Thursday, February 22, 2007

Wills' Exploits Changed the Game

02/16/2007 10:00 AM ET
By Justice B. Hill /

Not since Babe Ruth in the 1920s had one player changed the game of baseball the way Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills did in the 1960s.

Taking over as a starter in 1960, Wills brought his revved-up energy to a ballclub that needed an infusion of it. Not that the Dodgers hadn't had other speedy ballplayers in their storied history. They were, after all, the team that introduced Jackie Robinson to the Major Leagues.

But no player did quite what the switch-hitting Wills, the quintessential leadoff hitter, did with his legs. He frustrated opposing pitchers. He disrupted defenses. And he jump-started the Dodgers' offense.

Wills allowed the pitching-rich Dodgers to use "small ball" to contend for National League titles and World Series rings.

His 14-year career, which ended in 1972, has the Veterans Committee of the National Baseball Hall of Fame evaluating its place in baseball history.

Was that career worthy enough for induction into Cooperstown?

Look at his numbers. He became the first National League shortstop since Max Carey in 1923 to steal 50 bases. But that number was only the start of Wills' baseball larceny.

Two years later, Wills broke Ty Cobbs' Major League record for steals when he recorded 104.

"In 1962, one seemingly unbreakable record that stood for nearly a half a century was shattered by a slender man who specialized in singles and bunt hits," wrote Al Doyle in a 2003 article in Baseball Digest. "As the first 100-steal player, Wills breached a barrier that was once thought to be untouchable."

In that marvelous season, Wills batted .299 en route to winning the National League MVP Award. He outpolled the great Willie Mays for the honor.

Wills, who toiled in the Minor Leagues for eight seasons, never had another season quite like this one. What player in his era did?

From the time he reached the bigs, he was a player who set a standard for disrupting defenses, aggravating pitchers and setting up the Dodgers' hitters behind him in the manager Walter Alston's lineup to knock in a run.

"Winning 1-0 or 2-1 became our plan of attack," Wills told Doyle for his 2003 article. "I'd get on base, steal second, get advanced to third and score on a single."

Wills continued to do that throughout his career. He also continued to play the kind of defense that a pitching-dominated, offensively-challenged ballclub like the Dodgers of the 1960s needed for success.

Those teams didn't need gawdy numbers, and Wills, when his numbers are stacked up alongside other Hall of Fame shortstops, might not be as impressive. But throw in five All-Star Game appearances, two Gold Gloves, his MVP, six straight seasons of leading the league in stolen bases and a career .281 average, and Wills has credentials that measure up to or surpass those of Hall of Fame shortstops Luis Aparicio, Johnny Evers, Phil Rizzuto, Ozzie Smith and Pee Wee Reese.

Yet as good a player as Wills was, he was an even better person. He was one of the earliest athletes to embrace and relish his role as a celebrity.

"I am proud to be a role model to children and aspiring athletes," Wills once said. "I feel it is my obligation to give back something to this community that has done so much for me. If I can accomplish that, then I feel I have truly realized my greatest victory."

Another great victory should await Wills shortly, if the Veterans Committee looks closely at his baseball credentials. For those credentials should earn him a plaque in Cooperstown alongside Dodgers teammates Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.


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