Dodgers’ Maury Wills changed baseball, but not Hall of Famer

He stole bases. He stole championships. He stole the heart of a city.

Yet for all his accumulated riches, Maury Wills often lamented the one shiny object that was forever out of reach.

He couldn’t sneak into Cooperstown. Incredibly, the inventor of the modern stolen base failed to sprint and slip into the baseball hall of fame.

Baseball writers turned him down for 15 years in a row. The Veterans Committee rejected him for another 10 years.

It hurt and haunted him until his death on Monday at the age of 89.

“Why don’t you let me into the Hall of Fame?” he once asked me in a quiet moment at Dodger Stadium. “What else did I have to do?”

Wills was the underrated legend of the Dodgers, a three-time World Series champion and National League Most Valuable Player traded for off-field issues, a record-breaking streaker who nonetheless couldn’t escape the lure of drugs and alcohol, a fabulous but flawed hero.

In his later years he found redemption as a Dodgers adviser, credited with salvaging Dave Roberts’ career and putting him on the path to becoming the team’s manager, but by then it was too late for the national recognition he deserved.

“God, how did I come back,” Wills told me in 2002. “But what a price I paid.”

He should be ranked among the greats of baseball. He literally changed the way the game was played. He joined the Dodgers in 1959 after spending nearly nine seasons in the minor leagues. Showing up nowhere, he was suddenly everywhere.

He led the league in stolen bases in his first full Dodgers season in 1960, and ran wild again in 1961, then in 1962. That was the year he stole 104 bases, breaking a record that had stood 47 years since Ty Cobb stole 96 bases in 1915. That was the year that changed everything.

Before Wills, baseball wasn’t about speed. Before Wills, baseball wasn’t about skill. Wills showed that stolen base can be as powerful as a clutch hit, as unnerving as a great catch, and ultimately as impactful as a home run.

“He brought speed to the game, and that speed fueled the Dodgers dynasty in the early 1960s,” said Dodgers historian Mark Langill. “Instead of the power of those last few years in Brooklyn, this new Los Angeles team won with pitching, defense and speed… and Maury was that speed.”

The Dodgers' Maury Wills slips safely into third place while the 1965 St. Louis Cardinals' Ken Boyer makes the toss.

Maury Wills slides safely into third base as the St. Louis Cardinals’ Ken Boyer makes the toss in a 1965 game at Dodger Stadium.

(Associated Press)

Wills stole so many bases that every time he reached the base in 1962, fans at the newly opened Dodger Stadium chanted, “Go!” Walk! Walk!”

Wills heard them, telling The Times’ Houston Mitchell in the transcript of a speech this summer.

“On days when it really hurt me, I’d say, ‘Go! Walk! Go, Maury, go!’ kept me going,” Wills wrote.

It was a chant that was basically christened Chavez Ravine. It was the kind of reaction that hasn’t been repeated since.

“It’s the only time there has been such interaction between a player and the fans during a game at Dodger Stadium,” Langill said. “He’s the only player that had people constantly singing, begging and cheering for him to steal a base.”

Wills played such mind games with opponents, the ground team at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park famously drenching basepaths to slow him before a critical streak in 1962.

“Maury was the man in the spotlight,” said former Dodgers general manager Fred Claire. “The attention he drew, the crowds he created, nobody was more important to the Dodgers and building interest in the team.”

However, his intensity on the field was matched by parties off the field. And although he was the star shortstop of a team that won two World Series championships, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates after the 1966 season for leaving a Dodgers barnstorming tour of Japan without permission and being spotted in Hawaii, playing a banjo and telling jokes on stage with Don Ho.

Never mind that Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Wes Parker also missed this trip. Considered a difficult person, Wills was sent packing for Bob Bailey and Gene Michael, a deal that should never have been made. Wills should have been a lifelong Dodger, and though he returned to the team four years later, his impact was never the same. He retired after a 1972 season in which he stole exactly one base in 72 games.

“He changed the game with his skill and determination,” Claire said. “He was just a very special person.”

Ramon Martinez (left) and Olmedo Saenz (right) listen as Base Running Instructor Maury Wills shares tips.

Maury Wills gives instructions to Dodgers infielders Ramon Martinez and Olmedo Saenz during 2007 spring training in Vero Beach, Fla.

(Rick Silva/Associated Press)

He became baseball’s third black manager in 1980 when he was hired to lead the Seattle Mariners, but he behaved erratically and didn’t last an entire season when he began getting into drugs and alcohol. The abuse continued until the Dodgers helped him get clean and sober in 1989.

At some point in Will’s lowest moments, Claire and former Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe drove to his boarded-up house and convinced him to check himself into a rehabilitation center under the alias “Don Claire”.

“It took him more than eight years in the minor leagues to find himself as a baseball player, and in life it also took him time to find himself,” Claire said. “But once he did, he changed his world again by helping others.”

Indeed, Wills took his life full circle when he returned to the Dodgers as a special counsel, working with players on bunting and base stealing, focusing on one notable student.

From 2002 to mid-2004, he devoted most of his time to a feisty boy named Dave Roberts, helping him improve his game through pre-game practice, in-game chat and post-game phone calls. It’s no coincidence that after joining the Boston Red Sox in July 2004, Roberts executed arguably the most important stolen baseball in baseball history, a playoff smash against the New York Yankees that eventually led to the Red Sox’s first world championship Series title in 86 years.

Speaking to reporters about Wills on Tuesday, Roberts did so with a tear rolling down his cheek.

“He just loved the game of baseball, loved the work and loved the relationship with the players,” Roberts said. “We spent a lot of time together. He showed me how to appreciate my craft and what it means to be a great player. He just loved teaching. So I think a lot of my excitement, passion and love for the players comes from Maury.”

In the end, the pioneer baserunner doesn’t have a Hall of Fame bust, but perhaps he was given something more important. He may not have a retired jersey, but he does have a living, breathing jersey.

While leading the team to annual success over the past seven years, Robert has purposely dressed in No. 30.

Yes, it’s the number once worn by Maury Wills. Dodgers’ Maury Wills changed baseball, but not Hall of Famer

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