It’s safe to say that Maury Wills influenced an entire generation of Southern California baseball fans.
Wills died Monday night at the age of 89, and he, Sandy Koufax, and Don Drysdale will be remembered as the beating hearts of Dodgers teams that won two World Series and three National League pennants between 1963 and 1966, and could have (and probably should have) won a fourth in 1962.
At the time, 1-0 and 2-1 scores were common, and a Dodger “rally” might have included a walk, a stolen base, a sacrifice bunt, and a scoring fly ball. Back then, Koufax or Drysdale might have been told, “Here’s your run. Now guard it.”
For example, when Koufax pitched a no-hitter in Philadelphia in 1964, Drysdale, who had been sent ahead to New York to prepare for his next start, heard the radio wrapup about his teammate’s historic third no-hitter and was quoted as saying, “I don’t care about history.” “Who triumphed?”
And it was a time when Wills, who had spent eight seasons in the minors and was hitting.
One month after being called up from Triple-A, he became the National League’s Most Valuable Player three years later, hitting six home runs and driving in 48 runs.
That’s because he stole 104 bases in 117 attempts while playing every game, all 165 of them, and nursing sore legs and hamstrings aggravated by each slide on the rock-hard Dodger Stadium infield. He scored 130 runs this season, accounting for 15.8% of the Dodgers’ total.
The team actually had a productive offensive season that year. Frank Howard hit 31 home runs, 13 in the new Chavez Ravine ballpark and 18 on the road, and drove in 119 runs, while Tommy Davis drove in 153, a club record. (We won’t go into detail about the three-game playoff with the Giants at the end of that season.)
Wills stole 376 bases in six seasons, from 1960 to 1965. During that time, his team led the major leagues in steals every year, and its totals more than doubled the per-team averages in both leagues from 1962 to 1966.
Wills stole 94 bases and scored 92 runs in 1965 for a team that finished eighth in the NL and 15th in baseball in runs per game (3.75) while winning its second World Series in three years.
It must have made no sense to the majority of the rest of the country. But if you grew up hearing Vin Scully’s voice, it made perfect sense. We loved little ball before it was even called little ball.
Home runs were what those jerks in San Francisco, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati would hit with a bludgeon instead of a scalpel. In 1965, the Koufax/Drysdale/Wills Dodgers hit 78 home runs, ranking dead last in the league, with Drysdale hitting seven of them. Nonetheless, they were champions.
It’s no surprise, then, that many of us who grew up in that era of (offensive) limits now intersperse our “Get off my lawn” rants with “Why don’t they (modern players) learn how to bunt?”
Should Wills, despite his modest offensive resume, have been in the Hall of Fame for a long time? I think so. When I became a Hall of Fame voter in 1989, ten years into my BBWAA membership, I voted for Wills every year until he was removed from the ballot in 1992.
My reasoning, then and now: Those who change the game deserve to be immortalized. Few changed it as dramatically as Wills, who turned what we now consider an undervalued asset – base stealing – into a weapon, paving the way for people like Lou Brock, Rickey Henderson, and Tim Raines in the years to come.
In any case, I believe it is a compelling argument. Wills was passed over again by the Golden Era committee last winter, receiving only three votes from the panel of 16, nine fewer than required for induction.
But consider this: If a player is so influential that the opposing team will dig up its infield to prevent him from gaining traction, you might be able to make a Hall of Fame case for him.
Wills’ reminiscences over the last few days have included the series in San Francisco in August 1962, when the Giants overwatered the path between first and second bases to slow him down. But that was only the beginning of the story.
Giants grounds crew chief Matty Schwab and his son Jerry went above and beyond at the request of Manager Alvin Dark. They excavated topsoil, replaced it with a mixture of sand, peat moss, and water, and then covered it with topsoil.
Leo Durocher, who was well-versed in the dark arts as the Giants’ manager and was now the Dodgers’ third base coach, discovered the swamp and informed umpire Tom Gorman. Gorman summoned Matty Schwab and told him to fix it, which involved hauling off the offending soil, mixing some dirt in it, and bringing it back in a wheelbarrow as filler. The final product was even looser than before.
Wills didn’t steal a base in the series, but the Giants swept to pull within 212 games, and the seeds of a comeback were planted.
(It’s on pages 77 and 78 of my book, “Dodgers! An Informal History from Flatbush to Chavez Ravine.”)
Wills had a lifetime OPS+ of 88, which was 12 points lower than the league average. He hit 20 home runs in his 14-year career. Despite this, he was a seven-time All-Star, a two-time Gold Glove winner at shortstop, and, most importantly, a three-time World Series champion (1959, ’63, and ’65).
He created a legacy that base stealers after him expanded. And it would certainly be fitting if next year’s rule changes indeed allow the stolen base to regain prominence.
After all, some of us never de-emphasized it.