SPORTS DIGEST: Maury Wills left his mark on baseball by stealing

By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

As the Dodgers continue on their path to the best season in franchise history, the catalyst to the best era in the franchise history died Sept. 19.

Maury Wills was the spark plug for the Dodgers teams that won three World Series titles in a seven-year span between 1959 to 1965. At the same time, he revolutionized the game, reviving the stolen base as an important offensive weapon.

In doing so, he paved the way for players like Lou Brock and Ricky Henderson, who both broke his record for stolen bases in a season on their way to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Sadly, Wills never got a chance to join them in Cooperstown, even though he belongs there.

A Washington, D.C. native, Wills signed with the then-Brooklyn Dodgers in June 1950 after graduating from high school. He spent more than eight years in the minor leagues in an era where there were only 16 major league teams.

Prior to the 1959 season, the Detroit Tigers purchased his contract from the Dodgers for $35,000, but sent him back to the Dodgers at the end of spring training.

The Dodgers had a hole at shortstop in 1959 after the retirement of Pee Wee Reese, the captain of their teams in Brooklyn.

Bob Lillis, who had starred at Pasadena High School and then USC, was given the first shot at replacing Reese, but he hit only .229 and committed seven errors in his first 20 games, and Don Zimmer moved into the starting shortstop role.

When Zimmer hurt his toe in June, Wills was called up from the Dodgers’ minor league team in Spokane, Washington, and inserted into the lineup.

He wasn’t an immediate spark plug, hitting eighth in the lineup most of that first season, but he hit .260 and more importantly, made only 12 errors in 82 games as the Dodgers overcame the San Francisco Giants and Milwaukee Braves to win the National League pennant and then defeated the Chicago White Sox in six games to win the World Series in only their second season in Los Angeles.

The legend of Maury Wills began the next season when he led the National League in stolen bases with 50. It was the first time a National League player had stolen 50 or more bases in a season in 37 years.

Wills’ legs were his biggest asset. He never had much power. In a 14-year career he hit only 20 home runs.

But he was a student of the game and became adept at reaching first base, studying a pitcher’s move and taking off to second base at the first opportunity.

He became a favorite of fans who chanted “go, go, go” whenever he reached first base. He was known for getting on base, stealing second, advancing to third base on a ground ball or fly out and scoring without another Dodger getting a hit.

His best season was 1962 when he broke Ty Cobb’s 1915 record of 96 steals in a season. Wills ended up with 104 steals and was caught stealing only 13 times. By contrast, Cobb was thrown out 38 times the year he stole 96.

Wills also hit .299 that season in a record-setting 165 games. He had 208 hits and scored 130 runs, but the Dodgers lost to the Giants in a three-game playoff at the end of the season and failed to advance to the World Series.

Still, Wills was elected the National League’s most valuable player over teammate Tommy Davis, who hit .346 to win the batting title while also leading the National League in hits with 230 and runs batted in with 153; and the Giants’ Willie Mays, who hit .304 with 49 home runs and 141 RBI.

The Dodgers returned to the World Series in 1963, sweeping the New York Yankees in four games, and in 1965, when they defeated the Minnesota Twins in seven games. That season, Wills threatened his own stolen base record, finishing with 94.

The Dodgers made it to the World Series for the fourth time in eight years in 1966 but were swept by the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series.

After the World Series, the Dodgers went to Japan for a series of exhibition games. Wills had nursed a knee injury for most of the season and asked to be excused from the Japanese trip. When the Dodgers refused his request, he left Japan and flew to Hawaii, where he was spotted playing the banjo in a nightclub with entertainer Don Ho.

Shortly after that, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates in one of the Dodgers’ worst trades ever.

He returned in 1969 in a trade that also brought the Dodgers Manny Mota and retired after the 1972 season.

He later became the third Black manager in Major League Baseball, but he won only 26 out of 83 games for the Seattle Mariners in 1980-81 and was fired.

In later years, he returned to the Dodgers’ fold, teaching base running and bunting at spring training for many years. One of the players he coached was current Dodgers’ manager Dave Roberts, who made a career out of bunting and base running, much like Wills.

Despite changing the way the game was played, playing on three World Series championship teams and winning the 1962 MVP Award, Wills never was elected to the Hall of Fame.

His power numbers were lacking — his six home runs in 1962 were a career high — and he had more stolen bases than RBI in his career. But he won two Golden Gloves for his fielding prowess and played in the All Star Game seven times.

