Al Campanis drifted into his mind.
“It had been just a couple of weeks earlier,” Wills says. “Al stopped me on the way in, took me in his office and reminded me that, once in a while, I ought to try a delay steal. We practiced it right there in his office. You take a shorter lead, you make the pitcher think you have given up, that he’s won. You don’t even break until you see the white of the ball leave the catcher’s hand. At that point, the catcher’s eyes and infielders’ eyes are off you and on the ball. Then you break.”
Wills did exactly that, went into second headfirst for one of the few times that season, and hugged the bag when he got to it.
“I was just so glad it was all over,” he says.
He knew once he outlasted Jackson that he had it made, because Carl Sawatski was catching. “He couldn’t have thrown me out if he was standing on the mound,” Wills says.
When the season was over, and the Dodgers had lost a three-game playoff with San Francisco for the pennant that had extended the season to 165 games, Wills had stolen 104 bases and baseball had been changed. Small ball had become a viable way to win, and the Dodgers won the World Series three times from 1959 through ’65.
Wills had six home runs and 48 runs batted in while batting .299 in ’62, but it was enough to make him the league’s most valuable player. Second place that year was Willie Mays.
In stealing those 104 bases, Wills was caught only 13 times, but Wills says it was really only eight,. He says the other five were failed hit-and-runs when Jim Gilliam, hitting behind him, couldn’t get a bat on the ball.
Next best in stolen bases that season was 99 — by the entire Washington Senators team.
The stolen-base record eventually fell to Lou Brock, who stole 118 in 1974. But Wills has one record that probably will never be topped — he played in all 165 games in that extended 1962 season. “I’m pretty sure I played every inning,” he says.
“Vin Scully had a good line about that,” Wills adds. “He said even my hair must have been tired.”
Wills lives in Southern California, is part of the Dodgers’ spring-training coaching staff and also works as part of the club’s community relations team.
The one missing item in his resume is a spot in baseball’s Hall of Fame, but he is still under consideration for induction by MLB’s Veterans’ Committee.
The Times’ late columnist Jim Murray may have had the best summary of that.
“What am I doing in the Hall of Fame if Maury Wills can’t get in one?” Murray said.
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