Monday, October 3, 2022
Home CALIFORNIA Alexander: Maury Wills influenced a generation of Dodger fans

Alexander: Maury Wills influenced a generation of Dodger fans

It’s fair to say that Maury Wills influenced an entire generation of baseball fans in Southern California.

Wills passed away Monday night at 89, and he, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale will be remembered as the beating hearts of Dodgers teams that won two World Series and three National League pennants from 1963 through 1966, and could have (and probably should have) won a fourth pennant in ’62.

It was a time, at least here, when 1-0 and 2-1 scores were common and a Dodger “rally” might consist of a walk, a stolen base, a sacrifice bunt and a scoring fly ball. Those were the days when Koufax or Drysdale might have been told, “Here’s your run. Now protect it.”

For example, Koufax pitched a no-hitter in Philadelphia, in 1964, and Drysdale – sent ahead to New York to prepare for his next start, heard the radio wrapup about his teammate’s historic third no-hitter and was said to have exclaimed, “I don’t care about history. Who won?”

And it was an era when Wills, a guy who spent eight seasons in the minor leagues and was hitting .175 one month after he was called up from Triple-A in 1959, was the National League’s Most Valuable Player three years later while hitting six home runs with 48 RBIs.

That’s because he stole 104 bases in 117 tries – while playing every game, all 165, and nursing sore legs and hamstrings that were made sorer by each slide on the rock-hard Dodger Stadium infield. He scored 130 runs or 15.8% of the Dodgers’ season total.

That was actually a productive offensive year for the team. Frank Howard slugged 31 home runs – 13 of them in the spacious new Chavez Ravine ballpark and 18 on the road – and drove in 119 runs while Tommy Davis drove in 153, still a club record. (We won’t discuss the three-game playoff with the Giants at the very end of that season.)

Over six seasons, from 1960 through 1965, Wills stole 376 bases. His team led the major leagues in steals each year in that span, and from ’62 through ’66 its totals more than doubled the per-team averages in both leagues.

And in ’65, Wills stole 94 bases and scored 92 runs for a team that finished eighth in the NL and 15th in baseball in runs per game (3.75) and still won its second World Series in three seasons.

To most of the rest of the country, it must have made no sense at all. But if you were raised within the sound of Vin Scully’s voice, it made perfect sense. We appreciated little ball before it was even known as little ball.

Home runs were what those oafs in San Francisco and Milwaukee and Cincinnati would hit, operating with a bludgeon rather than a scalpel. The Koufax/Drysdale/Wills Dodgers hit 78 home runs in 1965, dead last in the league, and Drysdale himself hit seven of those. Yet they were champions.

It should be no wonder, then, that so many of us who grew up in that era of (offensive) limits tend now to intersperse our outbursts of “Get off my lawn” with pleas of, “Why don’t they (modern players) learn how to bunt?”

Should Wills have been in the Hall of Fame long before now, even with such a modest offensive resumé? I believe so. When I became a Hall of Fame voter in 1989, 10 years into my BBWAA membership, I voted for Wills each year through his final year on the ballot, 1992.

My reasoning, then and now: Those who transform the game deserve enshrinement. Few transformed it as radically as Wills, who took what we now would consider an undervalued asset – base stealing – and turned it into a weapon, paving the way for people like Lou Brock, Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines in years to come.

I think it’s a persuasive argument, anyway. Not many others seem to agree; Wills was passed over again last winter by the Golden Era committee, receiving only three votes from the panel of 16, nine fewer than needed for induction.

But here’s another way to look at it: If a guy is so influential that the other team will dig up its infield to keep him from getting traction, you might be able to make a Hall of Fame case for him.

The remembrances of Wills over the last couple of days noted the series in San Francisco, in August of 1962, when the Giants overwatered the path between first and second bases to slow him down. But that was only part of the story.

Giants grounds crew chief Matty Schwab and his son Jerry, at the behest of Manager Alvin Dark, did considerably more. They dug up topsoil, substituted a mixture of sand, peat moss and water, and covered it with topsoil.

Leo Durocher, who was well acquainted with the dark arts in his days as the Giants’ manager and was by then the Dodgers’ third base coach, discovered the swamp and made sure umpire Tom Gorman was aware. Gorman summoned Matty Schwab and ordered him to fix it – and their method of fixing it turned out to involve hauling off the offending soil, mixing some dirt in it, and bringing it back in a wheelbarrow as filler. The resulting mixture was even looser than before.

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