Maury Wills, who worked hard to achieve stardom with the Los Angeles Dodgers, then worked just as hard to regain dignity and standing within baseball through sobriety, has posthumously announced the Dodgers Tuesday.
Wills died Monday night at his home in Sedona, Ariz., aged 89.
A mild-mannered shortstop who spent nearly a decade in the minor leagues, Wills mastered his limited skills, studied pitches’ inclinations and learned to switch, earning a shot with the Dodgers, then helping them bring to three World Series titles in four. he tries to reintroduce base stealing to baseball as a major offensive weapon.
Wills became a valuable coach with the Dodgers in his later years and developed a strong relationship with the young base stealer when Dave Roberts was traded from the Cleveland Indians to the Dodgers in December 2001. Roberts stole 118 bases in 2½ seasons before he was traded to the Dodgers. Boston Red Sox, where he executed perhaps the most famous stolen base in history during the 2004 American League Championship Series.
Roberts, who as Dodgers manager wears No.
“He loved the game of baseball, loved working and loved the relationship with the players,” Roberts said. “We spent a lot of time together. He showed me how to respect my craft and what about being a big leaguer. He just loves to teach. So from Maury I get my excitement and my passion and my love for the players.”
Roberts said he “probably” wouldn’t be managing the Dodgers if it weren’t for Wills and the influence he had on him.
“And in a weird way, I think I’ve been enriched by his post-baseball career as far as watching every game I’ve played or won,” Roberts said. “I remember even during the games I played, he would come down from the dressing room and tell me I need to do more, I need to do this or that. . . A coach would say, ‘Maury is at the end of the dugout and she wants to talk to you.’
“He showed that he was into me, and to this day, he would be there laughing with me.”
Wills played a key role for the Dodgers of the 1960s, leading the National League in steals six times, earning two Gold Gloves for his pitching and beating Willie Mays for the league’s Most Valuable Player award in ’62, when he ruled the baseball world by arrangement. record of 104 stolen bases, eclipsing the 47-year-old mark of 96 held by the late Ty Cobb.
Batting leadoff, he hit .299 that season, collecting 208 hits, all but 29 singles. At the just-opened Dodger Stadium, however, those singles led to chants of “Go! Go! Go!” and Wills was happy to oblige, usually successfully.
He was caught stealing just 13 times and later said that number should have been eight, since five times he was thrown out when Jim Gilliam, hitting behind him, failed to connect on hit plays and run. His result on the base paths that season was a career-high 130 runs scored.
Wills was so scared that the San Francisco Giants grounds crew dug up the base path and planted turf moss and damp soil to slow him down in a crucial late summer game in 1962 at Candlestick Park.
Wills reminisced about the shenanigans years later in a 2021 interview with Houston Mitchell of the Times. “I was determined that they would go through all that trouble to try and stop me,” he said.
Wills stole 586 bases in his 14-year career and, when he retired, told the Center Daily Times of State College, Pa., “When you’re a base stealer, you’re a different guy. … You have to be arrogant to be a good base stealer.”
And in an era when the Dodgers relied on pitching, provided primarily by Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, and the runs were outstanding, each base stolen by Wills managed to relieve some of the tension. “Playing the Dodgers,” he once said, “one run is a mountain.”
He stole second, he stole third and, when the situation called for it, he stole home. He disrupted pitches and embarrassed catchers and fielders. Normally, he would single, steal second, then score on someone else’s single. Or, single, steal second, draw a bad throw and take third, then score on a fly out.
“Maury made himself a superstar. He taught himself not to make mistakes,” former teammate Norm Sherry told the Times in 1980.
Wills may not have been as big as Koufax or Drysdale, but he was right behind them.
With fame and fame, however, came temptation, and slick as he was running the tires, Wills was no more than the temptation. In his autobiography, written by Mike Celizic, “On the Run: The Never Dull and Often Shocking Life of Maury Wills,” he claimed to have had affairs with Hollywood star Doris Day — in his autobiography, “Doris Day: Her Own Story ,” She denied it – and Edie Adams. He had a volatile and corrosive six-year relationship with a woman named Judy Aldrich and blamed her for starting him into heavy drinking.
He dabbled with entertainers, even playing Las Vegas gigs himself, singing and accompanying himself on banjo, guitar or ukulele, but it wasn’t always his favorite clubhouse, though captained the team.
