By Glen Sparks
The Brooklyn Dodgers’ Gil Hodges knocked four baseballs into the left-field bleachers at Ebbets Field on August 31, 1950. The four home runs tied a major-league record. Brooklyn trounced the Boston Braves 19-3 in front of 14,226 fans.
Hodges went 5-for-6 in the contest. Besides hitting four homers, he singled and grounded out. His 17 total bases also tied a major-league mark. The big first baseman from Princeton, Ind., playing in his third full big-league season, drove in nine runs.
Just five players had hit four home runs in a game before Hodges accomplished that feat.
By Glen Sparks
Don Drysdale turned at-bats into nasty business. He stood six-feet, six-inches and hurled 95 mph sidearm heat. The Dodgers right-hander struck out 2,486 batters in his 14-year career and hit 154.
You’ve heard of an uncomfortable 0-for-4? Drysdale was a terrifying 0-for-4. He liked to talk about his 2-for-1 policy. You hit one of my guys, he’d say, I’ll hit two of your guys. Drysdale didn’t like to issue intentional walks. He’d drill the guy and save three pitches.
Big D glared at hitters the way drill instructors glare at buck privates. He looked like a tiger in need of a steak. He squinted in for the sign like a great white shark squints to find a lonely surfer.
Batting against Drysdale was like a day at the beach. On jellyfish day. He hit guys like Joe Louis hit pikers from Palookaville.
Drysdale hailed from Van Nuys, Calif., born July 23, 1936, a Valley boy from a different time. He probably scared off half the kids from Burbank and Sherman Oaks. The Brooklyn Dodgers signed him in 1954 for a $4,000 bonus and $600 a month.
The Dodgers promoted Drysdale to the big club in 1956, a 19-year-old, all arms, legs and fastball. He promptly went 5-5 with a 2.64 ERA (152 ERA+) in 99 innings. The kid was good. The next year, he went 17-9 with a 2.69 ERA (153 ERA+).
Going Back to Cali
In 1958, the Dodgers moved to L.A. The California guy went home. In 1959, following a down year (12-13, 4.17 ERA), Drysdale won 17 games and struck out 242 batters, the most by a National League pitcher in 35 years. He led the Dodgers to a World Series title against the Chicago White Sox.
Over the next decade, Drysdale solidified his Hall of Fame career. He only led the National League in wins once, but topped it in strikeouts three times. No. 53 fanned a career-high 251 in 1963. He hit the 200-strikeout mark six times.
Drysdale and Sandy Koufax made a magnificent 1-2 combo. Koufax, left-handed and elegant, Drysdale, right-handed and fierce. They started games in the warm twilight at Dodger Stadium, hurling unhittable pitches fired into sunlight and shadow. For opposing line-ups, it was more like a California nightmare than a California dream.
In 1962, Drysdale won 25 games and took home the Cy Young Award. He finished fifth in the MVP voting. Drysdale and Koufax led the Dodgers to World Series championships in ‘63 and 1965. They didn’t get much help from the offense. The Dodger attack was about as scary as your cousin Sissy’s pet beagle. The Dodgers made it home about as often as Robinson Crusoe.
(Supposedly true story, probably apocryphal: On June 4, 1964, Drysdale lost an 11-inning game against the Philadelphia Phillies in which he gave up just four hits. He then left the team to take care of some personal business in Washington, D.C. On June 5, unbeknownst to Drysdale, Koufax threw a no-hitter. Some guy at the hotel told the big guy. Drysdale: “Did we win?”)
Drysdale probably put up his best year in 1964. He compiled an 18-16 record, but he attached a 2.18 ERA (147 ERA+) onto that over a career-high 321.1 innings. He gave up an average of just 6.8 hits per 9 innings, a career low.
In 1968, in his next-to-last season, Drysdale set a major league record. He threw 58 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings and put up a 2.15 ERA (128 ERA+). And, if he threw a few extra spitballs that year, well, then so be it. He wasn’t the only one.
