Under the heading of that business about "you might have been a headache, but you never were a bore" comes Maury Wills. Maury, once the proud captain of the Dodgers, has gone to Pittsburgh for Gene Michael and Bob Bailey, but he is not forgotten, not by a long shot. In addition to being a great little ballplayer, in addition to drawing thousands of people into the ball park with his daring base running, Maury was also memorable for the problems that always seemed to swirl around him. Eventually one of those mix-ups was his undoing with the Dodgers.
Maurice Morning Wills. What memories the name brings up! If ever there was a candidate for the title Most Likely to Spend a Lifetime in the Minors, it was Maurice Morning Wills. Just take a look at the raw material. He was only about 5'9" and drenched to the skin he weighed maybe 150 pounds, and the only things in the world he could really do well were run and throw. He was an average hitter, utterly lacking in power, and at shortstop he didn't cover any more ground than the next guy, although he did have a very strong arm. So add it all up and it looks like a mediocre career in the Pacific Coast League, doesn't it? And yet Maury Wills, with all his physical deficiencies, made it big with the Dodgers. He couldn't hit, but he could get on base. He wasn't the fastest man on the team, but he could steal bases better than anybody else in the history of baseball. He didn't cover much ground, but when he pegged that ball people two blocks away could hear it whack into the first baseman's glove. I guess when you add it up you'd have to say that Maury Wills is much more than the sum of his parts.
But talk about almost losing superstars to other ball clubs! There wasn't a day up to Maury's first full year with the Dodgers when anybody in baseball couldn't have had him at a discount. If somebody had come up to me and offered me $11 and a package of potato chips for Maury's contract, he'd have had a deal. The very year we brought him up we had tried to unload him on Detroit, but they took a look in spring training and sent him back. Before that we had tried to palm Maury off on the Seattle club in the Pacific Coast League, but he was stamped "rejected" and returned from there, too. So you can imagine how I felt when I began getting these phone calls during early 1959 from Spencer Harris, then the general manager at Spokane, and Bobby Bragan, then the manager. Bobby would call six times a day and tell me over again how Wills had learned to switch-hit and how he was a great team leader, off and on the field, and how I was absolutely nuts if I didn't bring him up right away. Spence was almost violent about it. "I have never seen a ballplayer mean more to a club!" Spence roared at me over the telephone one day. "He's the glue, he holds it all together! And a boy who can do that in the minor leagues, with the types of guys we get here, why, imagine what he can do for you!"
Finally it occurred to me that there must be some fire under all this smoke. There weren't two men in baseball who had better eyes for talent than Bobby Bragan and Spencer Harris, and both of them were practically on their hands and knees to get me to accept a spray-hitting undersized infielder with a long record of nothingness. I figured that they were losing their marbles, or I was, and I gave them Bob Lillis in exchange for Wills so that we could find out. Well, the newspapers gave me their own answers pretty quick. One headline read: DODGER BIG DEAL SEEMS RIDICULOUS. The story said, "Maury Wills for Bobby Lillis! That's the big deal the Dodger brass pulled off in an effort to keep the club in the first division. Who are they kidding? Maury Wills has been bumping around in the minors since 1951. Last year with the PCL team he hit only .253 and couldn't stick with Detroit this spring. The player he couldn't beat out was Rocky Bridges, himself cast off by the Dodgers after performing infrequently in a utility capacity. Wills may not even break into the starting lineup for a spell."
May 28, 1967
Stories like that were cheap and easy to write, especially since Maury got off to a very slow start for somebody who was going to make over the record books. He got one hit in his first 12 times at bat with the Dodgers, and Walter Alston finally benched him. Pee Wee Reese came over to me and, in a very uncharacteristic remark, he said, "Buzzie, you've made your first big mistake. You should not have brought that kid up. He'll never make it."
Maury got back into the lineup, but he was no ball of fire. After a month had gone by, another writer took a shot: "In 123 at-bats, Wills has hit in just one run. The Dodgers need punch more than any other single thing. You don't spell punch W-I-L-L-S...."
But by now Pee Wee Reese had seen the same mystery ingredients in the boy that had made Spence and Bobby so enthusiastic. With Maury still not certain of a job and with me still not sold on him, Pee Wee took me aside at the Polo Grounds and said, "Buzzie, I take back everything I said. It may take awhile, but this boy has it. I've never been so wrong in my life. This kid's got it all the way!"
