Maury Wills, Los Angeles Dodgers star, has died

Maury Wills, who worked hard to find fame with the Los Angeles Dodgers and then worked just as hard to regain dignity and standing in baseball through sobriety, has died, the Dodgers announced Tuesday.

Wills died Monday night at his home in Sedona, Arizona, at the age of 89.

A light-hitting shortstop who spent nearly a decade in the minor leagues, Wills honed his limited skills, studied pitcher tendencies and learned to switch-hit, earned a shot with the Dodgers and then helped them win three World Series titles in four while reintroducing base-stealing to baseball as a key offensive weapon.

Wills became a valued instructor with the Dodgers in his later years and developed a strong relationship with a young base stealer when Dave Roberts was traded from the Cleveland Indians to the Dodgers in December 2001. Roberts stole 118 bases in 2½ seasons before being traded to the Boston Red Sox, where he executed what is perhaps the most famous stolen base in history during the 2004 American League Championship Series.

Roberts, who as the Dodgers manager wears the No. 30 as a salute to Wills, had a single tear roll down his cheek as he discussed his mentor before the first game of a doubleheader Tuesday at Dodger Stadium.

“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.”

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 think I’ve enriched his post-baseball career in that I’ve looked at every game I’ve played or managed,” Roberts said. “I remember even during the games I was playing he would come down from the suite and tell me I need to do more colorful, I need to do this or that. . . A coach would say, ‘Maury is at the bottom of the dugout and wants to talk to you.’

“It just showed that he was in it with me and to this day he would be there and cheering me on.”

Wills played a key role for the Dodgers in the 1960s, leading the National League six times, winning two Golden Gloves for his appearances, and beating Willie Mays for the league’s Most Valuable Player award in 1962 when he startled the baseball world with his hiring Record 104 stolen bases, eclipsing the immortal Ty Cobb’s 47-year mark of 96.

Batting leadoff, he hit .299 that season and amassed 208 hits, all but 29 of them singles. However, at the newly opened Dodger Stadium, these singles brought chants of “Go! Walk! Go!” and Wills happily complied, usually successfully.

He was caught stealing just 13 times and later said it should have been eight, as he was kicked out five times when Jim Gilliam, who was swinging behind him, failed to catch himself in hit-and-run games meeting. His ability on the base paths this season resulted in a career-high 130 runs scored.

So feared was Wills that the San Francisco Giants ground crew dug the basepath and added peat moss and damp earth to slow it down in a critical late-summer 1962 game at Candlestick Park.

Wills chuckled at the memory of the shenanigans years later in an interview with The Times’ Houston Mitchell. “I was flattered that they would go to all this trouble to try to stop me,” he said.

Wills stole 586 bases in his 14-year career, and in his retirement he told the State College, Pa., Center Daily Times, “If you’re a base stealer, you’re a different guy. … You have to be arrogant to be a good base thief.”

And at a time when the Dodgers relied on pitching supplied primarily by Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale and runs were a priority, Wills relieved some of the tension on each base. “Playing the Dodgers,” he once said, “a run is a mountain.”

He stole second, he stole third, and when the situation called for it, he stole home. He disrupted pitchers and embarrassed catchers and infielders. Normally he would sing, steal second place, and then score with someone else’s single. Or, individually, steal the second, pull a bad throw and take the third, then score with a flyout.

“Maury has made himself a superstar. He taught himself not to make mistakes,” former teammate Norm Sherry told the Times in 1980.

Wills might not have been as attractive as Koufax or Drysdale, but he was right behind them.

With fame, however, came temptation, and as adept as he was at running the bases, Wills could not escape the temptation. In his co-authored autobiography On the Run: The Never Dull and Often Shocking Life of Maury Wills, co-authored with Mike Celizic, he claimed to have had love affairs with Hollywood star Doris Day—in her autobiography, Doris Day: Her Own Story, she denied it – and Edie Adams. He had a volatile and corrosive six-year relationship with a woman named Judy Aldrich and accused her of getting him to drink heavily.

