Seat D in row 22 had only one other adjacent seat in the middle of the Airbus 321 going from Reagan National Airport to Phoenix. Seat E in that row was occupied by a small-framed man with a familiar face. On the left sleeve of his plush white pullover jacket were an interlocked blue “L” and “A.”
The light in his eyes seemed recognizable. As did his square pug nose.
When the first cart of the flight lumbered through, he ordered a salad, then asked if I wanted anything. Confirmation of who he was went past with his credit card. Silver letters said, “Maury Wills.”
That explained the Dodgers emblem on his sleeve and blue cap on his head. Wills, who was born in the D.C. projects in 1932, was on his way home. He had spent the afternoon in Chantilly signing autographs at a memorabilia show, where he was touted as a three-time World Series champion. The evening flight would take him back to his house next to a golf course in Phoenix.
Starting a conversation with a famous stranger is a risk. Understandably, the person could want to just fly home in peace. Perhaps they have tired of talking about themselves. Maybe it’s a bad day.
Those were not issues for Wills.
Wills stole a then-record 104 bases during his MVP season in 1962. A logical in with him was the Kansas City Royals’ running style being used in the playoffs. He smiled when asked if he was glad to see speed back in the game. He smiled more when it was made clear he had been recognized.
That started four hours of conversation ranging from bunting technique to racism to alcoholism. Wills had a full life as one of 13 kids — a reference he made multiple times and is a stock part of his storytelling — who struggled in the minors, found success in the majors, became one of the worst managers in baseball history, then grappled with addiction.
The start was simple. Wills delivered confirmation of accepted thought: He would take Sandy Koufax over Don Drysdale. He sharpened his spikes to emulate Ty Cobb. Bob Gibson was mean.
“He hit me once up and in,” Wills said, chin lurching, hands in batting position in his narrow airplane seat. “On the way to first, I said, ‘C’mon, brother! He said, ‘Don’t give me no brother (expletive), you don’t play for the Cardinals.’”
A man who refused to play with Jackie Robinson because he was African-American was the leading cause for Wills dragging himself out of the minors after almost eight years. He signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951. He debuted June 6, 1959 in Milwaukee’s County Stadium, going 0-for-4 against the Braves.
Before getting to the majors, Wills spent two years in Spokane, Washington. Former Dodger Bobby Bragan was the manager of the Spokane Indians. Bragan was among a group of Dodgers who signed a letter that said he refused to play alongside Robinson. Bragan also demanded a trade. He abandoned both ideals a short time afterward and later in life told Wills he didn’t know any better at the time because that’s how he was raised in Birmingham, Alabama.
As Wills tells it, he was headstrong and afraid of the curveball. He hit right-handed, which caused a bender from a right-hander to appear heading toward his skull. He would not admit to flinching despite knowing he did so. Bragan saw this. He told Wills to try switch-hitting. Wills believes this co-relenting — him admitting a fear and Bragan putting his arm around a young black man — changed his life.
That also expanded his bunting game. To first, “you can take it with you.” To the left side, you can, “hit it hard enough to go past the pitcher and third baseman.” Infield hits, Wills proclaimed, were responsible for 30-40 points on his batting average annually.
“It’s a game of execution.”
He kept going, feigning reluctance. Tales of not being able to eat, sleep or travel with his teammates because of his race followed. An unexpected turn came when Wills began to talk about sobriety.
He hasn’t had a drink since 1989, he said. He hit bottom seven, eight times, who knows really? Booze and cocaine were the demons latched around his neck and embedded in his brain.
“Thirteen kids and I’m the only one,” Wills said. “Why just one? It’s a disease.”
The flight attendant delivers a fresh round of water. The pilot moonlighting as a tour guide announced what could be seen out the windows of the aircraft. Wills asked me about myself.
“I’m bending your ear.”
There was common ground about the alcoholism to be discussed. A member of my family needed an intervention to stop drinking. A summer in a rehabilitation facility was enough to end the drinking then. Not so for Wills, who went back and back, largely on the Dodgers’ dime and often walking out.
He said he used common addict patterns. Wills thought “just one” wouldn’t launch him again down the wrong path. Moving away from where he had prior problems would change things. For years, repetition of behavior caused nothing to change.
Now, he shifts in his seat to set a scene. This was the lowest of lows, when his already-thin frame had become more so and was half-draped on a couch in a low-end apartment a couple hours outside of Los Angeles.
He believes this was the moment of epiphany for him. Three friends came from Los Angeles to his door. There was a light — some form of higher power, he’s convinced, that was also present. Finally, this attempt to grapple his addiction into submission held when his friends extracted him from that place. For a quarter century since, he’s been going to Alcoholics Anonymous and he does not care who knows.
“Are you going to write about this? You can.”
Another cart; he’ll take a hot tea this time. The pilot offers garbled information about mountain ranges out the window. Wills assesses the sweeteners. They don’t have his preferred brand.
He marvels at how long the member of my family has been sober, though it’s shorter than his 25 years. He explains steps in the AA program and laments how it took him years to be on time with his daily call to his hard-nosed sponsor. He was supposed to call at 9 a.m. Not later, not earlier.
“What time did I tell you, Maury?”
“You said 9 a.m.”
“What time is it?”
“It’s 8:55, I thought…”
Wham. Wills slams the armrest to mimic his sponsor’s hasty hang-up. It’s a story he repeats during the flight. At 82, his short-term memory occasionally stalls. That leads to repetition or lost train of thought. At times, Wills takes off his Dodger-blue flat cap to scratch his grayed hair.
“What were we talking about?”
Reminded, he laughs. Knocks his hand on his head. Smiles again.
Wills needs to catch a shuttle from the airport. The plane is landing early, but he’s anxious about making the shuttle that will take him to his new house along the golf course. Golf is his game now. He claims to shoot his age.
The plane lands and he stands. He only brought a small bag on board. While waiting for the herd to be released up the jetway, Wills has a thought.
He yanks out a glossy poster. A 29-year-old Wills — same tingling eyes, same pug nose — sits cross-legged in a white Dodgers uniform. Behind him is a stack of 104 bases.
Coming from the memorabilia show, a Sharpie is on hand. After confirming the first name, he addresses the person in my family, his fellow addict and AA member, with a line of encouragement followed by a pause. He looks at what he wrote above a version of himself from 53 years ago and draws a smiley face.
“Tell him Maury W. said hello.”