Well, you can read the rest of the story in the record books, in our attendance figures during Maury's stay in Los Angeles and in our standing in the league from 1959 through last year. By the time of our final blowup with Maury, he was up to $85,000 a year and worth every dime. If we had been able to handle him personally, he might still be our shortstop today, but Maury was a hard man to control and not for the usual reasons. I mean, he wasn't a boozer or a barroom brawler or anything like that. It's hard to explain it; I guess the closest you could come is to say that Maury was the eye of the hurricane. He could do the blandest things and all hell would break loose. Maybe you remember last year when we were playing a tight game with the Giants and Maury turned around to hold up two fingers to Tommy Davis in left field and the result was a fist fight in the dugout. Figure that one out! Nobody did anything wrong. Maury was right in giving the two-out signal. How many times have you seen the pitcher walk off the mound when he gets the second out? The greatest players in baseball sometimes forget an out, and Maury just wanted to make sure that in this crucial game nobody made any mistakes. He was captain of the ball club and, believe me, he took the job seriously, and he took advantage of every little safety margin that he could find, like the two-out signal.
On the other hand, you have to look at it from Tommy's point of view, too. He's standing out there in left field, all alone in front of 50,000 people, and he's already in a lousy mood because he's having a bad year, hitting .300 but not getting the RBIs, and now he gets his chance in a big game and all of a sudden this little shrimp in the infield holds up two fingers to tell the world that the jerk in left field can't be trusted to keep track of the outs. So Tommy gets mad, and when Maury says to him in the dugout, "How come you didn't acknowledge my signal out there?" Tommy goes for him. I tell you, you've got to like both their attitudes. I don't think Maury was out of line one bit, but on the other hand I've got to like the idea of Tommy resenting the fact that anybody has to tell him anything. That shows a good aggressive attitude.
But maybe when you get right down to it, the trouble with Maury was that he took everything too conscientiously; maybe he put out a little too much. You can see how he could get that way. I mean, look at his history. He's headed for a mediocre career as a minor league ballplayer, and Bobby Bragan gets hold of him and tells him that if he learns how to switch-hit he'll have a better chance to make good. So while everybody else is out for a short beer, Maury is in the batting cage learning. Then he gets his chance in the major leagues and finds out he can steal bases on these big-shot pitchers, provided he spends a whole lot of time studying their motions. While the other players are out at the movies Maury is keeping a notebook and studying opposing pitchers the way scientists study bacteria, and pretty soon he's mastered another subject. Everything that Maury Wills ever got, he got by working his tail off.
The real trouble came when we made him captain of the ball club and he approached his new job the same way he had approached his other challenges in baseball. He jumped into the job of captain with both feet, and he set up an atmosphere of tension that soured a lot of the boys on him.
Walter Alston came to me in the 1965 season and we got to talking about how Maury was tough to handle, and we conceived the idea of making Maury captain as a way of smoothing things over. I remember exactly what I said to Walter. I said, "I know Maury's tough to handle. You two don't think the same way. He's a complex person, full of ideas of his own, and you're not going to change him. He'll go along with what you tell him, but he'll do it begrudgingly. And if you criticize him at all, you're wrong because he's got to be right. And then he'll sulk and pretend he's hurt and take himself out of the lineup. Now, maybe all that will change if you make him captain. But don't give him any authority or you'll have worse trouble!"
Walter and I both figured that Maury would be captain the way Pee Wee Reese had been captain. Pee Wee was captain of the Dodgers for 100 years, and all he ever did was carry the lineup to the plate before the game. It was like an honorary degree. But Maury refused to accept the job for what it was. He felt that the captain should take charge of the team as soon as the first ball was pitched, and we had a hell of a time convincing him otherwise. Once I told him that he was getting a big head, and what do you think he did? He showed up lame for a few days and said he couldn't play. Lord knows he wasn't a bad person, but surely he must have been one of the most sensitive players that ever stepped on a baseball field. He'd take himself out of that lineup at the drop of a criticism. Maury worked to make himself perfect and to make the whole ball club perfect, and if you suggested that he had any flaws whatsoever, he would go into a sulk. But it was hard to stay mad at him, because you knew that at the bottom of it all Maury simply wanted to be the best player on the best ball club in baseball, and when that's the motivation, what's to get mad about?