“Obviously a lot of our ballplayers haven’t hit it off with him,” then Dodgers general manager Buzzie Bavasi told Sports Illustrated after Wills was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates. “Maybe it was a little too strong for them to taste, I don’t know.”
However, Wills was a productive player on a winning team and might have spent his entire playing career with the Dodgers – finishing with them after stints in Pittsburgh and Montreal – had he not been let go after the 1966 season.
After being swept in the World Series by the Baltimore Orioles, the Dodgers went on a barnstorming trip to Japan. Wills, who suffered a mid-season knee injury, said the knee was injured and asked to leave the tour, return to Los Angeles and receive treatment. Permission refused, he left anyway.
Instead of flying directly to Los Angeles and getting medical treatment, he stopped for a week in Honolulu, where he joined singer Don Ho in action, playing his banjo, singing and joking. Bavasi, vacationing in Hawaii with his wife, happened to catch the action one evening and shortly thereafter Wills was traded to Pittsburgh.
Wills equaled his career high with a .302 batting average in 1967, his first year with the Pirates and continued to be a productive player into his 30s. In 1971 at age 38 he hit .281 with 169 hits in 149 games for the Dodgers. He was released after the 1972 season with 2,134 career hits and 586 stolen bases.
During his playing days, Wills had spent several winters as a manager of a Mexican League team and hoped to continue his career as a major league manager. He turned down the San Francisco Giants, who offered him a one-year contract in 1977, and was working on a broadcasting career and serving as a part-time baserunning coach when he finally got his managerial shot.
The Seattle Mariners, an expansion team in its fourth desultory season, fired Darrell Johnson in early August 1980 and hired Wills. to bail them out. On their first night at the helm, the Mariners lost to the Angels, 8-3, falling to last place in the American League West. That was as good as it got for Wills with the Mariners. They finished last, then got off to a 6-18 start to the 1981 season, their worst ever, and Wills was gone in early May.
That, along with his deteriorating relationship with Aldrich, sent him into a tailspin. He turned to drink and cocaine, locking himself in his house alone, staying high for days at a time, covering the windows with blankets, lying, resorting to intense paranoia, contemplating suicide.
Wills estimated that he spent $1 million on cocaine in one year — and although he got sober in 1989, that may have been part of the reason he wasn’t elected to the baseball Hall of Fame. He was rejected 15 times by the Baseball Writers Assn. America and 10 more times by veterans committee.
“I believe I will be inducted,” Wills told the Times in 2016. “The question is whether they’re going to induct me before I die.”
The Dodgers helped get him into a drug treatment program, but Wills walked out and continued to use drugs until he began a relationship with Angela George, who helped him enter a rehab clinic. Wills, again with the help of the Dodgers, finally got sober in 1989, and he and George later married.
“Some people get old but never grow up,” Wills said of his dark days. “That’s what happened to Maury Wills. In those three years, I was 15 years old.”
Maurice Morning Wills, one of 13 children, was born on October 2, 1932, in Washington, DC. He decided to become a baseball player after attending a baseball clinic led by Gerry Priddy, a major leaguer playing for the Washington Senators.
“I didn’t own a pair of shoes,” Wills told the Great Falls (Mont.) Tribune in 2001. “Until that guy came to our projects, I didn’t even know we had major league baseball in Washington. But he told me. He told me I had some talent. And then and there, when I was 10 years old, I knew I wanted to be a major league player.”
He signed a minor league contract with the Dodgers at 17 and made his debut with them ten years later.
After regaining sobriety, he resumed his coaching duties, most recently with the Dodgers, and spent a lot of time on drug and alcohol education. Wills first appeared as a candidate on the National Baseball Hall of Fame Golden Era Committee ballot in 2015. The election required 12 votes and the Wills received nine.
At the Dodgers’ spring training facility in Vero Beach, Fla., Wills taught advanced baserunning and bunting techniques from an area known as “Maury’s Pit.” He was also a color commentator for the Fargo-Moorhead (ND) RedHawks in the independent American Assn. for 22 years, retiring in 2017.
He credited the low-key atmosphere in North Dakota with helping him maintain sobriety.
“I’m feeling free,” Wills told Kurt Streeter of The Times in 2008. “Absolutely free. No ill feelings, no resentments. … Peace.”
He is survived by his wife, Carla, and six children – Barry Wills, Micki Wills, Bump Wills, Anita Wills, Susan Quam and Wendi Jo Wills.
Kupper is a former Times staff writer.
Assistant sports editor Steve Henson contributed to this report.