He stole bases. He stole championships. He stole the heart of a city.
However, for all his accumulated wealth, Maury Wills often mourned the one shiny object that was forever gone from his life.
He could not steal his way into Cois an Barra. The inventor of the modern stolen coin probably couldn’t sprint and slide into the football Hall of Fame.
The baseball writers rejected him for 15 years in a row. The veteran committee turned him down for another 10 years.
It hurt him until his death on Monday at the age of 89.
“Why won’t they let me in the Hall of Fame?” he asked me once during a quiet moment at Dodger Stadium. “What else was I supposed to do?”
Wills was an underrated Dodgers legend, a three-time World Series champion and National League MVP traded for off-field issues, a record-setting speedster who couldn’t escape drug addiction and alcohol nonetheless, a great but flawed hero.
In later years he found redemption as a Dodgers consultant credited with saving Dave Roberts’ career and putting him on the path to becoming the team’s manager, but by then it was too late for the recognition national he deserved.
“God, how I came back,” Wills told me in 2002. “But what a price I paid.”
He should be considered among baseball’s all-time greats. It literally changed the way the game was played. He joined the Dodgers in 1959 after spending nearly nine seasons in the minor leagues. Seen out of nowhere, he was suddenly everywhere.
He led the league in stolen bases in his first full Dodgers season in 1960, and again in 1961, then in 1962 he went wild. That was the year he stole 104 bases, breaking a record that had stood 47 years since Ty Cobb stole 96 in 1915. That was the year everything changed.
Before Wills, baseball was not about speed. Before Wills, baseball was not happy. Wills showed that a stolen base could be as powerful as a clutch hit, as devastating as a great catch, as ultimately impactful as a home run.
“He brought speed to the game, and that speed fueled the Dodgers’ dynasty in the early 1960s,” Dodgers historian Mark Langill said. “Instead of the power of those last years in Brooklyn, this new team from Los Angeles won with pitching, defense and speed … and that speed was Maury.”
Wills stole so many bases that whenever he reached base in 1962, fans at the newly opened Dodger Stadium would chant, “Go! Go! Go!”
Wills heard them, as he shared with The Times’ Houston Mitchell this summer in a speech transcript.
“On days when I was very hurt, I heard ‘Go! Go! Go, Mary, go!’ I kept running,” Wills wrote.
It was a song that was basically christened Chavez Ravine. It was the kind of reaction that hasn’t been repeated since.
“This is the only time Dodger Stadium has had that kind of interaction between a player and the fans during a game,” Langill said. “He’s the one player that people were constantly chanting for, begging him, asking him to steal a base.”
Wills played such mind games with his opponents, and the grounds crew at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park removed the sidewalks to slow him down before a decisive series in 1962.
“Maury was the talk of the town,” former Dodgers general manager Fred Claire said. “The attention he drew, the attendance he created, nobody was more important to the Dodgers and building interest in the team.”
However, his intensity on the field was partying off the field. And although he was shortlisted for a team that won three World Series championships, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates after the 1966 season because he left the Dodgers’ barnstorming tour of Japan without permission and was spotted in Hawaii playing banjo and telling funny stories. on stage with Don Ho.
It doesn’t matter that Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Wes Parker also missed that trip. Wills was considered to have a difficult personality, so Bob Bailey and Gene Michael were sent packing, a job that should never have been done. Wills should have been a Dodger for life, and even though he returned to the team 2½ years later, his impact was never the same. He retired after the 1972 season in which he stole one base in 71 games.
“He changed the game with his ability and determination,” said Claire. “He was just a very special person.”
In 1980 he became baseball’s third Black manager when he was hired to lead the Seattle Mariners, but he behaved erratically and did not last a full season as he struggled with drugs and alcohol. The abuse continued until the Dodgers helped him get clean and sober in 1989.
At one point during Wills’ lowest moments, Claire and former Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe drove him to his boarding house and convinced him to check himself into rehab under the pseudonym “Don Claire.”
“It took him more than eight years in the minor leagues to find himself as a baseball player, and in life he also needed time to find himself,” Claire said. “But when he did, he changed his life again by helping others.”
In fact, Wills engineered his life to come full circle when he returned to the Dodgers as a special consultant, working with players on bunting and stealing bases, focusing on one notable student.
From 2002 until midway through 2004, he spent most of his time on a fit kid named Dave Roberts, helping him improve his game in pre-game workouts, in-game chats and post-game phone calls. It is no coincidence that after being traded to the Boston Red Sox in July 2004, Roberts committed the most important stolen base in baseball history, a slide in the playoffs against the New York Yankees that led to the Red Sox’s first World Series. Series title in 86 years.
When Roberts spoke to reporters about Wills on Tuesday, he did so with a tear running down his cheek.
“He loved the game of baseball, loved working and loved the relationship with the players,” Roberts said. “We spent a lot of time together. He showed me how to respect my craft and what about being a big leaguer. He just loves teaching. So, I think there’s a lot of places where I get my excitement, my passion and my love for the players from Maury.”
In the end, the established pioneer doesn’t have a Hall of Fame badge, but he may have been given something more important. He may not have a retired jersey, but he has a living, breathing jersey.
Having managed the team to annual success for the past seven years, Robert has deliberately dressed in No. 30.
Yes, this is the number Maury Wills once wore.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.