Maury hadn't been captain long when he came to Walter and announced that he had worked up a system of fines for missed signals, failure to hustle, careless plays, etc. He suggested that Walter appoint a players' committee, composed of Koufax, Drysdale, Wills and anybody else Walter cared to name, to meet after ball games and levy penalties. Well, Walter Alston is the most understanding of men, and he knew that Maury was only trying to do a conscientious job as captain so, against his better judgment, Walter consented to the plan. Two days later Willie Davis misjudged a fly ball, got disgusted with himself and failed to hustle after the ball. The committee met and levied a fine of $100.
Walter said he would go for $50 but not for $100. Maury said that Walter had agreed to the idea of the committee, hadn't he? And Walter said that he had not agreed to give up his authority over the ball club. Walter said that he would be glad to accept recommendations from Maury's committee, but he would reserve the right to decide on the final action in each case.
Maury went off on one of his patented brooding sessions. He told Walter he didn't want to be captain of the Dodgers anymore. He told me the same thing, and I said, "O.K., Maury, put it in writing if that's the way you feel." The next day Walter found a note on his desk saying that Maury was quitting as captain and also wouldn't be able to play that day because his leg was hurting. Walter said nothing, and the next day Maury came into the clubhouse and said that his leg was still too bad for him to play. Right on the spot, Walter called a team meeting, abolished the players' committee by executive decree and told Maury he could keep on sulking as long as he wanted but there was nothing wrong with his leg that hadn't been wrong with it before. The next day Maury suited up and told Walter he wanted his job of captain back. A lesser man might have told him off. Walter said simply, "As far as I am concerned, you never lost it."
But letting Maury stay on as captain didn't solve another problem, which was that a lot of our ballplayers just plain didn't hit it off with him. Maybe he was a little too intense for their taste, I don't know. Nobody talked out loud about it, but there was an atmosphere of tension around him. I guess Willie Davis was the only one who ever put it into words, and that was long after Maury had gone. This year at Vero Beach, Willie was all upset about some personal problems, and when a reporter came up and asked him if the ball club was missing Captain Wills, Willie let fly. "Losing Maury is no big loss," Willie said. "It might even help us. He wasn't a bad guy, but a lot of guys on the team didn't like him, and I was one of them. I think he got a little too big for his pants. He was always trying to exert more power than he should have. I might be saying these things because I don't like him, but I imagine a lot of the other fellows felt the same way. It's just that nobody else has said it. He knows I didn't like him. I told him so. I'm not knocking him as a ballplayer. You've got to give the guy credit. He made himself a major-leaguer, but as a person I couldn't see him."
I was aware that Maury rubbed his teammates the wrong way, and I discussed this more than once with Walter Alston and Walter O'Malley. Finally we began to think in terms of a trade. Nothing definite, mind you, but the idea was up in the air. And then we sort of pushed the thought out of our minds when Sandy Koufax came to me before the World Series and told me he might be quitting. We figured we could stand to lose our most valuable pitcher and we could stand to lose our team captain, but losing them both in one year would be too hard on everybody, including the fans. Then Maury stepped in and forced the issue, and I don't know to this day what got into him.
You'll remember that the Dodgers went barnstorming to Japan after the 1966 season, even though a lot of them didn't particularly want to go. We let Koufax, Drysdale and Wes Parker stay home, and we persuaded the others to make the trip by letting them take their wives to Hawaii for a four-day vacation at the outset and by guaranteeing them $4,000 each for the six-week tour of Japan. I didn't go myself, because in the first place who needs an out-of-shape general manager on a barnstorming trip and, second, my wife Evit and I hadn't had a vacation in 20 years and I had promised her a cruise to the Hawaiian Islands and back.
Evit and I were a day away from sailing when we learned that Maury had gone AWOL in Japan. He was last seen muttering something about his leg and saying that he had to get to a doctor. Well, I wasn't going to let this interrupt my vacation, so Evit and I sailed from Los Angeles. Five days later we get to Honolulu and who is there, playing guitar in a little combo with his old friend Don Ho, but Maury Wills. To tell you the truth, I avoided him. I didn't want to have my vacation interrupted by some silly scene with Maury, and anyway I figured he was seeing a doctor and taking care of his leg. But pretty soon I found out that Maury hadn't seen a doctor in Hawaii and, as far as I know, he didn't see a doctor until a week after he came back to the mainland.