Big D started off 5-4 in 1969 with a 4.45 ERA. His strong right shoulder had thrown enough. He called a press conference, shed some tears and said he was done. Drysdale, who looked a movie star, retired with a 209-166 record, a 2.95 ERA (121 ERA+), and 2,486 strikeouts. He tossed 49 shutouts and hit 29 home runs. Drysdale took the ball every fourth day and led the league in starts from 1962-65. He made eight All-Star teams.
Retired from playing, Drysdale turned to broadcasting. He called games for a few teams, including his beloved Dodgers. The writers finally voted him into the Hall of Fame in 1984.
On July 3, 1993, Drysdale died of a heart attack at his hotel room in Montreal, hours before a game that evening between the Dodgers and Expos. Vin Scully announced his death over the radio. He began it this way: “Friends, we’ve known each other a long time, and I’ve had to make a lot of announcements, some more painful than others. But never have I ever been asked to make an announcement that hurts me as much as this one. And I say it to you as best I can with a broken heart.”
Reporters asked Tommy LaSorda, the Dodger manager, a long-time friend and former teammate of Drysdale’s, for a comment. There’s Tommy sitting on a stool, his uniform top partly unbuttoned, the bags heavy beneath his eyes, his eyes tearing up, his voice trying to stay strong. He looks up at the camera. He says this of Drysdale: “He was a man’s man.”
Drysdale stands out today as a legendary pitcher from a tougher, by-gone era in baseball, one of inside fastballs and black-and-blue rib cages. Orlando Cepeda said the trick to an at bat against Drysdale was this: “Hit him before he hits you.”
Donald Scott Drysdale was one tough pitcher.
By Glen Sparks
Czarist Russia was a nasty place for anyone Jewish. Government pogroms (Russian for “harm” or “destruction”) led to rioting and to thousands of injuries and deaths.
Cruel orders such as the May Laws added more burdens to an already difficult life. Decreed by Alexander III in May 1882, the laws prohibited Jewish residents from settling in agricultural areas, forcing them into urban ghettos. May Laws also created a quota system in higher education and for professional jobs.
Many Jewish residents fled Russia for a better life. William and Ida Goldstein, along with their three children, escaped from Odessa, Russian Federation (present-day Ukraine). Isidore Goldstein was born June 6, 1908, not long before his parents and siblings left for New York City. Izzy mostly grew up in the Bronx and graduated from James Monroe High School.
The product of a faraway place, Izzy quickly picked up on the American game. Not much of a student, he preferred to play baseball. A 6-foot-tall, slender right-hander, Izzy hurled a powerful fastball. The Detroit Tigers liked him and signed him. They assigned Izzy in 1928 to the Wheeling, West Virginia, Stogies of the Class C Mid-Atlantic League. Young Goldstein went 12-9 with a 3.61 ERA.
Izzy followed up that campaign by going 12-8 and 2.74 ERA for the Evansville, Indiana, Hubs of the Three-I League in 1929 and 14-11 with a 3.52 ERA, in 1930, again for Evansville. The pitcher packed his bags for sunny California the next season. The Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League wanted him. In the end, though, Izzy pitched in the Texas heat in 1931 for the Class A Beaumont Exporters.
The Detroit Tigers invited Goldstein to spring training in 1932. He pitched well; the Tigers sent him back to Beaumont, anyway. There, Izzy put up his best numbers yet. He started the season by going 6-1 with a 1.58 ERA. Those stats were impressive enough for the Tigers brass. Izzy boarded a train, headed for the major leagues.
He pitched his first game for the Tigers on April 24, 1932, against the Chicago White Sox. He got in only one inning of work, in relief of starter George Uhle, who was rocked for five earned runs in just two innings. Izzy gave up just one hit, and he struck out a batter. Unfortunately, he allowed three walks, and that led to another Chicago run. Of note, the White Sox led 9-2 going into the bottom of the eighth inning, but ended up blowing that sizable advantage. The Tigers scored four runs in the eighth and another four in the ninth to win 10-9.
