LOS ANGELES — 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 years old.
Wills died Monday evening at his home in Sedona, Arizona, the team announced Tuesday after being notified by family members. No cause of death was given.
Wills played on the World Series championship teams in 1959, 1963 and 1965 during his first eight seasons with the Dodgers. He also played for Pittsburgh and Montreal before returning to the Dodgers from 1969 to 1972 when he retired.
During his 14-year career, Wills hit .281 with 2,134 hits and 586 stolen bases in 1,942 games.
Wills broke Ty Cobb’s single-season record for stolen bases with his 97th hit on September 23, 1962. That season he became the first player to steal more than 100 bases.
The Dodgers will wear a Wills memorial patch for the remainder of this 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 run and made stolen base an important part of the game. He was a big part of the Dodgers’ success with three world championships.”
Manager Dave Roberts, an outfielder during his 10-year MLB career, was moved to tears as he recalled Wills’ impact on him.
“He was a friend, a father, a mentor – all of the above to me, so it’s hard for me,” he said. “He just showed me to enjoy my craft, showed me how to be a great leaguer. He just loved teaching. I think a lot of where I get my enthusiasm, my passion, my love for players comes from Maury .”
Wills played an active role in Roberts’ playing tenure with the Dodgers. Roberts stole 42 bases in 2003.
“I remember during the games I was playing here, he would come down from the suite and tell me I had to bunt or I had to do this,” Roberts said. “It just showed that he was in it with me. Even to this day, he would be there to cheer me on, cheer me on. ”
Wills had his own stint as manager, guiding the Seattle Mariners from 1980 to 1981, going 26-56 with a .317 winning percentage.
He was the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1962, the same year he was MVP of the All-Star Game contested in his hometown of Washington.
Wills stayed home with his family rather than the team hotel for the All-Star Game. He arrived at the stadium with a Dodgers bag and wearing a Dodgers shirt. However, the security guard wouldn’t let him in, saying he was too small to play ball.
Wills suggested the guard escort him to the door of the NL club, where he would wait while the guard asked the players to confirm his identity.
“So we walk in there and the baseball players have a sick sense of humor, because when I stood in the doorway, with my Dodger shirt and my duffel bag, and the man opened the door and said, ‘Does anyone here know this boy?’ and they all looked at me and said, ‘I’ve never seen this before,’ Wills told The Washington Post in 2015.
After the game, Wills left with his MVP trophy and showed it to the goaltender.
“He still didn’t believe me, he thought maybe I was wearing it for someone,” Wills told the Post.
Wills led the NL in stolen bases from 1960 to 1965, was a seven-time All-Star selection and won Gold Glove Awards in 1961 and 1962.
He was credited with reviving the stolen base as a strategy. His speed made him a constant threat on bases and he distracted pitchers even if he wasn’t trying to steal. He carefully studied the pitchers and their pick moves when he was off base. When a throw from a pitcher brought 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 into the sack. On Craig’s next pitch, Wills stole second.
At 32, Wills was binding his legs before games because of the slipping punishment.
After retiring with the Dodgers in 1972, Wills worked as an analyst at NBC for five years. He also led winter ball in the Mexican Pacific League, winning a league championship in 1970–71.
Wills’ tenure in charge of the Mariners was widely seen as a disaster, and he was criticized for his lack of managerial experience. This was evident in the many blunders he made, including calling for a relief pitcher when no one was warming up in the bullpen and delaying 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 one foot further toward the mound than regulations allowed. Oakland manager Billy Martin noticed this and asked plate umpire Bill Kunkel to investigate.
Kunkel questioned the head gardener, who admitted Wills 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 breaker pitchers. Wills was suspended for two games by the American League and fined $500.
Wills led the Mariners to a 20-38 record to finish the 1980 season, and he was fired on May 6, 1981, when the team bogged down in last place at 6-18. Years later, Wills admitted he probably should have gained more experience as a minor league manager before being hired in the major leagues.
Wills struggled with alcohol and cocaine addiction until he got sober in 1989. He credited Dodgers great Don Newcombe, who overcame his own drinking problems, for getting him assistance. 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 sake to me because he chased me all over LA trying to help me and I just couldn’t figure it out. But he persevered, he didn’t not give in and my life is wonderful today thanks to Don Newcombe.”
Born Maurice Morning Wills in Washington, DC on October 2, 1932, he excelled in three sports at Cardozo Senior High. He earned All-City honors as a quarterback in football, basketball, and as a pitcher in baseball when nicknamed Sonny.
In 1948, he played on the undefeated school football team, which never gave up a point. On the mound, Wills threw a hit and struck out 17 in a game in 1950. The school baseball field is named in his honor.
Wills has his own museum in Fargo, North Dakota, where he coached and instructed the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks from 1996 to 1997.
He is survived by his wife, Carla, and his children Barry, Micki, Bump, Anita, Susan Quam and Wendi Jo Wills. Bump was a former major league second baseman who played for Texas and the Chicago Cubs.