Now, how can all this possibly look to the Dodger ball club? Doesn't it have to look like Maury is challenging us? All he had to do was fly home, see Doc Kerlan, our team physician, and everything's fine. Nobody is going to raise hell with a ballplayer who turns up lame and goes to a doctor to be treated, even if the player does leave the ball club a little abruptly. But Maury goes out of his way to take his own sweet time about it, stops off to play guitar in a nightclub and finally wanders into the doctor's office two weeks after he jumps ship.
I don't mind telling you that Walter O'Malley was highly annoyed, and I don't mind telling you I was, too. "Buzzie," Walter said on the transpacific phone, "it looks to me as though the boy's asking for it, and I think we'll have to give it to him." We talked it over again before the winter meetings in Columbus, Ohio, and we decided that, as much as we would like to have Maury stay with the Dodgers, the breach was too wide to be healed. So we made the best deal we could make. Pittsburgh knew about his bad leg, but they took him "as is." It was all out in the open.
I've seen Maury a few times since we traded him, and he has no animosity at all. Why should he? We paid him the highest salary of any shortstop in history, and how could he be mad at anybody in Los Angeles for that? I hope Maury has a great year with the Pirates—against everybody but the Dodgers.
And then there's Leo Durocher. Newspapermen have gone to great lengths to say there's a feud between me and Leo, and although I don't ordinarily get all hot and bothered about feud stories—they're good box office—I have to take exception to this one. I consider Leo a friend, and if he hasn't taken some of the newspaper stuff too seriously I'm sure he thinks the same of me.
To tell you the truth, Leo isn't that much older than I am, but he was sort of a childhood hero to me, first as a player and then as manager of the Dodgers and then as manager of the Giants. By the time I took over the big club Leo was out of the picture, but I didn't need anybody to draw me pictures to show what the name Leo Durocher meant. So I was amazed one day, after Leo had left the Giants, to pick up a Los Angeles newspaper and read that Leo had missed out on a couple of managing jobs he thought he had locked up, and that now he was convinced he was being blackballed. He felt that Fred Haney of the Angels and Horace Stoneham of the Giants were spreading the word that Leo didn't want to manage anymore, and he popped off about how unfair this was, because he did want to manage, he was not independently wealthy, and he needed a job.
On top of all that, the baseball pension fund was just getting off the ground in those days, and it looked like Leo wasn't going to get a nickel for all his years of service as a manager. Under the rule, a former manager who was out of baseball got no pension-fund credit for his years as manager. If he came back into baseball, as a manager or as a coach, he immediately got retroactive credit for all his years. In other words, if Leo got back into baseball he would automatically be in line for about $500 a month in his old age, and if he stayed out of baseball he would be in line for zip, nothing.
We talked all this over in the front office, and we considered the fact that Leo meant a lot to the Dodger image, and we threw in the fact that Leo is a fine baseball man. When we added everything up, I got on the phone. "Leo," I said, "in the first place, I don't agree with you that you're being blackballed. And all this popping off about it is doing you no good. I want to see you right away."
In Leo's apartment I said: "Leo, maybe you think it's beneath your dignity, but we'd like you to come to work for the Dodgers as a coach."
Now, you don't ordinarily think of crusty Leo Durocher as an emotional man, but you'd have thought I just offered him the French Legion of Honor or something. The poor guy had been so upset over this screwy idea that he was being blackballed that the offer of an honest job on a major league ball club really touched him. He didn't even mull it over in his mind. He asked me when we wanted him to start. I said right away. I said, "One thing, Leo. We won't be able to pay you the kind of money you've been getting."
Leo was so touched that he didn't even want to negotiate. He said, "You and Mr. O'Malley figure out the salary, and it'll be good enough for me."
After Leo left, I went in to talk things over with Mr. O'Malley, and that cheapskate suggested we start Leo at $25,000 a year, the highest salary ever paid a major league coach. I told Walter it would bend the budget out of shape to start Leo so high, and Walter said that it wouldn't bend the budget at all, because Leo would bring in practically as much money as we were giving him.
