SI Vault
 
THE MOUSE WHO BUILDS THE MOUNTAINS
William Leggett
July 12, 1965
Little Maury Wills is threatening to break his own stolen-base record as he wangles precious runs—and the league lead—for his low-scoring Los Angeles Dodgers
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
July 12, 1965

The Mouse Who Builds The Mountains

Little Maury Wills is threatening to break his own stolen-base record as he wangles precious runs—and the league lead—for his low-scoring Los Angeles Dodgers

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

WILLS'S STOLEN BASES

Games

Stolen bases

Caught stealing

Pct.

1959

83

7

3

.700

1960

148

50

12

.806

1961

148

35

15

.700

1962

165

104

13

.889

1963

134

40

19

.678

1964

158

53

17

.757

1965*

81

49

18

.731

The bases: second base (287), third base (49), home (2). The months: April (31), May (70), June (52), July (40), August (64), Sept.-Oct. (81). Home games (165), road games (173).

*Through July 4

Ah!" said Willie Crawford, 18 years old and smiling as he stood in the home team's clubhouse at Dodger Stadium after walloping his first hit some 18� feet into the infield to help the Dodgers win another close game. "You have just seen what we can do and we have done it again. We were up tonight and we were ready and we won in almost the same manner that we always seem to win. Ah!" continued Willie, "everyone remembers just a little while back this season when the Giants were hot and they came to play us three games, but we were up then, too, and we beat them two out of three with just six runs in 27 innings and we lost the other game by one run." Ah! indeed.

For all but eight days of a baseball season now half over, the Los Angeles Dodgers have held onto first place in the National League with a pitch-and-putt style of play even more refined now than it was two seasons ago when they won a pennant and swept the World Series out from under the New York Yankees on the grand total of 12 runs. Consider only four statistics about the 1965 Dodgers: through the Fourth of July 1) they suffered 30 injuries and ailments that caused almost endless lineup changes and 2) they scored four or fewer runs in 65 of the 81 games they played, but 3) until late in June they were the only team in the majors that had not lost more than two games in a row this season because 4) their pitching staff gave up three or fewer earned runs in 54 games. "In the National League," says Gene Mauch, the introspective manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, "there are teams like the Milwaukee Braves, who club you to death, and the Los Angeles Dodgers...well"—pause, brow furrowed, hand rubbed across chin—"they starve you to death." "Playing the Dodgers," says Gene Freese of the Pirates, "is like watching a silent movie." "With the Dodgers," says Maury Wills, the captain, the thief, the switch-hitting, banjo-playing banjo hitter who leads off for them (see cover), "one run is like a mountain."

With the extraordinary pitching that the Dodgers have, one run does look like a mountain. When opposing hitters face Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax there is a very good chance that they will not score: since the beginning of 1963 Koufax and Drysdale have pitched in 82 games in which they gave the opposition only one run or none at all. During that same period Drysdale lost five games by the score of 1-0—which indicates that the chances are always good that the Dodgers will not get a run either. "Imagine," said Wills recently, "a crazy kind of plot in which we would have to hit against our own pitchers."

He laughed at the vision of an eternal 0-0 game and then entered a small defense of the Dodger offense. "Everyone knows we have great pitching, but our hitters sneak up on a lot of people. Our bite is often worse than our bark." Wills, Mouse to his teammates, 32 years old, 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighing 165 pounds, is a mouse who, more often than not, builds those mountains for the Dodgers. "I know when I have had a lousy day just by looking down at my uniform. If it isn't dirty I haven't scored two runs, I haven't done my job."

The scene always seems the same when Wills comes to bat. He swings the bat hard as he walks up to the plate. Once. Twice. Three times. The third baseman creeps in, the first baseman creeps in. Will he bunt? Is that what they expect as they creep in? Maybe, but there is something else, too, something that frustrates the pitcher, the third baseman, the first baseman, particularly in Dodger Stadium, where red crushed stone has been packed down hard in the infield near home plate. Wills loves to chop a ball down onto this hard surface, scooting safely to first base while the ball bounces high in the air. With the in-fielders creeping in, Wills also has a better chance to punch a hit past them, or drop a looping fly over their heads. Once he is on first base, everyone knows that Wills is going to steal second, and then a new form of drama begins, a drama that often takes a ball game deftly away from the opposition.

