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Under the heading of that business about "you might have been a headache, but you never were a bore" comes Maury Wills. Maury, once the proud captain of the Dodgers, has gone to Pittsburgh for Gene Michael and Bob Bailey, but he is not forgotten, not by a long shot. In addition to being a great little ballplayer, in addition to drawing thousands of people into the ball park with his daring base running, Maury was also memorable for the problems that always seemed to swirl around him. Eventually one of those mix-ups was his undoing with the Dodgers.
Maurice Morning Wills. What memories the name brings up! If ever there was a candidate for the title Most Likely to Spend a Lifetime in the Minors, it was Maurice Morning Wills. Just take a look at the raw material. He was only about 5'9" and drenched to the skin he weighed maybe 150 pounds, and the only things in the world he could really do well were run and throw. He was an average hitter, utterly lacking in power, and at shortstop he didn't cover any more ground than the next guy, although he did have a very strong arm. So add it all up and it looks like a mediocre career in the Pacific Coast League, doesn't it? And yet Maury Wills, with all his physical deficiencies, made it big with the Dodgers. He couldn't hit, but he could get on base. He wasn't the fastest man on the team, but he could steal bases better than anybody else in the history of baseball. He didn't cover much ground, but when he pegged that ball people two blocks away could hear it whack into the first baseman's glove. I guess when you add it up you'd have to say that Maury Wills is much more than the sum of his parts.
But talk about almost losing superstars to other ball clubs! There wasn't a day up to Maury's first full year with the Dodgers when anybody in baseball couldn't have had him at a discount. If somebody had come up to me and offered me $11 and a package of potato chips for Maury's contract, he'd have had a deal. The very year we brought him up we had tried to unload him on Detroit, but they took a look in spring training and sent him back. Before that we had tried to palm Maury off on the Seattle club in the Pacific Coast League, but he was stamped "rejected" and returned from there, too. So you can imagine how I felt when I began getting these phone calls during early 1959 from Spencer Harris, then the general manager at Spokane, and Bobby Bragan, then the manager. Bobby would call six times a day and tell me over again how Wills had learned to switch-hit and how he was a great team leader, off and on the field, and how I was absolutely nuts if I didn't bring him up right away. Spence was almost violent about it. "I have never seen a ballplayer mean more to a club!" Spence roared at me over the telephone one day. "He's the glue, he holds it all together! And a boy who can do that in the minor leagues, with the types of guys we get here, why, imagine what he can do for you!"
Finally it occurred to me that there must be some fire under all this smoke. There weren't two men in baseball who had better eyes for talent than Bobby Bragan and Spencer Harris, and both of them were practically on their hands and knees to get me to accept a spray-hitting undersized infielder with a long record of nothingness. I figured that they were losing their marbles, or I was, and I gave them Bob Lillis in exchange for Wills so that we could find out. Well, the newspapers gave me their own answers pretty quick. One headline read: DODGER BIG DEAL SEEMS RIDICULOUS. The story said, " Maury Wills for Bobby Lillis! That's the big deal the Dodger brass pulled off in an effort to keep the club in the first division. Who are they kidding? Maury Wills has been bumping around in the minors since 1951. Last year with the PCL team he hit only .253 and couldn't stick with Detroit this spring. The player he couldn't beat out was Rocky Bridges, himself cast off by the Dodgers after performing infrequently in a utility capacity. Wills may not even break into the starting lineup for a spell."
Stories like that were cheap and easy to write, especially since Maury got off to a very slow start for somebody who was going to make over the record books. He got one hit in his first 12 times at bat with the Dodgers, and Walter Alston finally benched him. Pee Wee Reese came over to me and, in a very uncharacteristic remark, he said, "Buzzie, you've made your first big mistake. You should not have brought that kid up. He'll never make it."
Maury got back into the lineup, but he was no ball of fire. After a month had gone by, another writer took a shot: "In 123 at-bats, Wills has hit in just one run. The Dodgers need punch more than any other single thing. You don't spell punch W-I-L-L-S...."
But by now Pee Wee Reese had seen the same mystery ingredients in the boy that had made Spence and Bobby so enthusiastic. With Maury still not certain of a job and with me still not sold on him, Pee Wee took me aside at the Polo Grounds and said, "Buzzie, I take back everything I said. It may take awhile, but this boy has it. I've never been so wrong in my life. This kid's got it all the way!"
Well, you can read the rest of the story in the record books, in our attendance figures during Maury's stay in Los Angeles and in our standing in the league from 1959 through last year. By the time of our final blowup with Maury, he was up to $85,000 a year and worth every dime. If we had been able to handle him personally, he might still be our shortstop today, but Maury was a hard man to control and not for the usual reasons. I mean, he wasn't a boozer or a barroom brawler or anything like that. It's hard to explain it; I guess the closest you could come is to say that Maury was the eye of the hurricane. He could do the blandest things and all hell would break loose. Maybe you remember last year when we were playing a tight game with the Giants and Maury turned around to hold up two fingers to Tommy Davis in left field and the result was a fist fight in the dugout. Figure that one out! Nobody did anything wrong. Maury was right in giving the two-out signal. How many times have you seen the pitcher walk off the mound when he gets the second out? The greatest players in baseball sometimes forget an out, and Maury just wanted to make sure that in this crucial game nobody made any mistakes. He was captain of the ball club and, believe me, he took the job seriously, and he took advantage of every little safety margin that he could find, like the two-out signal.
On the other hand, you have to look at it from Tommy's point of view, too. He's standing out there in left field, all alone in front of 50,000 people, and he's already in a lousy mood because he's having a bad year, hitting .300 but not getting the RBIs, and now he gets his chance in a big game and all of a sudden this little shrimp in the infield holds up two fingers to tell the world that the jerk in left field can't be trusted to keep track of the outs. So Tommy gets mad, and when Maury says to him in the dugout, "How come you didn't acknowledge my signal out there?" Tommy goes for him. I tell you, you've got to like both their attitudes. I don't think Maury was out of line one bit, but on the other hand I've got to like the idea of Tommy resenting the fact that anybody has to tell him anything. That shows a good aggressive attitude.
But maybe when you get right down to it, the trouble with Maury was that he took everything too conscientiously; maybe he put out a little too much. You can see how he could get that way. I mean, look at his history. He's headed for a mediocre career as a minor league ballplayer, and Bobby Bragan gets hold of him and tells him that if he learns how to switch-hit he'll have a better chance to make good. So while everybody else is out for a short beer, Maury is in the batting cage learning. Then he gets his chance in the major leagues and finds out he can steal bases on these big-shot pitchers, provided he spends a whole lot of time studying their motions. While the other players are out at the movies Maury is keeping a notebook and studying opposing pitchers the way scientists study bacteria, and pretty soon he's mastered another subject. Everything that Maury Wills ever got, he got by working his tail off.