He was the best shortstop in the National League in the 1960s.

His teammate, Gil Hodges, was finally voted into the Hall of Fame this year. Hopefully, some day, voters will recognize his contributions to the game and elect Maury Wills as well.

FINALLY A TEST: After three relatively easy wins, the USC Trojans may finally get tested Sept. 24 when they face Oregon State in Corvallis, Oregon.

The Trojans are averaging more than 50 points a game in their 3-0 start, and neither Rice, Stanford or Fresno State were able to stop their high-powered offense.

The Trojans defense has been vulnerable at times and that’s where Oregon State might be more successful than the Trojans’ first three opponents.

The Beavers opened the season with a statement win over Boise State, 34-17, and followed that with a 35-32 win over Fresno State.

Last week they routed Montana State, 68-28, so the Beavers can light up the scoreboard, much like the Trojans.

Although the USC defense has surrendered plenty of yards in the last two weeks, they have been able to limit scoring by their opponents thanks to 10 turnovers. The Trojans offense has yet to turn the ball over.

Coach Lincoln Riley unleashed his running attack against Fresno State with transfer backs Travis Dye and Austin Jones both gaining over 100 yards against the Bulldogs. Look for more of that this week, as the Trojans will probably try to maintain ball control to keep Oregon State’s high-powered offense off the field.

The 3-0 Beavers will provide a good benchmark for where the seventh-ranked Trojans are a month into the season.

UCLA, on the other hand, continues its march through the creampuff part of the schedule.

The Bruins travel for the first time, facing the Colorado Buffaloes, who are coached by former Bruins player and coach Karl Dorrell. Colorado is 0-3 on the season and each loss has been progressively worse. They lost their season-opener to TCU by 25 points, then got beat by Air Force by 31 points and got crushed by 42 points by Minnesota last week.

The Bruins will have to wait till next week, when they host the Washington Huskies on Sept. 30, to see how good they might be this year.

ROLE REVERSALS: After two weeks, the Rams and the Chargers find themselves with 1-1 records with plenty of question marks still in need of answers.

The Rams travel to Phoenix to play the Cardinals Sept. 25 while the Chargers host Jacksonville at SoFi Stadium.

Two weeks into the season, the Rams are banged up on the offensive line. After losing center Brian Allen for two to four weeks in the season opener, the Rams lost starting guard Tremayne Anchrum with an ankle injury that required surgery in their 31-27 win over the Atlanta Falcons Sept. 18.

The Rams almost let a 31-10 lead entering the fourth quarter get away against the Falcons. It took an interception in the end zone by Jalen Ramsey with 1:18 left in the game to preserve the win.

After giving up seven sacks to the Buffalo Bills in the first game, the Rams managed to protect Matthew Stafford most of the game. He was sacked only once, but he threw two more interceptions, giving him five in two games, compared to only four touchdowns.

The Rams still need to run the ball better, but their 65 yards rushing total against the Falcons, looked worse than it really was. The Rams lost 26 yards on their last offensive play when kick returner Brandon Powell deliberately took a safety rather than risk a blocked punt like the one that sparked the Falcons’ fourth-quarter comeback.

The Rams don’t look like a Super Bowl team yet, but they have 15 more games to play.

The Chargers also blew a lead after three quarters, only they didn’t have Jalen Ramsey to bail them out at the end. The result was a 27-24 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs Sept. 15.

The Chiefs scored 13 straight points in the fourth quarter to overcome a 17-14 Chargers lead, sparked by a 99-yard interception return by Jaylen Watson that turned a 17-17 tie into a 24-14 lead for the Chiefs.

The Chiefs added a field goal with 3:24 remaining in the game and a late Chargers touchdown was too little too late when the Chargers failed to recover an onside kick with 1:11 to play.

Losing to the Chiefs in Kansas City four days after playing their season opener is not a major crisis for the Chargers, who should advance to 2-1 with a win over Jacksonville this week.

The Jaguars are 1-1 and coming off a surprising 24-0 win over the Indianapolis Colts. The Jaguars sacked Colts quarterback Matt Ryan five times and intercepted three of his passes while holding the Colts to only 218 total yards.

The Jaguars had the ball for more than 38 out of 60 minutes, so the Chargers will need a strong offensive effort.

Justin Herbert has thrown for 613 yards in the first two games of the season, but the Chargers need to do a better job of running the ball. Austin Ekeler has only 75 yards in 28 carries in the first two weeks.