Honor Among Thieves: Maury Wills Dead at 89
We’ve always heard there is no honor among thieves. There may be few exceptions. One of those exceptionally honorable thieves, a man few catchers could stop if he meant to steal second was Maury Wills, who passed away on September 19 at age 89.
When Maurice Morning Wills was born in October, 1932, the very idea of him playing baseball, much less breaking one of Ty Cobb’s records was ludicrous. Maury was the 7th of 13 children, 8 girls and 5 boys. He was born in Washington, DC when the South still believed Jim Crow laws would stand forever. Because of those laws, he lived in “The Projects”, the only kind of housing black people could have then. Washington was as far south as the major leagues went, and would remain so until Wills was almost old enough to consider retiring from baseball.
Up to a point, Maury and his brothers who played baseball from dawn until dark knew nothing of a nearby team called the Washington Senators. That circumstance changed abruptly when an infielder named Jerry Priddy who had been traded from the Yankees to the Senators showed up at the playground where Wills and his friends were playing. Priddy had the year of his young life with the Senators in 1943 and his visit was a fond memory in Maury’s heart when I interviewed him 54 years later in 1997. In another forum, Wills said that Priddy spent 2 hours with the boys and devoted some time to Maury in particular, hitting him a grounder and saying “Watch this kid.” One of Priddy’s teammates, Mickey Vernon spent some time with a small boy during a rain delay … and made a fan for life out of Harry Kalas. The Senators didn’t win, but they had at least two gentlemen among them.
Wills described himself as a little guy, which shortstops were in that time period. The Brooklyn Dodgers, who had broken the color line by signing Jackie Robinson also signed Wills in 1950, following his graduation from high school. Unlike Robinson, Wills toiled until 1959 in the Dodgers’ vast minor league system. There were only 8 teams in each of the major leagues then, so chances were few and far between. He told me he had been going nowhere until 1958 when one of his managers suggested he should try switch-hitting because he had nothing to lose. He did, and a year later he joined the Dodgers in Los Angeles. Even then, he didn’t make the team right out of spring training. Bob Lillis was their starting shortstop. Don Zimmer took his place when things didn’t work out. Zimmer then broke a toe. That’s when the call went out for Wills.
When he stole 50 bases to lead the league in 1960, he was the first man to steal 50 since 1923 when Max Carey had stolen 51. Two years later, he stole 104 bases, breaking Ty Cobb’s record of 96 which had stood since 1915. Maury told me the writers hadn’t caused him as much trouble as Roger Maris received in 1961 when he broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. Wills’ 104 steals were more than any entire team. The Senators were closest with 99. If the writers gave him a pass, his opposition didn’t. The Mets’ Roger Craig tried 12 times in a row to pick him off. When Craig finally relented and pitched to the plate, Maury was off and running. The Giants’ manager Alvin Dark got his ground crew at Candlestick Park to water down the infield to turn the base paths into mud. That barely slowed Maury down.
Though the Dodgers lacked power hitting, they forced a best of 3 playoff with the Giants. In game 2, Wills scored the winning run in the 9th on a sacrifice fly, challenging Willie Mays’ arm to beat his speed. The Giants won the playoff the next day, keeping the Dodgers out of the World Series until 1963. Wills took the 1962 MVP award, beating out Mays.
Wills played in the 1959 and 19 63 World Series, but his 1965 Fall Classic was easily his best. He hit .367 with 11 hits in 30 atbats with 3 runs scored and 3 steals against the Twins. This followed a season in which he stole 94 bases, his one try to beat his own record. None of the Dodgers did any hitting in the ’66 World Series when the Orioles swept them in 4 games. Wills was traded to the Pirates before the next season, then picked by the Montreal Expos in the expansion draft in 1968.
The Dodgers got him from the Expos in June of 1969 and, though he was in his late thirties by then, he had success during the rest of 1969, 1970 and 1971. The clock ran out a year later.
Wills spent 4 winters managing a team in Mexico. His major league call came from Seattle in August, 1980. Before 1981 began, the team was sold and the new owner fired him almost as fast as George Steinbrenner fired Yogi Berra.
Wills was a coach for Fargo-Moorhead in the independent Northern League during 1996 and 1997, which is when I got to talk to him. He spent the next 20 seasons in their broadcast booth. After almost 30 years away, he rejoined the Dodgers as a guest instructor in 2000. He held that post until 2016.
Maury Wills isn’t in the Hall of Fame and probably never will be. He’d hope to be remembered as the kind of Man Jerry Priddy was, a man who did all he could for others. R I P