Friday, February 03, 2006

Maury Wills

By Marshall Adesman
Stats from

Ever hear of a fellow named Max Carey?

You ought to, he's a member of the Hall of Fame. In a twenty-year major league career that began in 1910, he collected over 2600 hits and batted .285, but more importantly this Pittsburgh Pirate led the National League in stolen bases ten times as he ran his way to over 700 steals and an eventual spot in Cooperstown.

Twice Carey stole over 60 bases in a season and four other times he topped 50, the last of those coming in 1923. Three years earlier, a guy named Ruth over in New York had also topped the 50 mark... in home runs, that is, which changed forever the way baseball was played. Sluggers now ruled the baseball world as the "scientific game" ­ what today we call "small ball" ­ was shelved in favor of the three-run homer. Well, chicks dig the long ball, right?

For more than thirty years there were some puny stolen base totals in the majors. With just three exceptions (Washington's George Case and the Yankees' Ben Chapman and George Stirnweiss), league leaders generally stole fewer than forty bags per season; there were even several champions who didn't make it out of the teens! White Sox shortstop Luis Aparicio stole 56 in 1959 for the pennant-winning "Go-Go Sox," but the real change in philosophy came the next year when the Dodgers unleashed Maury Wills.

Wills toiled in the minors for nearly a decade and did not really distinguish himself. The Dodgers lent him to the Tigers organization one year and undoubtedly would have been happy to make that arrangement permanent, but eventually the Tigers sent him back. The Topps baseball card people didn't even want him on a card, convinced that he would never surface in the majors. But in June of 1958, the Cleveland Indians set in motion a chain of events that would eventually change the way the game is played. Struggling along under .500, they fired manager Bobby Bragan; the Dodgers, in turn, decided to hire their former catcher and infielder to manage their Triple-A affiliate in Spokane. Bragan inherited the under-achieving Wills, and convinced his shortstop that he could take advantage of his speed by learning to bat lefthanded. Wills worked at it and began to show improvement.

Meanwhile, down in Los Angeles, the Dodgers were in a bind. Having made the historic and much-publicized move from Brooklyn after the 1957 season, the team had treated their new fans to a 7th place club (in an 8-team league), but in their second season out west were part of a four-team parlay that was in the hunt for the pennant. Their shortstop was veteran Don Zimmer but he was struggling to hit his weight, while down on the farm Mr. Wills was batting over .300 and stealing bases. On June 6 the Dodgers brought Wills up to the majors and stuck him at short, where he stabilized the lineup and helped contribute to the team's first West Coast pennant and World Series championship. But it was the following year, 1960, when Wills began to make his real impact. Firmly entrenched at short and in the leadoff spot, he became the first National Leaguer in 37 years, since Max Carey in 1923, to steal 50 bases, while batting a fine .295. It would be the first of six consecutive stolen base titles for Maury Wills.

After their World Series win in 1959, the Dodgers fell to fourth place in 1960, then battled Cincinnati the following year before settling for second place. In 1962, however, fans around the country were riveted by a great three-team pennant race that featured the Dodgers, Giants and Reds, and an individual sub-plot that starred Wills and San Francisco's incomparable Willie Mays. Mays had his best season in five years, bashing 49 homers and driving home 141 runs while fueling the Giants' attack. Wills, on the other hand, set the tone for the Dodgers as he set his sights on the record book. First he shattered the National League mark of 81, set by Cincinnati outfielder Bob Bescher in 1911 and then he set his sights firmly on Ty Cobb's 1915 single-season record of 96. Ironically, he accomplished this in a game in which the Dodgers were routed, but he did in fewer games than Cobb, which meant that, unlike the controversy that dogged Roger Maris the year before, Wills was able to claim the record all for himself. But after 162 games the Dodgers and Giants were tied, and so a three-game playoff became necessary to determine who would meet the Yankees in the World Series. And just like the famous playoff of 1951, the Giants rallied in the ninth inning of the final game to capture the flag. But Wills' efforts were rewarded in the off-season, when he won the NL's Most Valuable Player award. He also won the coveted Hickok Belt as the Professional Athlete of the Year, and was chosen The Sporting News' Player of the Year, the Associated Press' Athlete of the Year, and Sport Magazine's Man of the Year.

The 1962 season was easily Wills' best, but he continued to be one of baseball's major stars for the next several years. He helped lead the Dodgers to another World Series crown in 1963, and in 1965 he epitomized the team's small-ball approach. Los Angeles batted just .245 as a team, seventh best in the league; Wills led the club with his .286 (pitcher Don Drysdale, by the way, batted .300 in 130 at-bats!). Only the expansion franchises in New York and Houston scored fewer than LA's 608 runs, and every team in the majors topped their total of 78 home runs. (Rookie second baseman Jim Lefebvre and journeyman outfielder Lou Johnson tied for the team lead with twelve homers apiece!). Wills' 94 stolen bases led the league, of course, as the Dodgers stole 172 bases as a team. It was said that a typical Dodger inning found Wills getting on, stealing second, moving to third on a grounder and scoring on a fly ball, and then the pitchers made it stand up. Sandy Koufax and his 26 wins led that formidable staff, while Drysdale won 23 and Claude Osteen chipped in with 15. In an exciting seven-game World Series, Wills bedeviled the Minnesota Twins with eleven hits and three stolen bases, and Koufax threw shutouts in both games five and seven as the Dodgers won their third championship since moving to the West Coast.

After leading LA back to the Series in 1966 (they were upset in a sweep by the young Baltimore Orioles), Maury Wills was surprisingly traded to Pittsburgh, where he shifted to third base for two years. Selected by Montreal in the expansion draft, he was traded back to LA in June and reclaimed his old shortstop spot for the next couple of seasons.

When he retired following the 1972 season, Wills had collected more than 2100 hits and stolen nearly 600 bases in his fine 14-year major league career. In 1974, Lou Brock of the Cardinals broke Wills' single-season stolen base record, swiping 118, and in 1982 Rickey Henderson shattered that by getting 130, which still remains as the record.

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