LOS ANGELES (AP) — Maury Wills, who intimidated pitchers with his ability to steal bases as shortstop for the Los Angeles Dodgers on three World Series championship teams, has died. He was 89.
Wills died Monday night at his home in Sedona, Arizona, the team said Tuesday after being told by family members. No cause of death was given.
Wills played on World Series starting teams in 1959, 1963 and 1965 during his first eight seasons with the Dodgers. He also played for Pittsburgh and Montreal before returning to the Dodgers from 1969 to 1972, when he retired.
During his 14-year career, Wills batted .281 with 2,134 hits and 586 stolen bases in 1,942 games.
Wills broke Ty Cobb’s single-season record for stolen bases with his 97th hit on September 23, 1962. That season he became the first player to steal more than 100 bases.
The Dodgers honored Wills with a moment of silence before the start of their doubleheader against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Tuesday and played the highlights of his career on the stadium’s video boards. The team will wear a patch in memory of Wills for the rest of this season.
Manager Dave Roberts, an outfielder during his 10-year MLB career, was moved to tears as he recalled the impact Wills had on him.
“He was a friend, a father, a mentor, all of the above to me, so this is hard for me,” she said. “He just showed me how to appreciate my craft, he showed me how to be a major league player. He just loved teaching. I think a lot of where I get my enthusiasm, my passion, my love for the players is from Maury.”
Wills took an active role in Roberts’ tenure as a player with the Dodgers. Roberts stole 42 bases in 2003.
“I remember during games when I was playing here, he would come down from the suite and tell me I have to play or I have to do this,” Roberts said. “It just showed that he was with me. Even to this day, he would be there cheering me on, cheering me on.”
Wills had his own stint as manager, guiding the Seattle Mariners from 1980 to 1981, going 26-56 with a .317 winning percentage.
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 home with his family instead of the team hotel for the All-Star Game. He came to the stadium with a Dodgers bag and a Dodgers jersey. However, the security guard did not let him in, saying that he was too young to be a baseball 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 their identity.
“So we walk over there and the baseball players have a sick sense of humor, because when I stood in the doorway, in my Dodgers jersey and duffel bag, and the man opened the door and said: ‘Anyone here know this guy. ?’ and they all looked at me and said, ‘I’ve never seen it before,’ Wills told The Washington Post in 2015.
After the game, Wills left with his MVP trophy and showed it to the guard.
“He still didn’t believe me, he thought maybe he was carrying it for someone,” Wills told the Post.
Wills led the National League in stolen bases between 1960 and 1965, was a seven-time All-Star and won Gold Glove Awards in 1961 and ’62.
He is credited with reviving the stolen base as a strategy. His speed made him a constant threat on the bases and distracted pitchers even if he wasn’t trying to steal. He carefully studied pitchers and their pick moves when he wasn’t on base. When a pitcher’s pitch took him back to the bag, 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 threw 12 straight times to base. On Craig’s next pitch, Wills stole second.
At 32, Wills would have his legs wrapped before games due to punishment for sliding.
After retiring with the Dodgers in 1972, Wills worked as an analyst at NBC for five years. He also coached winter ball in the Mexican Pacific League, winning a league championship in 1970-71.
Wills’ tenure as manager of the Mariners was largely viewed as a disaster, and he was criticized for his lack of managerial experience. It was evident in the numerous blunders he committed, including calling out a relief pitcher when no one was warming up in the bullpen and stopping a game for several minutes while searching for a pinch hitter.
Wills’s biggest mistake came on April 25, 1981, when he ordered the Mariners’ ground crew to extend the batter’s box a foot further into the mound than regulations allowed. Oakland manager Billy Martin took notice and asked home plate umpire Bill Kunkel to investigate.
Kunkel questioned the head fielder, who admitted that Wills had ordered the change. Wills said it was to help his players stay in the box. However, Martin suspected it was to give the Mariners an advantage against Oakland’s breaking ball 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 was fired on May 6, 1981, when the team was mired 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 big leagues.
Wills battled alcohol and cocaine addictions until he got sober in 1989. He credited Dodgers pitching great Don Newcombe, who overcame his own drinking problems, for helping him. Newcombe died in 2019.
“I’m standing here with the man who saved my life,” Wills said of Newcombe. “It was a channel for God’s love for me because he chased me all over Los Angeles trying to help me and I just couldn’t understand that.” But he persevered, he didn’t give up, and my life is wonderful today because of 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 a point. On the mound, Wills threw one hit and struck out 17 in a game in 1950. The school’s baseball field is named after him in his honor.
Wills has his own museum in Fargo, North Dakota, where he was a coach and instructor for the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks from 1996 to 1997.
He is survived by his wife Carla and children Barry, Micki, Bump, Anita, Susan Quam and Wendi Jo Wills. Bump was a former Major League Baseball second baseman who played for Texas and the Chicago Cubs.
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