Interview: Maury Wills Looks Back on Dodgers Career

Interview: Maury Wills Looks Back on Dodgers Career
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Maury Wills had already endured eight full seasons in the minor leagues, been a member of three organizations, and fathered five children when he got the news he was finally going to the majors in 1959.

“They said, ‘Maury, you’re going to the Dodgers tomorrow,’” Wills said. “I said, ‘Me?’ I think I cried. I said, ‘No way.’”

Now 87 and living in Sedona, Arizona with his wife, Carla, Wills gave a 55-minute phone interview to Inside the Dodgers on April 17, where he recounted his unlikely road to stardom, and the indelible mark he left on the game. 

A long road to stardom

By the time Wills debuted in June 1959, splitting time at shortstop as the Dodgers chased their first World Series title on the West Coast, the 26-year-old rookie had already had a longer professional career than some men.

First debuting in the Dodger system in 1951 as an 18-year-old from Washington D.C. who’d idolized Jackie Robinson, Wills bounced around.

There were stops in outposts like Hornell, New York; Pueblo, Colorado; and Fort Worth, Texas. There was the November 1953 barnstorming trip with the Jackie Robinson All-Stars, where he earned $300 for the month (“I would have barnstormed with him for nothing, but they didn’t know that”) and was written of in newspaper accounts as a pitcher.

Wills primarily played in the Dodgers organization, though he spent a year in the Cincinnati Reds organization in 1957 and spent the spring of 1959 with the Detroit Tigers before being returned to the Los Angeles system each time. A breakthrough came with his Spokane Indians manager in 1958 and 1959, Bobby Bragan, who Wills credited with helping him make the majors.

“He taught me to be a switch hitter,” Wills said. “I was afraid of the curve ball. I was strictly a right-handed hitter at one time. I could run, I could field, I could throw. I could do all the things they wanted you to be able to do except I couldn’t hit the curve ball.”

He found more mentors when he got to Los Angeles. He wasn’t necessarily popular with teammates, who nicknamed him Mousy. Wills connected more with manager Walter Alston, who gave him a green light to steal in 1960.

He also bonded with Pete Reiser, a coach on the team from 1960 through 1964 and a star National Leaguer in the early 1940s before injuries took their toll. Among his accomplishments as a player, Reiser was one of just eight men in the ‘40s to steal at least 30 bases in a season.

Reiser nicknamed him Tiger and taught him “everything for stealing bases,” Wills said.

“I remember one [game], I was on base about two or three times,” Wills said. “Reiser came over to chew me out for not stealing a base.”

Wills went from stealing just seven bases in 1959, to leading the league in 1960 with 50 steals and again in 1961 with 35 steals. He stole more in those seasons than his records for the minors show, which he attributed to managerial tendencies.

“You play according to how the manager likes to play the game, whether he wants to go for the long ball, whether he’s relying on batters driving in (runners) or the running game,” Wills said.

Then came 1962. 

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Changing baseball:

It’s safe to say stolen bases were a rarity in baseball in the 15 seasons leading up to 1962.

Just 13 players stole at least 30 bases in a season between 1947 and 1961. These men went about it conservatively, attempting steals 18.6 percent of their opportunities, according to data culled from Baseball-Reference.com. While Luis Aparicio and Willie Mays began to steal at a higher rate in these years, it was nothing like what Wills did in 1962.

Interestingly, Wills had a nearly identical number of stolen base opportunities between two seasons, with 348 in 1961 and 349 in 1962. But he attempted more than twice as many steals in 1962 as he had the previous year, running 33.6 percent of his opportunities. He’d steal 104 bases in all, shattering Ty Cobb’s 47-year-old single-season record of 96.

“I never intended to break Ty Cobb’s record,” Wills said. “I just thought of stealing bases. That became our attack. I would get on and steal second and then I’d steal third. Somebody’d hit a long fly ball (for a sacrifice fly) and Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale would shut ‘em out.”

He also stole with an excellent rate of success in 1962, getting caught stealing just 13 times that season. He attributing his success to studying opposing catchers and pitchers during pregame warm-ups.

“All the players always when it was to their advantage, they would go to the clubhouse and have that soda or cup of coffee or whatever,” Wills said. “I would sit on the bench and watch the opposition. It was something, Pete Reiser had taught me that. I always watched the opposing team take infield because I wanted to see the catcher throw to second base.”

Wills would pick up other tendencies, too.

“I knew all the signs that they would give, the pitcher would give the catcher what he was going to throw,” Wills said. “And so when the game started, I knew the pitcher, what the pitcher threw. I had an idea of what to look for.”

Wills’ phenomenal season, which earned him the National League MVP Award, helped popularize a new style of baseball, with 59 men stealing at least 30 bases in a season between 1963 and 1977.

In time, Lou Brock and Rickey Henderson eclipsed Wills’ single-season mark. Asked if it was humbling to watch them, Wills replied, “Yeah, it was. But it probably, now that we’re talking about it, they probably came along and got the green light to steal bases maybe because their ball clubs noticed the effect I had on the game.”

His success in 1962 came at a personal cost, though. 

Problems after 1962:

Wills played in a record 165 games in 1962 as the Dodgers went to a three-game playoff at the end of the season with the San Francisco Giants, which they lost.

The next year, his legs became “stiff, puffed up, and hurting,” he said. While the Dodgers would go on to win the World Series in 1963, Wills missed 28 games, stealing 40 bases and attempting steals just 23.2 percent of his opportunities.

“I was almost afraid to steal a base,” Wills said. “I didn’t want to have to slide.”

To alleviate the fear, Wills took to seeing a hypnotist he’d met in Las Vegas, Arthur Allen. But he never again achieved quite the level of success he had in 1962, except for a sublime 1965 season in which he attempted a career-high 52.5 percent of his steal opportunities, swiping 94 bags and helping the Dodgers to their third World Series title in seven seasons.

Later, he had stints with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Montreal Expos before finishing up with the Dodgers as a 39-year-old in 1972 platooning with Bill Russell.

“My ego got in the way and I figured it was time for me to give it up,” Wills said. 

Life today:

By virtue of having had his best seasons between 1950 and 1969, Wills will come up for review once more later this year for the Baseball Hall of Fame, through its Golden Days Baseball Committee.

Wills went the full 15 years on the Baseball Writers Association of America’s ballot for Cooperstown, topping out at 40.6 percent of the vote with the writers in 1981. He’s fared reasonably well as a veterans’ candidate, most recently drawing eight votes of a needed 12 from the then-Golden Era Committee for the 2015 election.

Asked if he considers himself a Hall of Famer, he replied, “Oh, I think I’m worthy. I used to be in a group of Hall of Famers at a sporting event and everybody was asking me for an autograph. I had to send people over to the Hall of Famers and introduce the Hall of Famers and say, ‘Get his autograph.’”

He could be on the ballot against a couple of former teammates, including Don Newcombe.

“Newcombe is a Hall of Famer in my book,” Wills said. “Because later on in life, I became addicted to alcoholism and drug addiction and Newcombe had already been through that and was sober.”

Wills has said in another interview that Newcombe, who helped thousands of people in 50-plus years of sobriety before dying in 2019, chased Wills all around Los Angeles to help him achieve lasting sobriety in 1989.

“He came to my rescue,” Wills said.

Today, Wills continues to live life one day at a time and is grateful for Carla, who he’s been with since 1994.

“1994, can you believe it?” Wills said. “And we’re still holding hands.”

Graham Womack has written about baseball for a variety of publications, including Sporting News, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Sports on Earth. He lives in Northern California with his wife Kate and their animals.