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Maury Willis, Master of the Stolen Base, Is Dead at 89


Maury Wills, the star Los Angeles Dodger shortstop who revived the art of base-stealing within the Sixties and have become one of the vital exciting ballplayers of his time, died on Monday night at his home in Sedona, Ariz. He was 89.

His death was announced by the Dodgers.

The chants of “Go, go, go!” resounded from Dodger fans when the slender Wills took a lead off first base. He was soon off and running — stealing second base, and sometimes third moments later, spurring the normally light-hitting Dodgers to scratch out enough runs to come back up winners.

Wills had spent greater than eight seasons within the minors when he joined the Dodgers in early June 1959. But he took over at shortstop and helped bring the team 4 pennants and three World Series championships.

Wills set a contemporary major league record when he stole 104 bases in 1962, eclipsing Ty Cobb’s record of 96 set in 1915 and reworking baseball from the ability game that had prevailed since Babe Ruth’s heyday. He set the stage for Lou Brock of the St. Louis Cardinals, who stole 118 bases in 1974, and Rickey Henderson of the Oakland A’s, who set the present record with 130 steals in 1982.

The Seattle Mariners hired Wills in August 1980 because the third Black manager in major league baseball history, following Frank Robinson of the Cleveland Indians and Larry Doby of the Chicago White Sox. But Wills’s managerial tenure was temporary and unsuccessful tenure. He was later suffering from cocaine addiction.

In his base-stealing prime, Wills was adept at getting a fast jump off the bag, and he was a master of sliding under or around a tag. He took long leads and studied pitchers’ habits intently.

Most of all, it was a mental duel for Wills.

“Stealing is a matter of confidence, even conceit,” he told The Recent York Times in September 1962. “It’s greater than getting a very good jump, an enormous lead. It’s being in the proper way of thinking. I run with the thought that the pitcher will make an ideal throw and the catcher will make an ideal throw and I’ll still beat them. I don’t have a doubt.”

A hardly imposing 5 feet 10 inches and 165 kilos, Wills, referred to as Mouse to his teammates, was a preferred figure amongst Dodger fans in Los Angeles throughout the team’s first decade there after leaving Brooklyn.

Early in September 1962, while covering the race for California governor between the incumbent, Edmund G. Brown, and Richard M. Nixon, the Washington columnist James Reston of The Times wrote, “If, after the season, Maury Wills were to run for governor, neither Brown nor Nixon would have a probability.”

Maurice Morning Wills was born on Oct. 2, 1932, within the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C., considered one of 13 children of Guy and Mable Wills. His father was a minister who also worked as a machinist on the Washington Navy Yard. His mother worked as an elevator operator.

At Cardozo High School in Washington, Wills played football — quarterback on offense, safety on defense and kicker on special teams — and starred in baseball as a pitcher, winning all-city honors in each sports. He was converted to an infielder after joining the Dodgers’ organization in 1951.

In his rookie season with the Dodgers, the team won the World Series, defeating the Chicago White Sox, who had their very own outstanding base-stealer in Luis Aparicio. Wills stole 50 bases in 1960, his first full season, and went on to win the National League’s base-stealing title every 12 months through 1965.

He was named the league’s most useful player in 1962. He played on Dodger World Series championship teams again in 1963 and 1965 and a pennant-winner in 1966, teams powered by the pitching of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.

Wills was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates after the 1966 season. He later played for the Montreal Expos after which was traded back to the Dodgers in June 1969, ending his profession with them in 1972.

He stole 586 bases (putting him twentieth on the all-time major league profession list) and had a profession batting average of .281, with 2,134 hits — only 20 of them home runs. He was a five-time All-Star and winner of the Gold Glove award for fielding in 1961 and 1962. He remained on the Hall of Fame ballot for 15 seasons but was never inducted.

Wills was a baseball analyst for NBC-TV’s “Game of the Week” throughout the Seventies.

Taking up a weak team when he was named the Mariners’ manager, he was probably most remembered in Seattle for being suspended for 2 games after he was caught illegally ordering the team’s groundskeeper to increase the batter’s box by a foot toward the pitcher’s rubber before a game with the Oakland A’s on April 25, 1981. Billy Martin, the A’s manager, believed Wills was trying to present Mariner batters a greater probability to attach against his starting pitcher, Rick Langford, before his deliveries broke.

Wills was fired on May 6. He had only a 26-56 record because the Mariners’ manager.

He acknowledged in his memoir, “On the Run: The Never Dull and Often Shocking Lifetime of Maury Wills” (1992), that he struggled with cocaine addiction, but he became sober within the late Eighties. He was later a baserunning instructor for the Dodger organization and for other teams.

Wills had six children along with his first wife, Gertrude (Elliot) Wills, whom he married in highschool, in keeping with his memoir. He later divorced and married Angela George.

His survivors include his wife, Carla, and his children, Barry, Micki, Bump, Anita and Wendi Jo Wills and Susan Quam. His son Bump was an infielder for the Texas Rangers and Chicago Cubs within the late Seventies and early ’80s.

Though his Dodgers were normally winners, Wills didn’t need to have a look at the scoreboard to inform when he had fallen short. “I do know when I actually have had a lousy day just by looking down at my uniform,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1965. “If it isn’t dirty, I haven’t scored two runs, I haven’t done my job.”

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