On May 24, Goldstein earned his first big-league win. He started in Detroit against the St. Louis Browns. Izzy gave up single runs in the first and second innings, but the Tigers came back with two runs apiece in the third and fourth. St. Louis answered with a run in the fifth, while Detroit scored two more times in the seventh. Goldstein allowed two runs in the eighth before getting the hook. The Tigers held on to win 6-5. In his 7.1 innings, Izzy gave up 10 hits, walked six and struck out two. He was charged with all five St. Louis runs. Considering that he allowed 16 base runners, it could have been worse.
Izzy’s best game as a big leaguer came June 27 at Comiskey Park in Chicago. He scattered five hits and gave up three runs, one in the first and two in the seventh, as the Tigers beat the White Sox 9-3. Izzy upped his won-loss record to 3-1 as the Tigers improved to 37-27 on the season. The 24-year-old even lowered his ERA to a solid 2.75. And, he never started another game.
Maybe it was the five walks. Goldstein was never one for pinpoint control. Izzy’s last game came exactly one month after his best game. He pitched in relief of starter Earl Whitehill, against the Philadelphia A’s. Walks got him again. He gave up two free passes in two/thirds of an inning, to go along with two hits, and allowed two runs.
The Tigers sent their rookie to pitch for the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League. Izzy Goldstein never pitched another game in the majors. He logged time with Toronto and at some point, he did what pitchers tend to do. He hurt his arm. That only earned him his release from the Tigers. Izzy pitched a little bit and played outfield for some semipro teams in New York, hoping to hook on again in the majors. It never happened. He retired from the game in 1938.
For a while, he sold men’s suits. Then, World War II broke out. Izzy, a single man, got a draft notice in the mail and served in the South Pacific. When the war ended, he went back to selling suits.
Izzy eventually got married. He and the former Carol Levine moved to Florida. Erwin Lynn included Izzy in the book The Jewish Baseball Hall of Fame: A Who’s Who of Baseball Stars. Goldstein pitched in 16 games in the majors. He started six times and tossed two complete games. His ERA ended up at 4.47 over 56.1 innings. He allowed 61 hits and struck out just 14 batters. Most telling, he surrendered 41 walks.
Izzy Goldstein died on September 24, 1993, at the age of 85. He is buried at the Jewish Eternal Light Memorial Gardens in Boynton Beach, Florida.
By Glen Sparks
Frank Howard made John Wayne look like the runt of the litter. He stood 6-feet-7-inches, sans cleats. He weighed in at 270 pounds. Howard boasted forearms the size of biceps and biceps the size of Volkswagens.
When Frank held a Louisville Slugger in his hands, he wasn’t a ballplayer. He was a weapons system. Big? Howard custom-ordered bats from the Redwood forest. “Just take a little off the top.”
Infielders demanded hazard pay when Frank came to bat. Howard stepped into the batter’s box, and the guy sitting 20 rows back in the left-field bleachers feared for his life. Frank smashed line drives that could outrace a Ferrari.
The Columbus, Ohio, native broke in with the Dodgers in 1958. Writers voted him N.L. Rookie of the Year in 1960. The Big Guy cracked 32 homers in 1962 and drove in 119. Frank smacked 24 dingers the following season and helped the Dodgers sweep the New York Yankees in the World Series.
In Game 1, Howard belted a double off Whitey Ford at Yankee Stadium. The ball settled in left-center field, near the ballpark’s fabled monuments. Frank crushed a long home run off Ford in Game 4 at Dodger Stadium. It traveled, as they say, from here to Pasadena.
Dodgers executive Fresco Thompson once said this of Frank Howard: “One of these days, (Frank) Howard will unleash a line drive at the opposing pitcher, and the only identification left on the mound is going to be a laundry mark.”
But, Frank Howard was never a great fit in L.A. He’d trot from the dugout to his spot in rightfield and activate the earthquake sensors at Cal Tech. He threatened to send southern California into seismic shock. Not only that. Every time Frank swung his bat, he stirred up a stronger breeze than a Santa Ana wind rushing out of the desert.
Dodgers skipper Walt Alston complained about Howard’s defense. Frank patrolled his outfield position like Col. Klink patrolled Stalag 13. Poorly. He used his glove mostly to protect his left hand from getting sunburned.
