Today’s Random Player From the Baseball Project That May or May Not Amount to Anything is Maury Wills. Wills was signed as an 18-year old by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951. Waiting behind future Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese, it took eight and a half seasons before he saw big league action. In fact, back when they had a minor league draft, Wills was actually plucked from the Dodgers’ highly successful system by the Cincinnati Reds, only to get sent back to the Dodgers after one season. In any event, Will finally reached the big leagues in June of 1959.
He was never really much of a hitter (.281 lifetime average will deceive older people; it was an empty average), managing a .330 OBP and a .331 Slg. throughout his career. But hitting wasn’t his game; speed was. After going just seven out of ten in steals his rookie year, he took off and stole 50 in 62 attempts in 1960, leading the league. The next year he led the league in both steals and most caught stealings with 35 and 15. The next year he was amazing on the base paths.
In the fourth game of the 1962 season he stole his first base and was also caught for the first time. By the end of April he was eight for nine. Then in May he was 19 for 21, putting him at a 90% success rate. At the end of June he had 42 out of 47 attempts. After a modest July he had 51 stolen bases. Then he had stunning August, going 22 for 24 on the paths, giving him 73 out of 82 for the year. At the time, the modern record for stolen bases was 96 by Ty Cobb back in 1915. Wills started September with three steals in the first two game. Then after three games without one he stole 14 over the next six putting him at 90. A game after that he had one in each of the next two. On September 23 the Dodgers were in St. Louis and Wills was only one behind Cobb to tie. In the third inning with the Dodgers trailing 3-2 Will led off with a single. On a 1-1 count he stole second to tie Cobb. The Dodgers didn’t score, nor did they score the rest of the game. However, in the top of the seventh with the Dodgers down 11-2 Wills had a two out single. On the very next pitch Wills again stole second, giving him the modern record.
The real problem though was that with Drysdale getting rocked the Dodgers had lost five of seven and holding on to a three game lead with six to play all six left in Los Angeles. The expansion Colt .45’s took two out of three from the Dodgers. Wills stole three bases, putting him at an even 100. Then the Cardinals came in for the final weekend and swept the Dodgers, forcing a tie with the Giants for the National League pennant.
Just like it was 11 years before, the playoff was a best-of-three with all stats counting towards the regular season (fun fact, the Mets had such an awful first season that finishing 60 games behind wasn’t enough; the playoff bumped back a half game further), but this time the Giants hosted game one. When the Dodgers showed up to Candlestick Park on October 1 they were enraged to see that the Giants’ grounds crew soaked down the field. And I mean SOAKED. With the idea that keeping Wills off the base paths would be a key, they turned the infield into mud. Wills was 0-4 and the Dodgers were blanked 8-0. Game two Wills had a stolen base but was thrown out by the centerfielder trying to go to third. In the bottom of the ninth Wills led off with a walk and scored the winning run on a sac fly to force a third game. In the deciding game Wills was 4-5 with three stolen bases, giving him 104 for the year. That number would eventually get him the 1962 NL MVP. The Dodgers looked like NL Champs, too, entering the top of the ninth with a 4-2 lead. But, after a leadoff single, a groundout, and two walks, Willie Mays singled in a run, Orlando Cepeda hit a sac fly to tie it. Then after a wild pitch moved Mays to second, an intentional walk followed by an unintentional walk, and then an error and the Dodgers were foiled by their rivals in the ninth again, just like in 1951.
Wills would win the next three stolen base titles as well, giving him six overall. But he also led the league in most caught stealings seven times. Overall he ranks 20th all-time on the stolen base list with 586. Wills took a shot at managing in the big leagues, and whiffed horrifically. It wasn’t just the 26-56-1 record, either. As Rob Neyer described it, his mistakes – not just variety, but how often they happened – were “unparalleled”.
He wasn’t a good human being. As Bill James described him, he didn’t have the brains God gave the common cockroach. He claims to have had an affair with Doris Day (apparently not true). And then there’s the drug and alcohol abuse. But on the field? He was very good player who used his speed to the best of his abilities. That should be remembered as well as the asinine behavior, too.