LOS ANGELES – He was known to a generation of Dodgers fans as the dynamic offensive force who prompted chants of “Go, Maury, Go!”
And to generations of Dodgers players as “Uncle Maury,” the teacher willing to spend hours with them at “Maury’s Pit” – the half-field that became Wills’ classroom during spring training where he taught life lessons along with bunting and baserunning skills.
Maury Wills died Monday night at his home in Arizona. The Dodgers legend, three-time World Series champion and 1961 National League MVP was 89 years old.
“I am going to have a heavy heart,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts who wears uniform No. 30 in Wills’ honor. “Maury was very impactful to me – personally, professionally. He’s going to be missed.
“This one is going to be tough for me. He did a lot for the community and a lot for the Dodgers. He was a friend, a father, a mentor – all of the above for me. So this is a tough one for me.”
Roberts said he probably would not have had the major-league career he had without Wills’ influence – and he might not have pursued coaching or managing after his playing career without the passion for the game Wills passed on.
“He just loved the game of baseball, loved working and loved the relationship with players. We spent a lot of time together. A lot of time,” Roberts said, tears spilling out of the corners of his eyes as he talked. “He just kind of showed me to appreciate my craft, showed me how to be a big-leaguer. He just loved to teach. I think a lot of where I get my excitement, my passion, my love for players is from Maury.
“I remember during games when I played here he would come down from the suite and tell me I needed to bunt or I needed to do this. I’d meet him at the end of the dugout. The coach would say, ‘Hey, Maury, is at the end of the dugout. He wants to talk to you.’ It just showed that he was in it with me. Even to this day, he would be there cheering for me, rooting for me.”
A three-sport star in high school in Washington, D.C., Wills signed with the Dodgers at age 18 in 1951 but did not make the major leagues until 1959. Later he would tell stories of how the racism of the times nearly broke him.
“I was extremely, extremely saddened to hear of his passing because we had something in common,” said Dodgers broadcaster Jaime Jarrin who will retire after this season. “We reached the Dodgers in the same year, 1959. We would talk about that many times.”
Wills finally became the Dodgers’ every-day shortstop in 1960 and hit .287 with 414 stolen bases over the next seven seasons, including a then-record 104 stolen bases during his MVP season in 1962 – more stolen bases than any other team in the majors had that season. Wills was an All-Star five times during those years and the Dodgers went to the World Series three times, winning championships in 1963 and 1965.
“He was my brother,” said another former Dodger, Manny Mota.
Wills’ baserunning was such a threat that opposing teams (notably the San Francisco Giants under manager Alvin Dark) would soak the infield to slow him down. Fans at Dodger Stadium would chant for Wills – “Go, Maury, go!” – knowing his ability to manufacture a run might be all the offense great pitchers like Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale would need that night.
“It was unbelievable,” Jarrin said of the atmosphere in the stadium those nights. “He would get on base and people would be chanting like crazy, ‘Go, Maury, go, go go!’ He changed the face of the game completely with the way he played the game.
“Of course, I thought he should be in Cooperstown. … He should be in the (Dodgers’) Ring of Honor.”
Wills’ career wound down with the Pirates and Expos before he returned for three final seasons in Los Angeles.
After his playing career, Wills worked as a television analyst and eventually spent parts of two seasons as the Seattle Mariners’ manager. It was an unsuccessful run and Wills made a greater mark as a special instructor, working with Dodgers’ players during spring training and minor-leaguers throughout the organization.
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“Maury became a very close friend especially in spring training when you’d go to bunt at his station,” Dodgers broadcaster and former pitcher Orel Hershiser recalled Tuesday. “Then you would stay a little longer because, as a pitcher, a lot of times after that station you didn’t have much more to do other than go in and lift weights or do your cardio. So a lot of times you’d stay with Maury and hear the old stories and stories about his life.”
There were stories to be told and Wills was open about his battles with alcohol and drug abuse, writing in his autobiography that he had spent more than $1 million on cocaine before getting sober in 1989. Wills would credit another Dodgers legend who battled addiction, Don Newcombe, with helping him recover.
“We’ve had some very open Dodger legends throughout our history – open meaning they were very willing to tell you about their careers, their struggles during their career, post-career and then their successes as they got their life back together,” Hershiser said. “I think of Don. I think of Maury. I think of others that have been that open to us. So not only did we get to be encouraged by their success but we also get to be encouraged by the difficulties they went through and how they were champions.”
The Dodgers added a patch with Wills’ number 30 to their jerseys in his honor.