Maury Wills

Maury Wills

SS, 3B, 2B
October 2, 1932
5' 11"
170 lbs
Major League Debut:
6-06-1959 with LAN
Allstar Selections:
1961 GG, 1962 AsMVP, 1962 GG, 1962 ML, 1962 MVP

Wills stole his way into the record books in 1962 and in the process reminded a stagnating baseball establishment that there could be more to offense than waiting for your 250-lb slugger to knock one out of the park.

Maury Wills was an undistinguished minor league shortstop: scrawny, a poor fielder, and an erratic hitter. He began his pro career in 1951 and probably played every position during his time in the minor leagues; he pitched twice and also caught. The Dodgers loaned him to the Tigers, and he was given back. Even the Topps baseball card company wouldn't sign him to a contract, on the advice of their scout and the Dodgers' scouts. But Wills became the first player Topps passed on to make the majors (and since then, they sign everybody, just to play it safe). He came up to the Dodgers midway through the 1959 season and hit .260, but he had only seven RBI in 83 games. In his first full season in the majors, 1960, he led NL shortstops with 40 errors. But he also hit a surprising .295 and led the NL with 50 stolen bases. It was the highest total in the NL since Max Carey stole 51 in 1923 (although Luis Aparicio had been stealing bases in the AL for several years prior to Wills's appearance). In 1961 Wills was not pinch-hit for as often as he had been in 1960, and he scored 104 runs and drew more walks while again leading in stolen bases (35). He also won the first of his two Gold Gloves despite not leading the NL in any fielding category.

Wills's 1962 season found him at the apex of his base-stealing ability. His new major league record of 104 stolen bases shattered Ty Cobb's old mark of 96 not only in the final total, but in execution: Wills was caught stealing only 13 times in 1962, but Cobb was caught 38 times in 1915. Also, Cobb set his record in 156 games, and Wills broke it by one in the same span. In 1962, Wills also led the NL with 10 triples and reached career highs with 130 runs, 48 RBI, six HR, and 208 hits. His 695 at-bats missed the ML record by one. He won another Gold Glove. And he beat out Willie Mays by seven points to win the NL MVP award.

Wills led the NL the next three years in stolen bases, but his success ratio fell. His six straight seasons leading the NL in steals set the NL record, and he tied the NL record for most years leading in singles, four (1963-67). He never again scored 100 runs, and he never drew enough walks to really be a great leadoff hitter, although he hit a career-high .302 in 1963 and 1966. But he did lead NL shortstops in assists and total chances per game in 1965. In the 1965 World Series he tied the WS record with four hits (two singles and two doubles) in Game Five. In the same game, he tied the record for double plays started by a shortstop with three.

Traded to the Pirates after 1966 for Bob Bailey and Gene Michael, Wills played third base in Pittsburgh due to the presence of Gene Alley at shortstop. The Pirates didn't protect Wills after 1968, and the Expos selected him in the expansion draft. After a .222 start, he was traded back to the Dodgers with Manny Mota for Ron Fairly and Paul Popovich and regained his stroke. Nearing his 40th birthday in 1972, he was finally succeeded as Dodger shortstop by Bill Russell.

After retiring, Wills spent time as a baseball analyst at NBC from 1973 through 1977. He also managed in the Mexican Winter League for four seasons, and let it be known he felt qualified to pilot a big-league club. In his book, How To Steal A Pennant, Wills claimed he could take any last-place club and make them champions within four years. The San Francisco Giants allegedly offered him a one-year deal, but Wills turned them down. Finally, in 1980, the Seattle Mariners fired Darrell Johnson and gave Wills the reins.

Wills' tenure was an unmitigated disaster. Baseball writer Rob Neyer, in his Big Book of Baseball Blunders criticized Wills for "the variety and frequency of [his] mistakes" as manager, calling them "unparalleled." In a short interview appearing in the June 5, 2006 issue of Newsweek, Neyer said, "It wasn't just that Wills couldn't do the in-game stuff. Wills's inability to communicate with his players really sets him apart. He said he was going to make his second baseman, Julio Cruz, his permanent shortstop. Twenty-four hours later he was back at second base. As far as a guy who put in some real time (as a manager), I don't think there's been anyone close to Wills."

According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Steve Rudman, Wills made a number of gaffes. He called for a relief pitcher even though there was nobody warming up in the bullpen, held up another game for 10 minutes while looking for a pinch-hitter and even left a spring-training game in the sixth inning to fly to California.

The most celebrated incident of Wills' tenure as manager occurred on April 25, 1981. He ordered the Mariners' grounds crew to make the batter's boxes one foot longer than regulation. However, Oakland Athletics manager Billy Martin noticed something was amiss and asked plate umpire Bill Kunkel to investigate. Under questioning from Kunkel, the Mariners' head groundskeeper admitted Wills had ordered the change. Wills claimed he was trying to help his players stay in the box. However, Martin suspected that given the large number of breaking-ball pitchers on the A's staff, Wills wanted to give his players an advantage. The American League suspended Wills for two games and fined him $500.

After leading Seattle to a dismal 20-38 mark to end the 1980 season, Wills was fired on May 6, 1981 with the M's deep in last place at 6-18 (giving him a career mark of 26-56, one of the worst records ever for a non-interim big-league manager). Years later, Wills admitted he probably should have gotten some seasoning as a minor-league manager prior to being hired in Seattle.

The Maury Wills Museum is in Fargo, North Dakota at Newman Outdoor Field home of the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks. Maury was a coach on the team from 1996–1997 and currently serves as a radio color commentator for the RedHawks on KVOX-AM "740 The Fan" with play-by-play announcer Scott Miller.

Wills claims to have had a love affair with actress Doris Day. Day denied this in her autobiography Doris Day: Her Own Story, and said it was probably advanced by the Dodgers organization for publicity purposes.

Wills was well known as an abuser of alcohol and cocaine -- even while managing the Mariners (see above) -- until getting sober in 1989.  In his New Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James is highly critical of Wills as a person: James calls Wills one of top 20 shortstops of all time, ranking him #19.

He is the father of former major leaguer Bump Wills, who played for the Texas Rangers and Chicago Cubs during his five-year MLB career.




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