Maury Wills, who terrorized pitchers with his base-stealing prowess while playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers in three World Series championships, has died. He was 89.
Wills died Monday night at home in Sedona, Arizona, the team said Tuesday after being notified by family members. The cause of death is not known.
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.
Over his 14-year career, Wills batted .281 with 2,134 hits and 586 stolen bases in 1,942 games.
On September 23, 1962, Wills tied Ty Cobb’s single-season stolen base record with his 97th hit. He became the first player to steal more than 100 bases that season.
The Dodgers will wear a Will memorial patch for the remainder of the season.
“Maury Wills was one of the most exciting Dodgers of all time,” said team president and CEO Stan Kasten. “He changed baseball with his base running and made the stolen base an important part of the game. He was instrumental in the success of the Dodgers, winning three World Series.”
From 1980 to 1981, Wills managed the Seattle Mariners, going 26-56 with a .317 winning percentage.
He was the National League MVP in 1962, the same year he was the MVP of the All-Star Game, held in his hometown of Washington, DC.
Wills stayed home with his family instead of staying at the team hotel for the All-Star Game. He arrived at the ballpark with a Dodgers bag and a Dodgers shirt. However, the guard wouldn’t let him in, saying he was too young to play ball.
Wills had the security guard walk him to the door of the NL clubhouse, where he would wait for the security guard to ask the players to confirm his identity.
“So we go there, and baseball players have a bad sense of humor, because when I was standing in front of the door with my Dodger shirt and a duffel bag, and a man opened the door and said, ‘Does anyone here know this boy?’ and they all looked at me and said, ‘Never seen him before,'” Wills told The Washington Post in 2015.
After the game, Wills walked away with his MVP trophy and showed it to a security guard.
“He still didn’t believe me, he thought maybe I was carrying it for someone,” Wills told the Post.
Wills led the Netherlands in stolen bases from 1960-65, was a seven-time All-Star and won a Gold Glove in 1961 and 1962.
He was credited with recovering the stolen base as a strategy. His speed made him a constant threat on the basepaths, and he would distract pitchers even when he wasn’t trying to steal. He studied pitchers and their picks carefully when he wasn’t on base. When the pitcher’s throw brought him back to the bag, he became even more determined to steal.
One time in a game against the New York Mets, Wills was on first base when pitcher Roger Craig threw 12 straight sacks. Craig Wills took second on the next throw.
Until he was 32, Wills had his legs bandaged before games because of a sliding penalty.
After retiring from the Dodgers in 1972, Wills spent five years as an analyst for NBC. He also managed winter ball in the Mexican Pacific League, winning the league championship in 1970-71.
Wills’ tenure in charge of the Mariners was largely seen as a disaster and he was criticized for his lack of management experience. It was evident in the many errors he made, including calling a pitcher when no one was warming up in the bullpen and delaying the game for several minutes in search of 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 farther toward the mound than the rules allowed. Oakland manager Billy Martin noticed this and asked umpire Bill Kunkel to investigate.
Kunkel questioned the head warden, who admitted that Wills had ordered the change. Wills said it was to help his players stay in the box. Still, Martin suspected it was to give the Mariners an advantage against Oakland’s breaking-ball pitchers. Wills was suspended for two American League games 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, with the team in last place at 6-18. Years later, Wills admitted that 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 he got sober in 1989. He credited Dodgers great Don Newcomb with helping him overcome his drinking problems. Newcomb died in 2019.
“I’m standing here with the man who saved my life,” Wills said of Newcomb. “He was a channel of God’s love for me because he was chasing me all over Los Angeles trying to help me and I just couldn’t understand it. But he persevered, he didn’t give in, and my life today is wonderful because of Don Newcomb.”
Born Maurice Morning Wills in Washington, D.C. on October 2, 1932, he was a three-sport standout at Cardoza High School. 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 an undefeated high school football team that never gave up a single point. On the mound, Wills threw one hit and struck out 17 in the 1950 game. 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 in 1996-97.
He is survived by his wife Carla and children Barry, Mickey, Bump, Anita, Susan Quam and Wendy Jo Wills. Bump was a former major league second baseman who played for Texas and the Chicago Cubs.