As usual, Walter's prediction worked out almost to the penny, at least in Leo's first years with the Dodgers. I mean, it was one of those deals that benefited everybody. In his four years with the club, Leo collected well over $100,000, counting World Series checks, and that's a lot of money for a coach. He also got reinstated in the baseball pension plan and lined up for a nice pension. But, on the other hand, Leo really worked. He'd come into my office day after day with fat checks for season tickets, or for whole blocs of World Series tickets, sold to all those friends of his. A coach like that is money in the bank. And when he's also pulling a full load down on the ball field, you've got a good thing going.
Of course, Leo being Leo, I had to have an absolutely clear-cut understanding with him about what his job meant and what it didn't mean. It didn't mean that there was a whisper of a chance that he would ever take over the manager's job from Walter Alston. I even went so far as to warn Leo that I would have to fire him if the newspapers ever did any widespread speculating that Leo was waiting in the wings for Walt's job. I said, "I don't care if the stories are denied by you up one side and down the other, and I don't care if the writers are lying or not. If word gets out that you're in line for Walter's job, I'm going to have to let you go."
Well, Leo is nobody's idiot, and he understood right from the beginning the nature of our arrangement. Hell, Leo had been around long enough to know that no ball club can succeed if it has a coach waiting around conspicuously to pounce on the manager's job. Nobody wanted our ball club split into a Durocher half and an Alston half, least of all Leo himself.
I only wish I had been able to make all this clear to the press. Is there anybody around now who really thinks that Leo was hired as Walter's eventual replacement? And yet we had to fight that propaganda in a thousand different ways when Leo was coaching for Walter. Some columnist would write that Leo was taking over next Tuesday and Walter would be fired, and I'd come out with a blast that if Walter was fired I'd leave right along with him. Some baseball figure 2,000 miles away would tip off the home-town press that this had been Walter's last year and Leo would take over at the beginning of the next season, and I would have to do something fancy like phoning Walter by conference call and rehiring him in front of the press. When Bob Kennedy was head coach of the Cubs he was quoted one time in a newspaper: "I'll tell you one thing. If the Dodgers lose to Houston Saturday, Leo Durocher is the manager Sunday!" I read that story and exploded, and I must have been quoted in every sports section in the country in some of the harshest prose ever printed. I said that Kennedy was a fine guy to talk about anybody taking over the job of manager. I said he had become head coach of the Cubs by stabbing nine fellow coaches in the back. I said Kennedy's got enough problems of his own without taking on any of ours. On Saturday I said, "I guess everybody has noticed that we lost to Houston today. That means if Durocher isn't manager of the Dodgers tomorrow, Kennedy is a liar. Will you print that, please?" They printed that. Funny thing about it, I didn't mean those things I said about Bob Kennedy. But it was typical of the extremes I had to go to to keep fighting that brush fire about Leo taking over. I had to accuse somebody I really liked of stabbing his fellow coaches in the back! And if you think I didn't really like and admire Bob Kennedy, then maybe you didn't know that soon afterward I hired him to manage our Albuquerque club. He's a coach for the Atlanta Braves now, and they're lucky to have him.
But I don't mean to say that Leo's four years with the Dodger coaching staff were any international peace conference. Having Leo working for you is like using dynamite to build a road. If you handle everything just right, you get a lot of work done. But if you make a mistake, blooey! Leo is one of the most outspoken of men; he simply can't keep his mouth shut. Like the time at Vero Beach when he blurts out to Mrs. O'Malley that Walter isn't giving her enough spending money. To Leo, that was a perfectly acceptable remark, and he meant it in a spirit of helpfulness. Walter laughed when he heard it, but he didn't laugh so loud the time Leo was kibitzing him in a gin game and Leo kept saying, "Go down! Go down!" and then said in a loud stage whisper, "He's got to be the stupidest gin player I ever saw!" So Walter goes down with six, gets undercut and then finds out that his next draw would have been gin. By that time Leo had disappeared, and very wisely.
Now and then Leo would pop off like this on the ball field. A typical time was in Pittsburgh, when Ron Fairly missed a hit-and-run sign and killed a Dodger rally. Leo comes fuming back to the bench and says in that loud voice of his, "Somebody ought to take that guy's money!" and a few more choice remarks.