He socialized with entertainers, even played gigs himself in Las Vegas, sang while accompanying himself on banjo, guitar or ukulele, but wasn’t always the clubhouse favorite despite being the team captain.

“A lot of our ballplayers just didn’t get along with him,” Dodgers general manager Buzzie Bavasi told Sports Illustrated after Wills joined the Pittsburgh Pirates. “Maybe it was a bit too intense for her liking, I don’t know.”

Still, Wills was a prolific player on a winning team and might have spent his entire playing career with the Dodgers—ending it after stints in Pittsburgh and Montreal—if there hadn’t been an escapade after the 1966 season.

Having just been swept by the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series, the Dodgers embarked on a barnstorming trip to Japan. Wills, who had been plagued by a midseason knee injury, said the knee hurt and asked to leave the tour, return to Los Angeles and seek treatment. Denied permission, he went anyway.

Rather than fly straight to Los Angeles and seek treatment, he stayed in Honolulu for a week, where he joined singer Don Ho in his performance, playing his banjo, singing and joking. Bavasi, who was vacationing in Hawaii with his wife, accidentally caught the crime one night, and Wills was traded to Pittsburgh shortly thereafter.

Wills hit a career high with a .302 batting average in 1967, his freshman year with the Pirates, and remained a prolific player well 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 had spent several winters managing a Mexican league team and hoped to continue his career as a major league manager. He turned down the San Francisco Giants, who offered him a one-year contract in 1977, and was pursuing a broadcasting career and serving as a part-time running coach when he finally got his managerial career.

The Seattle Mariners, an expansion team in its fourth desultional season, fired Darrell Johnson and hired Wills in early August 1980. to save her. On his first night at the helm, the Mariners lost to the Angels 8-3, dropping them to last place in the American League West. That was the best thing for Wills with the Mariners. They finished last in the 1981 season and then started with a 6-18 start, their worst ever, and Wills was gone by early May.

That, coupled with his deteriorating relationship with Aldrich, sent him into a tailspin. He drank alcohol and cocaine, locked himself in his house alone, stayed high for days, covered the windows with blankets, hallucinated, endured intense paranoia, contemplated suicide.

Wills estimates he spent $1 million on cocaine in one year — and though he sobered up in 1989, that descent into obscurity may have been one of the reasons he wasn’t inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame. He was rejected 15 times by the Baseball Writers Assn. of America and another 10 times by a veterans committee.

“I think I’ll be accepted,” Wills told The Times in 2016. “The question is will they take me in before I die.”

The Dodgers helped get him into a drug treatment program, but Wills left and continued to do drugs until he began a relationship with Angela George, who helped get him into rehab. Wills, again with the support of the Dodgers, eventually sobered up in 1989 and he and George later married.

“Some people get old but never grow up,” Wills said of his dark days. ‘It happened to Maury Wills. In those three years I turned 15.”

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 run by Gerry Priddy, a major league infielder who played for the Washington Senators.

“I didn’t own a pair of shoes,” Wills told the Great Falls (Mont.) Tribune in 2001. “Until this man came to our projects, I didn’t even know we had Major League Baseball in Washington. But he singled me out. He told me I had talent. And right then and there, at the age of 10, I knew I wanted to be a major league player.”

At 17, he signed a minor league contract with the Dodgers and made his debut with them a decade later.

After sobering up, he returned to coaching, most recently with the Dodgers, and devoted much of his time to drug and alcohol education. Wills made his first appearance as a nominee for the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Golden Era Committee election 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 affectionately known as “Maury’s Pit.” He also served as the color commentator for the Fargo-Moorhead (ND) RedHawks in the Independent American Assn. for 22 years, retired in 2017.

He credited the low-key atmosphere in North Dakota with helping him stay sober.

“I feel free,” Wills told Kurt Streeter of the Times in 2008. “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 Quam and Wendi Jo Wills.

Kupper is a former Times contributor.
Assistant Sports Editor Steve Henson contributed to this report. Maury Wills, Los Angeles Dodgers star, has died

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