If the Los Angeles Dodgers hold together and win the National League pennant, it may be said that they stole it. More accurately, a slight, almost frail Dodger stole it. Maurice Morning Wills is his name and the first time this larcenous son of a Baptist minister gets on base against the Yankees' left-handed Whitey Ford, possessor of one of the most unfathomable pick-off motions in baseball, a dramatic high point of the World Series already will have been reached. Will Ford pick him off? Will little Maury steal? For the answer, tune in next week. For the moment, the problem that is Maury Wills, the man who broke Ty Cobb's record of 96 stolen bases in a single season, remains unsolved.
Just where the Dodgers would have landed this year without Wills is not hard to figure "Third place, no higher," insists Charlie Metro, who as head coach of the ninth-place Chicago Cubs is in a position to view the race with a certain amount of objectivity. Houston Manager Harry Craft says: "Wills was worth between 15 and 20 games to the Dodgers."
The very thought of Wills is upsetting to the opposition. Infielders play where they shouldn't, pitchers throw what they shouldn't and catchers make errors they shouldn't, and all because of a man who almost has to stand on tiptoes to get a drink at the fountain. "Wills is so upsetting to a pitcher," says Metro, "he loses his concentration on the hitter and maybe he loses a little of his stuff. You start throwing slop to major league hitters and bingo—you've got men on first and third."
It takes six ingredients to steal bases consistently, and Wills has them all: good judgment (Dodger Manager Walter Alston leaves it strictly up to Wills when and when not to steal), a thorough knowledge of rival pitchers (some give away their intentions by a turn of the shoulders or even a facial expression), ability to take a proper lead off base, quick reflexes, natural speed (Wills is second only to teammate Willie Davis, who is the fastest player ever to perform in the major leagues) and confidence.
"When I set out to steal a base," says Wills, "that's exactly what I expect to do. I figure I have a 50-50 chance of stealing second on any pitcher. Therefore, I can be wrong only half of the time. So far I've been wrong only 5% of the time. I'm way ahead of this game." Another advantage for Wills: umpires respect his judgment, are reluctant to call him out on close plays. (This is the same reasoning that made umpires slow to call a strike on Ted Williams.)
Base-stealing talents Wills may have, but obviously they would be of minimal use if he could not contrive ways to get to first base. Around the National League, the defensive strategy is pretty much the same. "Keep Wills off the bases," says St. Louis Cardinal Manager Johnny Keane. "Don't let him get on," orders Phillie Manager Gene Mauch. Wills handles this particular stratagem by hitting line singles and beating out topped grounders—the kind of hits the sluggers scorn but that give Wills a near .300 batting average.
Much has been written on how good base thieves steal off the pitcher, but with Wills, no one—pitcher, catcher or infielder—can always be blamed. In a recent game Cincinnati Catcher Hank Foiles asked Pitcher Ted Wills for a pitchout, the better to catch Wills. Sure enough, Foiles had guessed correctly: Wills was running. Foiles's throw was fast and true. The tag by Second Baseman Don Blasingame was made with dispatch. And Wills was safe. His ability simply makes a shambles of these well-laid plans. "When I see Wills trying to steal second," said one National League catcher, "I throw to third." Others merely cling to the ball.
Just as Ty Cobb considered sliding an important part of stealing bases, so does Wills. But where Cobb would slide any which way, depending on where the throw was,. Wills slides in one way only: outside and on his right side. "I want to be going away from the base, away from the peg and away from the sweep of the second baseman's glove," Wills says. "When you slide inside, you're a dead duck." So quickly does Wills change from runner to slider it appears as if he has been felled by a dumdum. At the point where ordinary runners are skidding along in their slide, Wills is still on his feet for a couple of extra strides.
His arrival at second base involves no fuss, no muss and almost no dust. He lands like a striking snake and, indeed, New York Met Manager Casey Stengel calls Wills's specialty "the snake slide." It differs from the conventional hook slide in which the runner catches the base with his bent left leg. Wills's legs are stuck out ahead of him. He fades to the right with his right leg and upper body and touches the outside of the bag with his left foot. Statistically Wills's technique appears to be the correct one. The year Cobb stole 96 bases, he was foiled 38 times Thus far, Wills has been caught just 12 times.
All of which has led Milwaukee Brave Manager Birdie Tebbetts to call Wills "the greatest thing that's happened to the National League in a long time." Says Tebbetts: "Wills will teach young ballplayers what managers and coaches have been trying to teach them for a long time: fundamentals." No longer, asserts Tebbetts, will a young player go through the motions in a semisomnambulant state. Sleepers afield will find the swift-running Mr. Wills and the rest of the Swift Set treading lightly across their toes. So will the Yankees if they don't watch out.