Maury Wills, who worked hard to reach stardom with the Los Angeles Dodgers, then worked hard to regain his dignity through sobriety and stay in baseball, has died, the Dodgers announced Tuesday.
Wills died Monday night at his home in Sedona, Ariz. He was 89 years old.
Wills, a light hitter who spent nearly a decade in the minor leagues, honed his limited skills, learning pitchers’ tendencies and learning hitting, winning one hit with the Dodgers, then helping lead them to three World Series in four quarters. seeks to reintroduce base stealing into baseball as a primary offensive weapon.
When Dave Roberts was traded from the Cleveland Indians to the Dodgers in December 2001, Wills became a valuable instructor in the Dodgers’ later years, establishing strong contact and a young base stealer. Roberts stole 118 bases in 2½ seasons before being traded to Boston. The Red Sox executed perhaps the most famous stolen base in history during the 2004 American League Championship Series.
Roberts, who wore No. 30 to salute Wills as Dodgers manager, had a tear roll down his cheek while talking about his mentor before the first game of a doubleheader at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday.
“He just loved the game of baseball, he loved working and the relationships with the players,” Roberts said. “We spent a lot of time together. He showed me how to value my craft and what it was like to be a big leaguer. He just loved to teach. So I think a lot of my excitement, passion and love for the players is from Mauri.”
Roberts said he “probably” wouldn’t be managing the Dodgers if it weren’t for Wills and his influence on him.
“And in a weird way, I enriched his post-baseball career by watching every game I played or managed,” Roberts said. “I remember even during the games I was playing, he would come down the room and tell me that I need to do more, I need to do this or that. . . The coach would say, “Mauri is at the end of the dugout and wants to talk to you.” He just showed that he is with me and will be there to support me till this day.
Wills was also introduced to the destructive pleasures of alcohol and drug abuse—he estimated that he spent $1 million on cocaine in one year—and although he later rebuilt his life and contributed to the Dodgers as an instructor for many years, this descent into obscurity led to his baseball career. It may have been part of the reason he wasn’t elected to the Hall of Fame. He was rejected 15 times by the Baseball Writers Assn. America and 10 more times by the committee of veterans.
Wills told The Times in 2016: “I believe I will be hired.
Nevertheless, Wills played a key role for the Dodgers in the 1960s, leading the National League in steals six times, winning two Gold Gloves for his pitching, and beating out Willie Mays for the league’s Most Valuable Player award in ’62 when he stunned baseball. He set the world record with 104 stolen bases, surpassing the 47-year-old mark of 96 by the immortal Ty Cobb.
He hit .299 that season with 208 hits, including 29 singles. At the newly opened Dodger Stadium, those singles chanted “Go! Go! Go!” and Wills was happy to oblige, usually successfully.
He was caught stealing just 13 times and later said that number should really have been eight because Jim Gilliam hit him behind and was thrown out five times because he couldn’t connect on hit-and-run plays. His prowess in the majors that season resulted in a career-high 130 runs.
So formidable was Wills that the San Francisco Giants dry crew dug up the base course and added peat moss and wet soil to slow him down in a critical late summer game at Candlestick Park in 1962.
Wills laughed about the festivities years later in a 2021 interview with The Times’ Houston Mitchell. “I was flattered that they would go through all the trouble to stop me,” he said.
Wills stole 586 bases in his 14-year career and told the US State College Center Daily Times when he retired, “You’re a different person when you steal a base. … To be a good key thief, you have to be arrogant.”
And in an era when the Dodgers relied on pitching, provided mostly by Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, and the runs were at a premium, every base steal Wills took a little less strain. “Playing the Dodgers,” he once said, “is a mountain to run.”
He stole second, stole third, and stole home when the situation called for it. He disrupted pitchers, embarrassed catchers and fielders. Typically, he would single, steal second, then score on someone else’s single. Or, single, steal second, take a bad throw and get third, then score on a fly.
“Mauri made himself a superstar. He taught himself not to make mistakes,” former teammate Norm Sherry told The Times in 1980.
Wills may not have been as big a draw as Koufax or Drysdale, but he was right behind them.
Fame was tempting, though, and while he was running the bases, Wills couldn’t escape the temptation. In his autobiography with Mike Celizic, On the Run: The Never Boring and Often Shocking Life of Maury Wills, he claimed to have had affairs with Hollywood starlet Doris Day – in his autobiography Doris Day: Her Own His story” ,” he denied it – and Edie Adams. He had a volatile and corrosive six-year relationship with a woman named Judy Aldrich, whom he blamed for his heavy drinking.