The Dodgers shipped Howard cross country to the Washington Senators after the 1964 season. (That had to cost a bundle.) L.A. needed more pitching. Koufax and Drysdale weren’t enough. (Big Frank topped L.A. in home runs in ’64 with 24. Runner-up Tommy Davis hit 14. Your cousin Herbie scored more often than the Dodgers.)
The Senators parted with talented left-hander Claude Osteen. The rubber-armed starter won 147 games in nine seasons in L.A. and threw more than 250 innings seven times. Osteen won 20 games twice and made two NL All-Star teams. But. He looked like TV’s bumbling U.S. Marine. People called him “Gomer.” People called Frank “The Capital Punisher.” He looked only slightly smaller than the Washington Monument. In fact, that was another one of Frank’s nicknames – “The Washington Monument.”
Frank Howard was so strong …
Well, doesn’t Frank Oliver Howard make for some great hyperbole? The gentle giant of a slugger—one of the early bespectacled stars—smacked 382 career home runs, just for the record. Not surprisingly, he enjoyed some terrific power-hitting tears during his time in the major leagues.
His greatest one began on May 12, 1968. That day, Howard cracked one home run off Mickey Lolich in the sixth inning and another off Fred Lasher in the seventh. The Senators won 6-3 and improved their won-loss record to 13-15. Frank now had nine homers on the season.
Following a travel day, the Senators played the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. Not surprisingly, Frank liked the Green Monster. He probably didn’t think it looked that big. Howard hit a solo home run in the first inning, off Ray Culp, and another solo job in the sixth, against Lee Strange. The Red Sox won 5-4.
Boston beat Washington again on May 15 by a score of 6-4. Howard launched a first-inning solo homer off Jose Santiago, his 12th dinger of 1968. The Senators’ road trip continued with a May 16 game against the Cleveland Indians. Washington won 4-1 with 5,447 fans watching at 78,000-seat Cleveland Stadium. Frank knocked a two-run home run off flame-throwing Sam McDowell in the third inning. He got McDowell again in the fifth with another two-run homer. Howard had now hit seven homers in four games.
Washington headed back to Detroit after that one-game affair in Cleveland. Howard waited until the ninth inning to slug a two-run round-tripper off Joe Sparma on May 17. The Tigers still won 7-3. Frank enjoyed the best game of his homer-hitting binge on May 18. He hammered two off Mickey Lolich, collected three hits altogether, and drove in four runs as Washington beat Detroit 8-4.
The Tigers held Howard homerless on May 19 and won the game 5-4. Frank did not homer again until May 24 against the Baltimore Orioles, a two-run dinger off Dave McNally. Fittingly, the struggling Senators still lost, 5-3, and dropped to 16-23 on the season. Frank was batting .354 following the day’s action. He had set major-record for most home runs in four games (seven), five games (eight) and six games (10).
Frank Howard led the American League with 44 home run in 1968. The Senators still ended up a dismal 65-97, in 10th – last — place. Howard hit a career-high 48 homers the following year and finished second in the A.L. to the Minnesota Twins’ Harmon Killebrew, who belted 49. Big Frank smacked 44 home runs again in 1970 for the Senators and once again led the league. He finished eighth, fourth, and fifth, respectively, in the league MVP vote between 1968 and 1970.
Howard, a modest man, said this about his power surge in May of ’68: “All I’m trying to do is get three good cuts each time up. I haven’t changed my swing, and I don’t kid myself. I’m streak hitter, and I’m hot.”
By Glen Sparks
Hod Lisenbee beaned Carden Gillenwater with a pitch in the minor leagues. That knock in the noggin may have provided Gillenwater with his big chance.
The U.S. Selective Service folks declared Gillenwater 4-F, or unfit for service, during World War II. Supposedly, the beaning had led to permanent hearing loss for the outfielder. Another story is that Gillenwater had suffered a serious head injury while making a catch during an exhibition game. Whatever the real reason, he could keep playing baseball. The Army didn’t want him.
Gillenwater, born May 13, 1917, in the farming town of Riceville, Tenn., spent parts of five seasons in the majors (1940, 1943, 1945, 1946 and 1948). He accumulated 1,004 at-bats; 517 of them in 1945. Gillenwater batted .260 lifetime with a .359 on-base percentage. He hit 11 home runs and drove in 114.
