Is Dodgers Great Maury Wills' Hall of Fame moment coming?
In his early years on the writers’ ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame, Maury Wills might have looked destined for enshrinement, at least to those who follow voting closely.
Sure, Hall of Fame vote totals for the Dodgers’ legend -- 30.3 percent in his first year of eligibility in 1978 and a peak of 40.6 percent three years later -- might not seem that impressive, with 75 percent needed for enshrinement. But most candidates who have garnered at least 40 percent of the writers’ vote have eventually gone on to Cooperstown.
And Wills arrived on the ballot as the premier speedster of the 1960s, averaging 54 steals a season for the decade, breaking Ty Cobb’s single-season record in 1962, and being popularly credited, fairly or unfairly, with revolutionizing base stealing in the game. He also was a key member of World Series-winning Dodger teams in 1963 and 1965, leading the National League in steals each year.
Wills never recovered as a BBWAA candidate after his vote totals dropped by nearly half in 1982, when Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson each became eligible, and with Wills’ subsequent arrest for cocaine possession in late 1983.
But the 87-year-old Dodgers’ great has long since put his personal problems behind him and could be coming up for Hall of Fame review again.
When Wills will be eligible again: Having had his best seasons prior to 1970, Wills will be eligible this fall with the Golden Days Baseball Committee, a veterans group at Cooperstown that meets once every five years to look at contributors who made their greatest impacts on the game between 1950 and 1969.
Why Wills might be enshrined: A few things could potentially help Wills’ case and give him a decent shot at enshrinement this fall.
First off, since the last time Wills was eligible as a veterans’ candidate, the BBWAA voted in another speedster, Tim Raines. While Raines has a vastly stronger case than Wills sabermetrically, veterans’ groups at the Hall of Fame have traditionally not thought too much in terms of advanced stats. There’s a chance they could see Raines’ presence in Cooperstown opening a spot for Wills.
Wills also did fairly well his last time up for consideration, for the 2015 election, drawing nine of 16 votes from the then-Golden Era Committee, trailing only Dick Allen and Tony Oliva, who fell a vote shy, and Jim Kaat, who missed by two votes. Sometimes, veterans’ candidates can build momentum election-to-election and that might help Wills.
It’s worth noting, too, that the Hall of Fame drew flack for one of the candidates from the ill-fated Golden Era Committee vote for 2015, Minnie Minoso, dying shortly thereafter. The group could look to honor a living candidate from the era, which would place Wills on a short list with Allen, Oliva, and Kaat.
Why he might not: Allen, Oliva, and Kaat each came closer to enshrinement the last time around from this group. Each arguably has a better case than Wills.
There’s also a chance of history repeating itself, of a number of strong candidates once again cancelling each other out. Aside from the four and Minoso, others who could be eligible this time include Gil Hodges, Ken Boyer, and Billy Pierce. It’s a good group and the Golden Days Baseball Committee has tough work in front of it when it meets again this fall.
Wills is a treasure and the past 30 years of his life have been wonderful, as he found sobriety in 1989, and has helped others.
If that’s the best Wills can do, it’s no small prize.
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.
Photo: Maury Wills and Dee Gordon, by David Blumenkrantz.