Walter Alston took all he could, and then he told Leo, "Who're you talking about, taking his money? I'm the only one that can take his money, and I don't need any advice from you. You take care of the coaching, and I'll take care of the managing!" Walter closed his little speech by reminding Leo that three times during the game he had had to whistle at Leo in the third-base coaching box to get him to take the signs.
That incident was made to look like the Battle of Bull Run in the papers, but nobody seemed to notice that when Walter got kicked out of a ball game the very next day he turned to Durocher and said, "You take over, Leo." He could just as easily have asked Pete Reiser or Greg Mulleavy or Joe Becker to take over, but Walter doesn't play that way.
The biggest blowoff with Leo came at the end of the 1962 season, when everybody was feeling down in the mouth over the way we lost the playoff to the Giants after taking a 4-2 lead into the last inning of the deciding game. Somebody had scheduled a victory dinner in Los Angeles after the last playoff game, and you can imagine the happy crowd that showed up. Aside from the fact that everybody got stoned, no two stories about that joyous evening are the same. I can only tell you that I blew my cork the next day when I was told that Leo had taken the occasion to say, "We would have won the pennant if I had been managing the club."
A reporter asked me for a reaction, and I was only too happy to oblige. "Leo's crack was inexcusable," I told him, "and it cannot be ignored. Unless he proves to me he didn't say it he's through, as far as I'm concerned. I don't care if he was just responding to somebody else's crack. He should have defended Walter right down the line. That's what Alston would have done had their positions been reversed. Also I'm not so sure Durocher would have won the pennant. And if he knew a way to win it, why didn't he tell Alston?" I was plenty mad.
Then I ran into Leo in the hallway of the Friars Club in Los Angeles, and I told him to his face what I thought. I said he was very unfair to Walter, that Walter had been one of Leo's loudest backers when we hired him, that the ball club had done him a big favor and that he owed somebody a public apology. I got madder and madder as I spoke, and all poor Leo could do was keep repeating that I was giving him a bum rap, that he had never said what they said he said. A friend of mine came by at the height of the discussion, and later on he said to me, "What the hell was that all about? I've never seen Leo look so white!" I told Leo I ought to fire him right then and there, right in the hallway of the Friars Club. I told him Walter was twice the manager that he was, and twice the man, and I said, "I'd fire you right now, Leo, but you're working for Walter Alston, not me, and it's Walter Alston that'll either save your neck or fire you!"
Well, even at this late date I'm not prepared to tell anybody exactly what Leo did or didn't say that night. But, to give Durocher the benefit of the doubt, several reliable people came to me after I popped off and said that Leo had been misquoted, that somebody had said to Leo: "We never should have lost the pennant. I wish you were managing in that last game. We'd have won it." And Leo is supposed to have said, "I would have liked my chances going into the ninth with a two-run lead."
When I found this out I called Leo up and told him that I thought he was out of line, but not as out of line as I had been led to believe earlier. I didn't apologize—I still think Leo should have said that Walter had done a great job, and I still think that Leo wouldn't have had the Dodgers in the playoff in the first place—but I did tell Leo that the whole matter was forgotten as far as I was concerned and now it was just a routine question of whether Walter wanted him back as a coach. Leo said that would be fine with him.
I called Alston in and told him everything I knew, and he said, "He's a good coach. I want him back."
Two years later Leo came to the end of the line with us, and there were no hard feelings. Leo knew I liked to shuffle the coaching staffs every few years to bring more and more of our people into the major league pension plan, and 1964 was one of those times. Leo took it fine, and I know why. He was pretty sure he was going to get the St. Louis managing job when Johnny Keane quit. I don't know why he didn't. It's no rap on Red Schoendienst, but St. Louis could have made worse mistakes than hiring Leo Durocher. He was a Dodger coach for four years, and nobody in our organization has ever said he didn't do a first-class job. I was lucky to be able to bring him back to the Dodgers for that long, and I know Walter O'Malle was glad to have him, too. I don't know who is advising Walter on his family budget now that Leo is gone.
In the fourth and final installment Bavasi tells the real secret of baseball trading—and how long it takes to learn it.