The St. Louis Cardinals had signed Gillenwater out of Knoxville High School in Tennessee. Branch Rickey Jr., whose genius father ran the Cardinals, saw Gillenwater playing summer ball and invited him to a tryout camp. Out of the approximately 1,500 young men who hurled fastballs and took their cuts, only Gillenwater and one other player came home with a contract to play pro ball.
The 6-foot-1, 175-pound Gillenwater reported to the Class D Kinston, North Carolina, Eagles in the spring of 1937. There, he batted .301 and knocked 14 home runs. Impressed, the Cardinals promoted him to the Double-A Rochester, New York, Red Wings of the International League. Gillenwater spent a few more seasons in the minors, including one stop with the New Orleans Pelicans. A writer in the Big Easy saw Gillenwater this way: “(He) covers center field like a circus tent. He’s as fast an antelope and can go far back to snag long flies.”
In late 1940, St. Louis called up Gillenwater to the big club. He came to bat 25 times and hit safely only four times. Injuries and a lack of power kept Gillenwater in the minor leagues for the next few years. The disappointed Cardinals sold their one-time hot prospect to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1943. Gillenwater went 3-for-17 in his eight games with Brooklyn. So far, he was 7-for-42 (.167) in the majors.
More and more ballplayers were volunteering for the military or getting the call from Uncle Sam. Stars such as Bob Feller, Hank Greenberg, Ted Williams, and Warren Spahn, did their duty. Feller signed up as soon as heard the news about the Japanese bombing at Pearl Harbor. Greenberg enlisted Dec. 9. As the battles raged on, teams had to think of creative ways to fill their rosters. It wasn’t easy. More than 4,000 minor leagues also went to war.
Brooklyn sold Gillenwater to the Boston Braves following the 1944 season. Gilly promptly won the starting job in center field. Over 144 games in 1945, he hit .288 (.379 on-base percentage) with seven homers and 72 RBI. But, Gillenwater did an even better job on defense. He led the National League in putouts (451), assists (24) and range factor (3.43).
World War II ended for the United States on V-E Day, May 7, 1945. Fighting in the Pacific concluded a few months later, on V-J Day, Sept. 2, 1945. Returning service men, including lots of ballplayers, looked forward to life—and their jobs–back in the States.
Gillenwater played in just 99 games in 1946 and hit only .228 in 224 at-bats. He was a minor leaguer once again in 1947 and got into 77 games with the Washington Senators in ’48, hitting .244. After a few more seasons of riding buses from one small town to another, Gillenwater retired. He and his wife, Marian, eventually moved to Clearwater, Florida, and opened some retail fabric stories.
Carden Edison Gillwater died May 10, 2000, from the effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease) just three days away from his 83rd birthday. Marian Gillwater said this of her husband: “It didn’t matter if it was marbles, golf, tennis, or baseball, sports was all he knew. He was a great person, my best friend. Just a really good guy who loved sports.”
By Glen Sparks
About 50 ballplayers, along with a handful of coaches, writers and 5,000 or so fans, were there at the start. They gathered at the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan on May 6, 1915, the day that a husky, hard-throwing pitcher named George “Babe” Ruth hit his first home run in the major leagues.
Surely no one then could have imagined then that this 20-year-old, former “incorrigible” kid from the tough waterfront streets of Baltimore, would wallop 713 more homers before retiring 20 years later as baseball’s fabled Sultan of Swat, the greatest home-run hitter of them all.
He didn’t even play every day. The minor-league Baltimore Orioles had signed Ruth as a pitcher in 1913. Young Ruth learned the game while living at the St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys. George Sr. had told the local courts that his son was “incorrigible.” The boy was drinking too much beer at the family’s tavern, chewing too much tobacco and stealing money from the till.
Brother Matthias served as athletic director and head disciplinarian at St. Mary’s. He stood 6-feet-7-inches and was powerfully built, sort of the Frank Howard of his day. He hit flyballs that amazed Ruth and the other boys. Ruth duplicated Brother Matthias’ uppercut swing.
