Maury Wills, base-stealing shortstop for Dodgers, dies at 89

LOS ANGELES (AP) – Maury Wills, who intimidated pitchers with his base-stealing ability as shortstop for the Los Angeles Dodgers on three World Series championship teams, has passed away. He was 89.

Wills died Monday night at home in Sedona, Arizona, the team said Tuesday after being informed by family members. A cause of death was not given.

Wills played on World Series title teams in 1959, ’63, and ’65 during his first eight seasons with the Dodgers. He also played for Pittsburgh and Montreal before returning to the 1969-72 Dodgers when he retired.

During his 14-year career, Wills hit .281 with 2,134 hits and 586 stolen bases in 1,942 games.

Wills broke Ty Cobb’s one-season record for stolen bases with his 97th swipe on September 23, 1962. That season, he became the first player to steal more than 100 bases.

The Dodgers will wear a patch in memory of Wills for the remainder of this season.

“Maury Wills was one of the most exciting Dodgers of all time,” said team president and CEO Stan Kasten. “He changed baseball with his base-running and made the stolen base an important part of the game. He was instrumental in the Dodgers’ success with three world championships.”

Wills had a fateful stint managing the 1980-81, 26-56 Seattle Mariners with a .317 win rate.

He was the National League Most Valuable Player in 1962, the same year he was MVP of the All-Star Game, played in his hometown of Washington, D.C.

Wills stayed at home with his family instead of at the team hotel for the All-Star Game. He arrived at the stadium with a Dodgers bag and a Dodgers shirt on. However, the guard wouldn’t let him in, because he was too small to be a ball player.

Wills suggested that the guard escort him to the door of the NL clubhouse, where he would wait while the guard asked the players to confirm his identity.

“So we walk down there and baseball players have a sick sense of humor because when I was standing outside the door, with my Dodger shirt and duffel bag, and the guy opened the door and said, ‘Everybody here knows this kid?’ and they all looked at me and said, ‘Never seen him before,’ Wills told The Washington Post in 2015.

After the game, Wills took off with his MVP trophy and showed it to the guard.

“He still didn’t believe me, he thought maybe I was wearing it for someone,” Wills told the Post.

Wills led the NL in stolen bases from 1960-65, was a seven-time All-Star roster and won Gold Glove Awards in 1961 and ’62.

He was credited with reviving the stolen base as a strategy. His speed made him a constant threat on the basepaths and he distracted the pitchers even when he wasn’t trying to steal. He carefully studied pitchers and their pick-off moves when he was not on base. When a pitcher drove him back to the sack, he became even more determined to steal.

Once, in a game against the New York Mets, Wills was on first base when pitcher Roger Craig sacked 12 times in a row. On Craig’s next throw, Wills stole second.

At age 32, Wills banned his legs from competitions due to the penalty of sliding.

After retiring from the Dodgers in 1972, Wills spent five years as an analyst at NBC. He also managed winter ball in the Mexican Pacific League, winning a league championship in 1970-71.

Wills’ tenure managing the Mariners was largely considered a disaster and he was criticized for his lack of managerial experience. It was evident in the numerous blunders he committed, including calling for an assistant pitcher when no one was warming up in the bullpen and holding up a game for several minutes while looking for a pinch hitter.

Wills’ biggest mistake came on April 25, 1981, when he ordered the Mariners ground crew to extend the batter’s box a foot longer toward the mound than the regulations allowed. Oakland manager Billy Martin noticed and asked home place umpire Bill Kunkel to investigate.

Kunkel questioned the chief ranger, who admitted that Wills ordered the change. Wills said it was to help his players stay in the penalty area. However, Martin suspected it would give the Mariners an advantage against Oakland’s breakingball pitchers. Wills was suspended for two games by the American League and fined $500.

Wills led the Mariners to a 20-38 record to finish the 1980 season, and he was fired on May 6, 1981, when the team finished in last place at 6-18. Years later, Wills admitted that he probably should have gained more experience as a minor league manager before being hired in the major leagues.

Wills struggled with alcohol and cocaine addictions until he sobered up in 1989. He credited the Dodgers with helping the great Don Newcombe, who was overcoming his own alcohol problems. Newcombe died in 2109.

“I’m standing here with the man who saved my life,” Wills said of Newcombe. “He was a channel for God’s love for me because he chased me all over Los Angeles to help me and I just couldn’t understand that. But he persevered, he didn’t give in and my life is great today thanks to Don Newcombe.”

Born Maurice Morning Wills in Washington, DC, on October 2, 1932, he excelled in three sports at Cardozo Senior High. He earned All-City honors as a quarterback in football, in basketball, and as a pitcher in baseball when he was nicknamed Sonny.

In 1948, he played on the school’s undefeated football team, which never gave up points. On the mound, Wills threw an one-hitter and struckout 17 batters in a game in 1950. The school’s baseball field is named after him.

Wills has his own museum in Fargo, North Dakota, where he was coach and instructor for the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks from 1996-97.

He leaves behind his wife Carla and children Barry, Micki, Bump, Anita, Susan Quam and Wendi Jo Wills. Bump was a former Major League second baseman who played for Texas and the Chicago Cubs.

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