He stole bases. He stole championships. He stole the heart of a city.
But for all his accumulated riches, Maury Wills often complained about the one shiny object that was forever out of his reach.
He couldn’t sneak into Cooperstown. The inventor of the modern stolen base incredibly couldn’t sprint and slide into baseball’s Hall of Fame.
The 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 Monday at the age of 89.
“Why won’t they let me into the Hall of Fame?” he once asked me during a quiet moment at Dodger Stadium. “What else was I supposed to do?”
Wills was the underrated legend of the Dodgers, a three-time World Series champion and the National League’s most valuable player traded for trouble off the field, a record-breaking speedster who nevertheless couldn’t escape the temptation of drugs and alcohol, a fantastic but flawed hero.
In his later years, he found redemption as a Dodgers adviser credited with saving Dave Roberts’ career and helping him on his way to becoming the team’s manager, but by then it was too late for the National recognition he deserved.
“God, I’ve come back,” Wills told me in 2002. “But what a price I’ve paid.”
He must be considered one of the all-time 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. He didn’t appear anywhere, he was suddenly everywhere.
He led the league in stolen bases in his first full Dodgers season in 1960, and again in 1961, before going on a rampage in 1962. That was the year he stole 104 bases, breaking a record held for 47 years since Ty Cobb stole 96 in 1915. That was the year that everything changed.
For Wills, baseball wasn’t about speed. Before Wills, baseball wasn’t about smart people. Wills showed that the stolen base could be as powerful as a punch, as nerve-wracking as a great catch, and ultimately as impactful as a home run.
“He brought speed into the game, and that speed fueled the Dodgers dynasty in the early 1960s,” said Dodgers historian Mark Langill. “Instead of the strength of those last few years in Brooklyn, this new Los Angeles team won with pitching, defense and speed…and Maury was that speed.”
Wills stole so many bases, every time he reached base in 1962, fans in the newly opened Dodger Stadium chanted, ‘Go! To go! To go!”
Wills heard them, as he shared this summer with Houston Mitchell of The Times in a speech transcript.
“On days when I was really in pain, I heard ‘Go! To go! Go, Maury, go!’ kept me running,” Wills wrote.
It was a chant that Chavez actually christened Ravine. It was the kind of response that hasn’t been repeated since.
“It’s the only time there has been such interaction at Dodger Stadium between a player and the fans during the game,” Langill said. “He’s the only player that people consistently chanted for him, begged and cheered for him to steal a base.”
Wills played such mind games with opponents, the grounds crew at Candlestick Park in San Francisco famously soaked the base trails to slow him down for a critical run in 1962.
“Maury was the man in the spotlight,” said Fred Claire, former Dodgers general manager. “The attention he got, the turnout he created, no one was more important to the Dodgers and building interest in the team.”
However, his intensity on the field was matched by partying off the field. And while he was the shortstop of a team that won three World Series championships, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates after the 1966 season because he left a Dodgers barnstorming tour in Japan without permission and was seen in Hawaii doing a banjo and jokes on stage with Don Ho.
Never mind that Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Wes Parker missed that trip too. Wills was considered a difficult personality and so was sent to Bob Bailey and Gene Michael, an exchange that should never have happened. Wills should have been a lifelong Dodger, and although 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 skills and determination,” Claire said. “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 didn’t last an entire season when he got into drugs and alcohol. The abuse lasted 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 to his boarded-up home and convinced him to commit himself to a rehab facility 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 once he did, he changed his world again by helping others.”
Indeed, Wills developed his life to come full circle when he returned to the Dodgers as a special advisor, 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, who helped him hone his game in pregame workouts, in-game chats, and post-game phone calls. It’s no coincidence that after being traded to the Boston Red Sox in July 2004, Roberts executed what became arguably the most important stolen base in baseball history, a playoff swipe against the New York Yankees that eventually led to the first Red Sox World Cup. 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 just loved baseball, loved working and loved the relationship with players,” said Roberts. “We spent a lot of time together. He showed me how to appreciate my craft and what it’s like to be a great player. He just loved teaching. So I think a lot of where I get my excitement, my passion and my love for the players comes from Maury.”
Ultimately, the pioneer baserunner doesn’t have a Hall of Fame bust, but maybe he got something more important. He may not have a retired sweater, but he has a living, breathing sweater.
While leading the team to annual success over the past seven years, Robert has purposely dressed in number 30.
Yes, it’s the number Maury Wills once wore.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.