But, as mentioned, the Orioles liked Ruth as a pitcher. The left-hander even wowed some major-league squads during several exhibition games in South Carolina. Jack Dunn, the Orioles’ owner and manager, was short of cash. He sold Ruth to the Red Sox.
The skinny-legged, barrel-chested Ruth—one writer decided that the young player was “built like a bale of cotton”—made his major-league debut in late 1914. He went 2-for-10 with a single and a double at the plate. On the mound, he pitched 23 innings, compiled a 2-1 won-loss record and posted a 3.91 ERA. He walked seven and struck out three.
Ruth entered the action May 6 with a 1-0 record and a 5.02 ERA in two starts and three appearances. The Red Sox were playing the New York Yankees, Ruth’s future team and the franchise that he would establish as the game’s greatest. The New York Times already liked him. One reporter there had decided that “the big left-handed pitcher, Babe Ruth, was all that a pitcher is supposed to be, and some more.” At the plate, Ruth was 2-for-7, batting .286.
The Red Sox came into the game with a 7-6 record, good for fourth place in the American League, four games behind the first-place Detroit Tigers (15-6). The Yankees (10-5) were in second place, two games behind Detroit. The Red Sox had finished 91-62 in 1914, in second place. The Philadelphia A’s won the American League pennant with a record of 99-53. The Yanks muddled though a 70-84 season, good for seventh place.
New York still had not won a pennant. Boston was trying to win its fourth, and its first since 1912. Ruth batted ninth in the order, the customary spot for pitchers. On the mound this historic day, he was matched against right-hander Jack Warhop. An eight-year veteran, Warhop came into the game with an 0-2 mark and a 6.19 ERA.
After two scoreless innings, Ruth led off the third inning for Boston. The pitcher slammed a Warhop pitch far into the right-field stands. The hit surely drew some “oohs” and “ah’s” from anyone who saw it. Players did not hit many home runs in the Deadball Era, and they didn’t crush them like Ruth just did. (Frank “Home Run” Baker of the A’s led the A.L. in home runs in 1914 with nine. A.L. teams hit just 160 total homers, or an average of just 20 per team.)
This was a tape-measure job slammed before that term was ever coined. Fans, players, coaches, and reporters just did not see this type of round-tripper. According to one reporter, Ruth lifted Warhop’s offering “with no apparent effort.” Ruth, for the record, said he connected on a “rise ball.”
The Red Sox and Ruth ended up losing 4-3 in 13 innings. The Babe went the whole way for Boston and pitched a solid game before tiring at the end. Luther “Doc” Cook knocked in the winning run. The magnificently named Edwin “Cy” Pieh of Waunakee, Wisconsin, got credit for the win.
Ruth hit three more home runs in 1915 in 92 at-bats and led the team. Dick Hobitzell (399 at-bats), Harry Hooper (566 at-bats) and Duffy Lewis (557 at-bats) tied for second with two apiece. Boston ended up winning the pennant with a 101-50 record. The Yankees finished 69-83, 32 ½ games out of first. The Red Sox beat the N.L. champion Philadelphia Phillies in five games to win the World Series.
Ruth’s power display did not knock him off the pitching mound for another couple of seasons. He did not begin playing every day until 1918. He topped with 11 homers in just 317 at-bats that year and led the circuit again in 1919 with 29. Boston sold Ruth to the Yankees before the 1920 campaign. Ten more home-run titles followed, including four seasons of more than 50.
Dizzy Dean, the Hall of Fame pitcher and Hall of Fame raconteur, said this about Ruth: “No one hit home runs the way Babe (Ruth) did. They were something special. They were like homing pigeons. The ball would leave the bat, pause briefly, suddenly gain its bearings, then take off for the stands.”
The Babe Ruth story did not begin on May 6, 1915, of course. There were far too many interesting twists and turns in his oversized life before that one day at the Polo Grounds. What the game’s future Big Bam did in the top of the third inning, though, was to offer the audience an introduction to the long-ball heroics to come.
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 called him up 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