US & World

Maury Wills celebrates 50th anniversary of big league debut

Maury Wills wearing his hometown high school jacket
Maury Wills wearing his hometown high school jacket
Kitty Felde/KPCC

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This summer is the 50th anniversary of Maury Wills's Dodger debut. He took over as the team’s shortstop in the middle of the 1959 season and helped spark the team to its first World Series title in Los Angeles.

By the end of his career, Wills had brought base stealing back to baseball and excitement to L.A. KPCC’s Washington Correspondent Kitty Felde caught up with Wills in his hometown of Washington, D.C.

Kitty Felde: Maury Wills, the best base stealer the Dodgers ever had, was fast. But he says his big brothers ran faster. On their high school track relay team, they stuck Maury in the middle – not fast enough out of the gate, definitely not fast enough to sprint to the finish.

After high school, Wills signed with the Dodgers, and stole an impressive 54 bases in his first season in the minor leagues. Time to challenge one of his speedy brothers.

Maury Wills: And I came back that winter to Washington, back to the projects. And I came back and I said, “Hey, I want to race you.” He said, “Come on, you know you can’t beat me.” I said, “Yes I can. I can run now.” He said, “No way.” So we ran – and to this day, he’ll tell you I dusted him.

Felde: In a 14-year career, Maury Wills dusted everybody in the major leagues. Sandy Koufax, the Hall of Fame Dodger pitcher, said that before Wills showed up, baseball was “just a bunch of slow white guys.” Maury Wills wasn’t white – and he wasn’t slow.

He led the National League in stolen bases for six straight years. In 1962, he stole a record 104 bases – more than any other team that year. When he ran, the Dodgers won – four trips to the World Series in eight seasons.

After he retired, Wills wanted to manage in the big leagues. The Seattle Mariners hired him in the middle of the 1980 season.

Wills: And it didn’t work out. And I lasted about a year and a half. And I was so dejected and so disappointed and so embarrassed, I felt like I let so many people down. I got despondent and I became irritable, restless, discontent. And I was in conflict with life and the world even. I drove all the way home, 1,500 miles home from Seattle to Los Angeles, locked myself up in my home.

Felde: Wills says he’d never experienced failure before. He started drinking.

Wills: I drank and I drank and I drank to get over the pain. But it seems like the pain would always came back so it was a vicious cycle that didn’t work. And before you knew it, I got into drugs.

Felde: Wills credits God, and the Dodgers, for saving his life. His personal angel was another Dodger legend, Don Newcombe. Alcohol had ruined Newcombe’s brilliant career 20 years earlier. When he got sober, Newk set about saving others.

Wills: And Newk came and knocked on my door and knocked on my door and I wouldn’t answer. And he finally got hold of me and they sent me to a treatment center. The Dodgers didn’t have to do this. I wasn’t employed by them at the time.

But the owner, the O’Malley family, they said, they called a staff meeting, said, “What did we do wrong? Where did we let Maury down? What could we have done more to help him?” And they declared an unlimited sum for my welfare.

Felde: Sobriety didn’t take right away – but it did take. Maury Wills is marking 20 years clean and sober. He’s spent nearly 60 years in baseball. And he’s still wearing Dodger blue.

Wills: Baseball’s like life to me. It’s life to me. I don’t know what to do if not for baseball. And I just enjoy the game. I can’t fathom life without baseball.

Felde: He hasn’t had to. Maury Wills spends time as an instructor for the Dodgers and their minor leaguers in spring training and during the season. He’s shared base-stealing secrets with veteran Juan Pierre and rookie Xavier Paul, ensuring that the Dodgers will keep dusting opponents on the bases for years to come.