By Glen Sparks
Harsh sunshine beat down on the Los Angeles Coliseum floor.
Two men, drenched in sweat by the end, practiced baseball drills on a day when L.A. temperatures soared to 100 degrees. Dodgers coach Pete Reiser, the former Brooklyn phenom, pitched balls for hours to 27-year-old shortstop Maury Wills. Reiser and Wills kept this going for a month. It was the spring of 1960.
“You can’t quit,” Reiser said over and over to his pupil. “You have to keep at it. These things don’t come overnight.”
“Overnight.” What did Wills think about that? … Overnight? … Ever?
The son of a Baptist minister and one of 13 children, Maurice Morning Wills grew up in Washington, D.C. Undersized as an athlete, he didn’t care. That just made him work harder. He played football, basketball and baseball at Cardozo High School.
The Brooklyn Dodgers signed Wills to a contract in the fall of 1950 and assigned him to the Hornell, New York, Dodgers of the Class D Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York League. He was a long way from the majors.
Wills batted about .280 and stole 54 bases in his rookie season as a professional baseball player. The next season, he hit .300 and stole 54 bases again, this time for the Santa Barbara, California, Dodgers of the California League. “The Dodgers had tabbed me as a definite major-league prospect,” Willis wrote in his 1963 book It Pays to Steal, co-written with Steve Gardner.
The Dodgers promoted Wills to the Class A Pueblo, Colorado, Dodgers of the Western League and, the following year, to the AA Ft. Worth, Texas, Cats in the Texas League. The prospect became suspect in tumbleweed country. Halfway through the season, his batting average stood at just .220, and he began spending more and more time on the bench.
Those struggles earned Wills a trip back to Pueblo. He hit .302 and stole 34 bases in his return engagement. Next stop, Washington state. First, Wills reported to the Seattle Rainers of the Pacific Coast League, and then to the Spokane, Indians, also of the PCL.
Bobby Bragan managed Spokane. He played nine years in the majors (1940-48), for the Philadelphia Phillies and Brooklyn Dodgers. The infielder-catcher was known for clashing with Dodgers executive Branch Rickey when Rickey promoted Jackie Robinson and broke baseball’s color barrier. Bragan, though, quickly changed his mind about Robinson. “After just one road trip, I saw the quality of Jackie the man and the player,” Bragan told mlb.com in 2005.
Every day, Bragan helped Wills. He also suggested that the natural right-handed batter turn himself into a switch hitter. The idea, of course, was that the speedy player would be that much closer to first base if he could hit left-handed. Initially, Wills brushed off the idea. “I’m too old to learn,” said Wills, who was 25.
Bragan didn’t buy the argument. “You’re never too old to learn,” he insisted. Wills dutifully stepped into the batting cage and began hitting left-handed in 1958. By June of 1959, he was batting .313, and the Dodgers promoted him to the big club. At least one L.A. newspaper offered the rookie a less-than-enthusiastic greeting. The headline read: “Maury Wills … Who are They Kidding?”
But, Wills did OK. He hit .260 in 83 games and fielded well enough at shortstop. The following season, though, he was barely above .200 after several weeks of play. Sometimes, Dodgers manager Walt Alston pinch hit for Wills as early as the fourth inning. “What am I going to do?” Wills asked Reiser after one of many disappointing days.
“Don’t worry,” Reiser said. “Meet me here before practice tomorrow, two hours early, and I’ll do what I can.”
Reiser had once been a hot prospect himself. Coaches and writers predicted that the St. Louis native would turn into a superstar. He played hard and, sometimes, recklessly. He crashed into walls and couldn’t stay healthy. Reiser also missed three prime years due to his service in World War II. Thought of as a future Hall of Famer by some, Reiser played 10 seasons in the big leagues and in only 861 games.
Hired by the Dodgers as a coach, Reiser made his name as an enthusiastic teacher. Wills listened. By season’s end in 1960, he had hiked his average to .295 and led the National League in stolen bases with 52. He also topped the N.L. in steals the next year, and in 1962, he enjoyed his career year.
Wills batted .299, collected 208 hits, and scored 130 runs. He also broke a major-league record with 104 steals, breaking Ty Cobb’s mark of 96 set in 1915. Writers awarded Wills with an MVP trophy. The lean, lithe shortstop shared the credit with his teachers.
“I’ll never forget what Pete Reiser and Bobby Bragan did for me,” Wills said, probably more than once.
He dedicated It Pays to Steal, published in 1963, to Reiser. Bragan wrote the book’s forward. “It was in Maury Wills to become a star from the start,” Bragan wrote. “He is the man who made larceny pay.”
Wills spent 14 seasons (1959-72) in the majors, 12 of them (59-66, 69-72) with the Dodgers. He batted .281 lifetime and collected 2,134 hits. Most famously, he swiped 586 bases and led the league in that category six times. Following his retirement, Wills spent some time as a broadcaster for NBC. He served a mostly disastrous stint as manager of the Seattle Mariners (1980-81) and battled drug addiction for years.
Former Dodgers pitcher and alcoholic Don Newcombe helped Wills get sober in 1989. Since then, Wills has spent much of his time teaching Dodgers players about the art of base running. He also wrote a frank autobiography, On the Run: The Never Dull and Often Shocking Life of Maury Wills.
“When I came to the ballpark, my mind was clear,” Wills wrote in On the Run. “Nothing could disturb me. If there was anything that distracted me from my playing, I would eliminate it from my life, even if meant my family. I really believed that.”
Baseball’s Most Valuable Players by George Vescey
It Pays to Steal by Maury Wills and Steve Gardner
On the Run: The Never Dull and Often Shocking Life of Maury Wills by Maury Wills and Michael