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Maury Wills, who intimidated pitchers with his base-stealing prowess as a shortstop for the Los Angeles Dodgers on three World Series championship teams, has died. He was 89.
Wills died Monday night at home in Sedona, Arizona, the team said Tuesday after being informed by family members. No cause of death was 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 Dodgers from 1969-72, when he retired.
During his 14-year career, Wills batted .281 with 2,134 hits and 586 stolen bases in 1,942 games.
He broke Ty Cobb’s single-season record for stolen bases with his 97th swipe on Sept. 23, 1962. That season he became the first player to steal more than 100 bases and was named National League MVP.
At 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds, Wills led the NL in stolen bases from 1960-65, was a seven-time All-Star selection and won Gold Glove Awards in 1961 and ’62.
The Dodgers will wear a patch in memory of Wills for the rest of this season.
“Maury Wills was one of the most exciting Dodgers of all time,” team president and CEO Stan Kasten said. “He changed baseball with his base-running and made the stolen base an important part of the game.”
He was credited with reviving the stolen base as a strategy. His speed made him a constant threat on the basepaths, and he distracted pitchers even if he didn’t try to steal. He carefully studied pitchers and their pickoff moves when he wasn’t on base. When a pitcher’s throw drove 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 the bag. On Craig’s next throw, Wills stole second.
Also in 1962, Wills was named MVP of the All-Star Game played in his hometown of Washington, D.C.
He stayed at home with his family instead of at the team hotel for the All-Star Game. He arrived at the ballpark carrying a Dodgers bag and wearing a Dodgers shirt. However, the security guard wouldn’t let him in, saying he was too small to be a ballplayer.
Wills suggested the guard escort him to the NL clubhouse door, 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 stood in front of the door, with my Dodger shirt and duffel bag, and the man opened the door and said, ‘Anybody in here know this boy?’ and they all looked at me and said, ‘Never saw him 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 I was carrying it for somebody,” Wills told the Post.
By age 32, Wills was bandaging his legs before games because of the punishment of sliding.
After retiring with the Dodgers in 1972, Wills worked an analyst at NBC for five years. He also managed winter ball in the Mexican Pacific League, winning a league championship in 1970-71.
Wills had an ill-fated stint managing the Seattle Mariners from 1980-81, going 26-56 with a winning percentage of .317.
His tenure there was largely regarded as a disaster and he was criticized for his lack of managerial experience. It was evident in the numerous gaffes he committed, including calling for a relief pitcher when nobody 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 regulation allowed. Oakland manager Billy Martin noticed and asked home plate umpire Bill Kunkel to investigate.
Kunkel questioned the head groundskeeper, who admitted 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 end the 1980 season, and he was fired on May 6, 1981, when the team was mired in last place at 6-18. Years later, Wills admitted he probably should have gotten more experience as a minor league manager before being hired in the big leagues.
Wills struggled with addictions to alcohol and cocaine until getting sober in 1989. He credited Dodgers pitching great Don Newcombe, who overcame his own alcohol problems, with helping him. Newcombe died in 2019.
“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 trying to help me and I just couldn’t understand that. But he persevered, he wouldn’t give in and my life is wonderful today because of Don Newcombe.”
Born Maurice Morning Wills in Washington on Oct. 2, 1932, he was a three-sport standout 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 any points. On the mound, Wills threw a one-hitter and struck out 17 in a game in 1950. The school’s baseball field is named 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 1996-97.
He is survived by his wife, Carla, and children Barry, Micki, Bump, Anita, Susan Quam and Wendi Jo Wills. Bump was a Major League second baseman who played for Texas and the Chicago Cubs.
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