- The Washington Times - Monday, September 23, 2002

The way it was

The whippet from Washington was off with the pitch from right-hander Larry Jackson. Catcher Carl Sawatski's hurried throw got past shortstop Dal Maxvill as the runner slid safely into second.
It was Maury Wills' 97th steal of the season, and with it he shattered a major league record by the immortal Ty Cobb that had stood for 47 years. Yet there was no great furor compared with that a year earlier when Roger Maris surpassed Babe Ruth's 1927 total of 60 home runs.
On Sept. 23, 1962, at old Busch Stadium in St. Louis, however, Wills was showing anybody who cared how to surmount adversity. A former star athlete at Cardozo High School, he had labored in the minor leagues for eight years before the Los Angeles Dodgers summoned him in 1959 to share shortstop with, of all people, Don Zimmer.
Wills, then 26, won the job and contributed mightily as the Dodgers rose from seventh place to first and won the World Series. A switch hitter, he batted close to .300 during his first several seasons. And how he could run. He stole 50 bases in 1960 and 35 in '61, leading the National League both years. But 1962 was something else again.
As everybody in baseball except Wills himself watched and wondered, he finished with 104 stolen bases in 117 attempts an incredible success rate of 89 percent that dwarfed Cobb's 71 percent (96 for 135) in 1915. Wills' total has been surpassed three times, by Lou Brock with 118 in 1974 and Rickey Henderson with 130 in 1982 and 108 in 1983. But it was Wills who put the running game back in baseball after several decades in which meager totals as low as 15 (Dom DiMaggio in 1950) were enough to lead a league.
As Wills, a baserunning coach for the Dodgers, approaches 70 he remains as confident and brash as ever. "Heck, I wish I'd known Rickey was gonna steal 130," he said last week. "I could have had 130 easy."
He'll have to settle for that 104, though. Wills was running from the start in '62 with eight steals in April and 19 in May. Then he really turned it on with 22 in August and 27 in September. But he denies deliberately setting his sights on Cobb, a Georgian whose dislike of blacks has been well documented.
"We were in a tight race with the Giants (the Dodgers ultimately lost a three-game pennant playoff), and I was just trying to win games," Wills recalled. "Today there's much more emphasis on records, and I guess that brings fans out. I didn't even know what the record was until we reached St. Louis and somebody mentioned Cobb. 'How many did he have?' I asked. Then, 'How many do I have?'" The answers at that moment were 96 and 94.
Even Walter Alston, the Dodgers' taciturn manager, was caught up in the little drama. Said Wills: "He told me, 'Go get the record' the only time he ever mentioned it to me."
The Cardinals were scheduled to pitch Curt Simmons, a veteran left-hander against whom Wills had trouble running. It didn't get much easier when Simmons was hurt and replaced in the rotation by Jackson, a pitcher Maury termed "the toughest in the league to run against." But the first time he reached base, on a single in the third inning, Wills swiped second and third to tie the record. Then in the seventh, he finished the job.
His next steal was the season's easiest. When he came to bat in the ninth inning, field announcer Charlie Jones presented him with second base, saying, "You won't have to steal this one we're giving it to you."
After his magnificent season (208 hits, .299 batting average to go with the stolen bases and all for a salary of $30,000), Wills was confident of "stealing" a fat raise from the tight-fisted Dodgers ("I figured maybe I could buy my wife a car.") But this was long before the days of player agents and free agency.
"I went into [vice president] Buzzie Bavasi's office looking to cash in, and I came out 15 minutes later happy that I was still on the team," Wills said of Bavasi's unfriendly negotiating approach. "They finally gave me a $20,000 raise and told me not to tell anybody."
One factor in Wills' big season, he says, was that the club moved in 1962 from the L.A. Coliseum with its 250-foot left field fence to spacious Dodger Stadium, where the operative strategy was for Wills to get on base and steal, let Tommy Davis, Willie Davis or Frank Howard drive him in and rely on Sandy Koufax or Don Drysdale to shut out the opposition.
The strategy worked brilliantly for the Dodgers, who won pennants in 1963, '65 and '66 after the narrow miss in '62. Wills, bothered by a hemorrhage on his right (sliding) leg, dropped to 40 steals in '63 and 53 in '64 before rebounding with 94 in '65. Traded to Pittsburgh, he had enough left to pilfer 52 in '67 at age 34 before finishing his career back with the Dodgers in '72.
Outspoken and strong-minded, Wills was not always the most popular of players. He dated white actresses (notably the professionally virginal Doris Day) in an era when many frowned on that sort of thing.
After Wills had a unsuccessful (26-56) cup of coffee managing the Seattle Mariners during parts of the 1980 and 1981 seasons he was baseball's third black skipper behind Frank Robinson and Larry Doby "some writers who wanted to get me fired" spread the word that Wills wasn't smart enough to manage. The suggestion was laughable, considering that he had been one of the smartest players of his generation. Said Wills: "After that experience, I never wanted to manage again."
Following his Mariners ouster Wills went into a personal downward spiral. For much of the 1980s he abused alcohol and became addicted to cocaine. In 1989, he went into a 12-step program and sobered up. Now clean, Wills works as a baserunning instructor in the Dodgers system, but he also coaches fellow addicts. He speaks at schools, churches and treatment centers about addiction and recovery. Of course, he prefers to talk about baseball.
And it is as a baserunner that we should and do remember Maurice Morning Wills. When he took off for second, legs churning, he was the best there ever was.
With his lifetime batting average of .281 and 586 steals, Wills is long overdue for election to the Hall of Fame by the restructured Veterans Committee. "I'm not agonizing over it if it happens, it happens," he said. "A lot of people have told me they're going to vote for me, and that makes me feel good."
Which is only proper, because he made us feel good by restoring a long-forgotten part of baseball and making it a better, more complete game.

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