By Glen Sparks
Go! Go! Go, Maury! Go!
Dodger fans chanted this encouragement to Maury Wills in the 1960s.
And, more often enough, Wills went. The shortstop led the league in stolen bases six times, every year from 1960 through 1965. He stole 104 bases in 1962, breaking a record that Ty Cobb had set in 1915.
Wills retired with 586 thefts and an MVP award in that history-making season of ’62. Now, Wills may be going into the Hall of Fame. The Golden Era candidate needs 75 percent of the vote.
The Maury Wills story is one of perseverance, followed by high speed, followed by addiction and, finally, recovery.
A slender 5-foot-11, Wills battled his way just to get to the Dodgers. The native of Washington, D.C., rode the minor-league buses for eight seasons, learning how to switch-hit and use his speed. Finally, he gained the starting shortstop job in L.A. in 1960.
As the MVP in ’62, Wills batted .299 and scored 130 runs (6.0 WAR). Catchers nailed him just 13 times in 117 attempts.
Sliding on the hard dirt made Wills famous; it also tore up his legs. He cut down his steals to 40 in 1963 and 53 in ’65. The speedster rebounded with 94 in 1966 and finished third in the MVP voting. That year, though, catchers threw him out 31 times.
Wills played on three pennant winners and two World Series champion teams. He left L.A. after the 1966 season for Pittsburgh. Following two seasons with the Pirates, he spent the first few unhappy months of 1969 with the Montreal Expos. Los Angeles made a trade for him, and Wills spent his final 2 ½ seasons back with the Dodgers.
Luis Aparicio might be the best comp for Wills. The Hall of Famer from Venezuela was a speedy shortstop who played in roughly the same era. Aparicio led the league in steals nine times, but he topped out with 57 thefts, far below Wills’ top figure.
Here is a brief statistical comparison of the two shortstops:
Aparicio: 506 (136 caught stealing)
Wills: 586 (208 caught stealing)
Aparicio also won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1956. He finished second in the A.L. MVP voting in 1959. The writers voted him into Cooperstown in 1984 in his sixth year on the ballot.
Neither man did much with the bat, although Aparicio hit with more power. Aparicio also had the edge on defense (Aparicio: 31.6 dWar, Baseball-Reference; Wills: 12.0 dWar). Bill James, in his Historical Abstract, rated Aparicio as the 13th best shortstop in baseball history. He rated Wills as the 19th best. (Fair warning to Wills fans: James’s write-up on Wills is quite harsh.)
Now, we must get into Wills’ disastrous stint as manager of the Seattle Mariners. Wills skippered the Mariners for parts of the 1981 and ’82 seasons. He compiled a 26-56 won-loss record, a .woeful 317 percentage. And that’s the good news.
Once, he called for a relief pitcher; unfortunately, no one was warming up in the bullpen. Another time, he took 10 minutes to decide on a pinch-hitter. And, once, he left mid-game to fly to California.
Of course, Wills fought some off-field issues. He wrote about his cocaine and alcohol abuse in the book On the Run: The Never Dull and Often Shocking Life of Maury Wills. He has credited his wife, Angela George, and former Dodger great Don Newcombe for getting him sober.
Wills, 82, once said this about Newcombe: “He was a channel for God’s love for me because he chased me all over Los Angeles trying to help me, and I just couldn’t understand that. But, he persevered. He wouldn’t give in, and my life is wonderful today because of Don Newcombe.”
Now, Wills spends much of his time at Dodger Stadium during the season. He still helps players with their bunting and base running. He also does community relations work for the team.
Will he make it to the Hall of Fame? I have no idea. What he has done in turning around his life, though, might be his greatest achievement.