It was Opening Day this year in Shea Stadium in New York, and the Dodgers were playing the Mets. Wills came to bat, and Charlie Smith, the Mets' third baseman, crept in. Wills singled between third and shortstop. As Met Pitcher Alvin Jackson, facing the next batter, stood on the mound with the ball, Wills's small, quick body was leaning toward second, his hips wiggling, his fingers moving slightly and then coming down to rest on his knees, the knees swaying toward second. Jackson threw over to first, but Wills was gone toward second in a gray-and-blue blur. First Baseman Ed Kranepool threw hastily after him, but the ball bounced into the outfield and Wills was safe. Jackson, rattled, threw low to the next batter, the pitch got by the catcher, and Wills was now on third. The Met infield was obliged to play in close in an attempt to cut off the run. A moment later Willie Davis looped a short fly ball over the drawn-in infield that went for a double. Wills scored, and Davis scored a few minutes later. In the first inning of the first game of the season, in his first time at bat, Wills had built a mountain: the Dodgers added four more runs later, but the Mets scored only one off Drysdale.

Actually, the Mets should have been prepared for this particular Wills tactic. In the 1963 World Series, the play that gave Los Angeles its big psychological edge over the Yankees came in the first inning of the second game. Wills singled, and as Yankee Pitcher Al Downing lifted his foot, Wills was off. Downing threw to first base, but Wills was halfway to second. Yankee First Baseman Joe Pepitone made a bad throw, and Wills was safe. When Jim Gilliam singled sharply to right field, Wills could not score but he ran far enough past third base to draw a hurried throw from the outfield that could not be cut off, and thus Gilliam was able to reach second. Everyone in the park knew that Wills was a threat to steal home, including Downing, who, under the circumstances, was reluctant to throw his curve ball. Willie Davis hit a fast ball, and the Dodgers had two quick runs. Dodger pitching subsequently yielded only one.

Wills has led the National League in stolen bases for five straight seasons, and in 1962 he stole 104 to break the modern major league record of 96 that Ty Cobb had set 47 years before. This season, with much less fanfare, Wills was running 19 games ahead of his 1962 pace. "Yes," he says, "I want to break the record, just as a pitcher wants to win 30 games or a hitter wants to hit .400 or a slugger wants to hit 61 homers. I have never felt as well physically in my life as I feel this year, and I have never felt as well mentally. I think I have matured now. Over the winter I thought about how bad we were last year when we finished sixth. I made up my mind that I was not going to fight spring training, that I was not going to scratch off the days on the calendar as I had done for so many years. I was going to take each day as it came."

The Dodgers arrived in Vero Beach, Fla. on a cool Saturday evening in February, and Maury Wills had his banjo, his guitar, his ukulele and his confidence with him. It was not always that way. "After the Dodgers brought me up from Spokane in the middle of the season in 1959 I thought everything was going to be fine," he says. "I had been in the minors for nine years, and on June 1, 1959 I got a wire to join the Dodgers in Milwaukee. I got on a plane in Phoenix, where Spokane had been playing, and when the stewardess brought me a cup of coffee my hands were shaking so much I couldn't hold it.

"I thought back to the days when I was a youngster in Washington, when I used to take a paper bag and pound a pocket into it and use it for a glove. I was one of 13 children. My father was a Baptist minister who also worked as a machinist at the Washington Navy Yard. My mother ran an elevator. I bowed my head in prayer on the airplane and thanked God for giving me the chance. When I got to the hotel in Milwaukee the players had left for the ball park so I took a cab, and when I walked into the clubhouse I had my spikes and glove and other equipment in a shabby cardboard box because I didn't have my equipment bag with me. Some of the guys asked me if I had brought my lunch. That year went pretty good—we won the pennant and the Series—but early in '60 things began to go awful. I didn't know anybody in Los Angeles, and I was lonely. I couldn't hit. Sometimes Walt Alston would take me out of the lineup in the third or fourth inning for a pinch hitter, and I would have to walk past the official Dodger box on my way to the shower. I didn't want to walk past it. I was ashamed. I wished I could crawl so they wouldn't see me.

Continue Story
1 2 3