Maury Wills, the star Los Angeles Dodger shortstop who revived the art of base-stealing in the 1960s and became one of the most exciting ballplayers of his time, died on Monday night at his home in Sedona, Ariz. He was 89.
His death was announced by the Dodgers.
The chants of “Go, go, go!” resounded from Dodger fans when the slender Wills took a lead off first base. He was soon off and running — stealing second base, and sometimes third moments later, spurring the usually light-hitting Dodgers to scratch out enough runs to come up winners.
Wills had spent more than eight seasons in the minors when he joined the Dodgers in early June 1959. But he took over at shortstop and helped bring the team four pennants and three World Series championships.
Wills set a modern major league record when he stole 104 bases in 1962, eclipsing the record of 96 set by Ty Cobb in 1915 and transforming baseball from the power game that had prevailed since Babe Ruth’s heyday. He set the stage for Lou Brock of the St. Louis Cardinals, who stole 118 bases in 1974, and Rickey Henderson of the Oakland A’s, who set the current record with 130 steals in 1982.
The Seattle Mariners hired Wills in August 1980 as the third Black manager in major league baseball history, following Frank Robinson of the Cleveland Indians and Larry Doby of the Chicago White Sox. But Wills’s managerial tenure was brief and unsuccessful. He was later plagued by cocaine addiction.
In his base-stealing prime, Wills was adept at getting a quick jump off the bag, and he was a master of sliding under or around a tag. He took long leads and studied pitchers’ habits intently.
Most of all, it was a mental duel for Wills.
“Stealing is a matter of confidence, even conceit,” he told The New York Times in September 1962. “It’s more than getting a good jump, a big lead. It’s being in the right frame of mind. I run with the thought that the pitcher will make a perfect throw and the catcher will make a perfect throw and I’ll still beat them. I don’t have a doubt.”
A hardly imposing 5 feet 10 inches and 165 pounds, Wills, known as Mouse to his teammates, was a popular figure among Dodger fans in Los Angeles during the team’s first decade there after leaving Brooklyn.
Early in September 1962, while covering the race for California governor between the incumbent, Edmund G. Brown, and Richard M. Nixon, the Washington columnist James Reston of The Times wrote, “If, after the season, Maury Wills were to run for governor, neither Brown nor Nixon would have a chance.”
Maurice Morning Wills was born on Oct. 2, 1932, in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C., one of 13 children of Guy and Mable Wills. His father was a minister who also worked as a machinist at the Washington Navy Yard. His mother worked as an elevator operator.
At Cardozo High School in Washington, Wills played football — quarterback on offense, safety on defense and kicker on special teams — and starred in baseball as a pitcher, winning all-city honors in both sports. He was converted to an infielder after joining the Dodgers’ organization in 1951.
In his rookie season with the Dodgers, the team won the World Series, defeating the Chicago White Sox, who had their own outstanding base-stealer in Luis Aparicio. Wills stole 50 bases in 1960, his first full season, and went on to win the National League’s base-stealing title every year through 1965.
He was named the league’s most valuable player in 1962. He played on Dodger World Series championship teams again in 1963 and 1965 and a pennant-winner in 1966, teams powered by the pitching of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.
Wills was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates after the 1966 season. He later played for the Montreal Expos and then was traded back to the Dodgers in June 1969, finishing his career with them in 1972.
He stole 586 bases (putting him 20th on the all-time major league career list) and had a career batting average of .281, with 2,134 hits — only 20 of them home runs. He was a five-time All-Star and winner of the Gold Glove award for fielding in 1961 and 1962. He remained on the Hall of Fame ballot for 15 seasons but was never inducted.
Wills was a baseball analyst for NBC-TV’s “Game of the Week” during the 1970s.
Taking over a weak team when he was named the Mariners’ manager, he was probably most remembered in Seattle for being suspended for two games after he was caught illegally ordering the team’s groundskeeper to extend the batter’s box by a foot toward the pitcher’s rubber before a game with the Oakland A’s on April 25, 1981. Billy Martin, the A’s manager, believed Wills was trying to give Mariner batters a better chance to connect against his starting pitcher, Rick Langford, before his deliveries broke.
Wills was fired on May 6. He had only a 26-56 record as the Mariners’ manager.
He acknowledged in his memoir, “On the Run: The Never Dull and Often Shocking Life of Maury Wills” (1992), written with Mike Celizic, that he struggled with cocaine addiction, but he became sober in the late 1980s. He was later a baserunning instructor for the Dodger organization and for other teams.
Wills had six children, all from his first marriage, to Gertrude (Elliott) Wills, whom he married in high school, according to his memoir. That marriage ended in divorce, as did his second marriage, to Angela George.
He is survived by his third wife, Carla; two sons, Barry and Bump; four daughters, Mauricia Wills, Anita Wills, Wendi Wills and Susan Wills-Quam; seven grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren. A number of his siblings also survive him.
Wills’s son Bump was an infielder for the Texas Rangers and Chicago Cubs in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
Though his Dodgers were usually winners, Wills didn’t need to look at the scoreboard to tell when he had fallen short. “I know when I have had a lousy day just by looking down at my uniform,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1965. “If it isn’t dirty, I haven’t scored two runs, I haven’t done my job.”
Alex Traub contributed reporting.