Wills stole his way into the record books in 1962 and in the process reminded a stagnating baseball establishment that there could be more to offense than waiting for your 250-lb slugger to knock one out of the park.
Maury Wills was an undistinguished minor league shortstop: scrawny, a poor fielder, and an erratic hitter. He began his pro career in 1951 and probably played every position during his time in the minor leagues; he pitched twice and also caught. The Dodgers loaned him to the Tigers, and he was given back. Even the Topps baseball card company wouldn’t sign him to a contract, on the advice of their scout and the Dodgers’ scouts. But Wills became the first player Topps passed on to make the majors (and since then, they sign everybody, just to play it safe). He came up to the Dodgers midway through the 1959 season and hit .260, but he had only seven RBI in 83 games. In his first full season in the majors, 1960, he led NL shortstops with 40 errors. But he also hit a surprising .295 and led the NL with 50 stolen bases. It was the highest total in the NL since Max Carey stole 51 in 1923 (although Luis Aparicio had been stealing bases in the AL for several years prior to Wills’s appearance). In 1961 Wills was not pinch-hit for as often as he had been in 1960, and he scored 104 runs and drew more walks while again leading in stolen bases (35). He also won the first of his two Gold Gloves despite not leading the NL in any fielding category.
Wills’s 1962 season found him at the apex of his base-stealing ability. His new major league record of 104 stolen bases shattered Ty Cobb‘s old mark of 96 not only in the final total, but in execution: Wills was caught stealing only 13 times in 1962, but Cobb was caught 38 times in 1915. Also, Cobb set his record in 156 games, and Wills broke it by one in the same span. In 1962, Wills also led the NL with 10 triples and reached career highs with 130 runs, 48 RBI, six HR, and 208 hits. His 695 at-bats missed the ML record by one. He won another Gold Glove. And he beat out Willie Mays by seven points to win the NL MVP award.
Wills led the NL the next three years in stolen bases, but his success ratio fell. His six straight seasons leading the NL in steals set the NL record, and he tied the NL record for most years leading in singles, four (1963-67). He never again scored 100 runs, and he never drew enough walks to really be a great leadoff hitter, although he hit a career-high .302 in 1963 and 1966. But he did lead NL shortstops in assists and total chances per game in 1965. In the 1965 World Series he tied the WS record with four hits (two singles and two doubles) in Game Five. In the same game, he tied the record for double plays started by a shortstop with three.
Traded to the Pirates after 1966 for Bob Bailey and Gene Michael, Wills played third base in Pittsburgh due to the presence of Gene Alley at shortstop. The Pirates didn’t protect Wills after 1968, and the Expos selected him in the expansion draft. After a .222 start, he was traded back to the Dodgers with Manny Mota for Ron Fairly and Paul Popovich and regained his stroke. Nearing his 40th birthday in 1972, he was finally succeeded as Dodger shortstop by Bill Russell.
Wills was named Mariners manager near the end of the 1980 season and promised to teach the team how to steal a pennant. He was fired in 1981 after a 6-18 start, having had serious discipline difficulties.