He was involved with entertainers, even playing Las Vegas gigs himself, singing while accompanying himself on banjo, guitar or ukulele, but despite captaining the team, he wasn’t always a clubhouse favorite.
After Wills was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates, Dodgers general manager Buzzie Bavasi told Sports Illustrated, “A lot of our ballplayers have nothing to do with him.” “Maybe it was a little too intense for their taste, I don’t know.”
Still, Wills was a productive player on a winning team and might have spent his entire playing career with the Dodgers — he finished with them after stints in Pittsburgh and Montreal — but for a run after the 1966 season.
Fresh off being swept in the World Series by the Baltimore Orioles, the Dodgers took a barnstorming trip to Japan. Worried about a midseason knee injury, Wills said his knee hurt and asked to leave the tour, return to Los Angeles and receive treatment. He didn’t allow it, he went anyway.
Instead of flying straight to Los Angeles and getting treatment, he stopped in Honolulu for a week, where he joined singer Don Ho in his act, playing banjo, singing and joking. Bavasi, who was vacationing in Hawaii with his wife, caught the event one evening and Wills was traded to Pittsburgh shortly thereafter.
Wills tied his career high with a .302 batting average in his first year with the Pirates in 1967 and continued to be a prolific hitter into his 30s. In 1971, at age 38, he hit .281 with 169 hits in 149 games for the Dodgers. He was released after the 1972 season with 2,134 career hits and 586 stolen bases.
During his playing days, Wills spent several winters as the manager of a Mexican League team, hoping to continue his career as a major league manager. He turned down the San Francisco Giants, who had offered him a one-year contract in 1977, and was working on a broadcasting career, serving as a part-time head coach when he finally got his chance to manage.
The Seattle Mariners, an expansion team in their fourth offseason, fired Darrell Johnson in early August 1980 and hired Wills. to save them. On his first night at the helm, the Mariners fell to last place in the American League West, losing 8-3 to the Angels. That was as good as it got for Wills with the Mariners. They finished last, then finished the 1981 season 6-18, their worst, and Wills was gone in early May.
This, combined with his deteriorating relationship with Aldrich, set him up for failure. He drank alcohol and cocaine, locked himself in his house alone, stayed high for days on end, covered the windows with blankets, had hallucinations, suffered severe paranoia, and contemplated suicide.
The Dodgers helped get him into a drug treatment program, but Wills left and continued to use drugs until he began a relationship with Angela George, who helped him enter a rehab clinic. Wills, again with the help of the Dodgers, finally sobered up in 1989, and she and George later married.
“Some people grow old but never grow up,” Wills said of his dark days. “That’s what happened to Maury Wills. I was 15 years old in these three years.”
Maurice Morning Wills, one of 13 children, was born on October 2, 1932, in Washington, DC. He decided to become a baseball player after attending a baseball clinic conducted by Gerry Priddy, a major league player who played for the Washington Senators.
“I didn’t have a pair of shoes,” Wills told the Great Falls (Mont.) Tribune in 2001. “I didn’t know we had major league baseball in Washington until that guy came to our projects. But he made me stand out. He told me that I have some talent. And that’s when, at 10 years old, I knew I wanted to be a major league player.”
At age 17, he signed a minor league contract with the Dodgers and made his debut with them a decade later.
After regaining sobriety, he most recently resumed coaching duties with the Dodgers and devoted considerable time to drug and alcohol education. Wills first appeared as a candidate on the National Baseball Hall of Fame Golden Era Committee ballot in 2015. Twelve votes were required for election, and Wills received nine.
At the Dodgers’ spring training facility in Vero Beach, Fla., Wills taught advanced base running and bunting techniques from an area called “Maury’s Pit.” He also served as a color commentator for the Fargo-Moorhead (ND) RedHawks in the independent American Assn. 22 years, retiring in 2017.
He credited the low-key atmosphere in North Dakota with helping him maintain his sobriety.
“I feel free,” Wills told Kurt Streeter of The Times in 2008. “It is completely free. No bad feelings, no resentment. … Peace.”
He is survived by his wife Carla and six children – Barry Wills, Micki Wills, Bump Wills, Anita Wills, Susan Guam and Wendi Jo Wills.
Kupper is a former Times contributor.
Assistant sports editor Steve Henson contributed to this report.