Wills mastered the art of the steal

Not since Ty Cobb did somebody change the game more with his speed

December 1st, 2021

On Dec. 5, the Hall of Fame’s Early Baseball Era Committee (pre-1950) and Golden Days Era Committee (1950-69) will meet to vote on 10-player ballots, with the results announced live on MLB Network that night at 6 p.m. ET. We're here to offer a primer on the 20 players who are up for consideration. Click here to view the other posts.

Player: Maury Wills

Years: 1959-72

Bio: It took Wills years to get to the Major Leagues with the Dodgers -- he spent eight seasons in the Pacific Coast League -- but when he arrived in 1959, he exploded upon the scene. From 1960-65, he stole 376 bases -- leading the league in the category each year. He won the NL MVP award in '62, hitting .299 with 10 triples and 208 hits. He also broke Ty Cobb's single-season steals record with 104 swipes, only getting caught a miniscule 13 times. That total was more than any other MLB team combined.

Additionally, he won his second consecutive Gold Glove and made his second of five total All-Star teams.

Wills would get MVP votes in '66, '69 and '71, but he never put together another run like he did during those six seasons early on in his career. He would help the Dodgers to three World Series championships in '59, '63 and '65. The shortstop finished his 14-year career with 2,134 hits, 1,067 runs, 586 steals and a .281 batting average.

Wills was briefly a manager for the Mariners in the early 1980s, but that did not go as well as his playing career. His career record was 26-56 and he was fired midseason. One fun side note: Wills did have a somewhat successful music career, cutting a few singles and playing nightclubs during baseball's offseason. He played the banjo, ukulele and guitar, and I'm guessing he could sing better than most of the players already in the Hall of Fame. That should count for something. Or maybe it shouldn't.

Fun stat: The man who became known as "Mighty Mouse" has many stolen-base records, including the most steals in Dodgers' franchise history. But his weirdest record? He has the most games played in a single season at 165. After tying for the division lead in 1962, the Dodgers and Giants had to play a best-of-three-game series to decide who would win the NL pennant. After participating in all 162 games, Wills also started in the three-game set -- stealing four bases along the way.

Best moment: Wills' greatest moment in his career had to be breaking Cobb's nearly 50-year-old steals record in 1962 en route to winning the MVP award. His speed and ridiculous baserunning smarts were also on full display another time when he drew TWELVE consecutive pickoff throws to first base from Mets right-hander Roger Craig. Wills stole second on the very next pitch.

Beyond the numbers: When he came up in the early 1960s, Wills was credited with bringing speed back to the game of baseball. In recent decades, the sport had shifted to favoring slugging home-run hitters, but Wills' skillset created a brand of excitement crowds had been missing and pitchers had been dreading. 26-year veteran pitcher Tommy John said, "Almost single-handedly Maury turned baseball from its love affair with plodding, one-dimensional sluggers and got the game to consider pure speed as serious offensive and defensive weapons."

Opposing teams would even water down basepaths when they had to face off against Wills -- hoping to slow down his traction with the softer, mushier dirt.

After his playing career ended, Wills was instrumental in teaching young base-stealers how to study pitcher windups and figure out when and how to steal. Julio Cruz credited Wills in Seattle for his success -- The Cruzer stole 343 career bags while only getting caught 78 times. And Dave Roberts -- owner of the one of the most risky and famous stolen bases in history -- said he heard Wills' voice in his head when he considered attempting it. Wills had served as a Dodgers' Spring Training baserunning instructor during Roberts' time in LA. Here's what the current Dodgers' manager and former Red Sox 2004 world champion told MLB.com's Ian Browne in 2014.

"I remember Maury Wills on the backfield in Vero Beach," said Roberts. "He said, 'DR, one of these days you're going to have to steal an important base when everyone in the ballpark knows you're gonna steal, but you've got to steal that base and you can't be afraid to steal that base.' So, just kind of trotting out on to the field that night, I was thinking about him. So he was on one side telling me 'this was your opportunity'. And the other side of my brain is saying, 'You're going to get thrown out, don't get thrown out.' Fortunately Maury's voice won out in my head."