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Dodgers' Man of Steal Seeks a Gold Plaque

By Michael Leahy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 4, 2009

LOS ANGELES -- "Sometimes you don't think it will ever happen," he says. "But then you try not to think that." -- He is pointing at the outfield wall. "Out there," he says. -- He sweepingly gestures at 10 numerals hanging atop the left field and right field bleachers, the area known as the Pavilion at Dodger Stadium. "There," he says. "The guys. The numbers."

The hanging numbers are jersey numbers, arranged in numerically ascending order: 1, 2, 4, 19, 20, 24, 32, 39, 42 and 53. With a single exception, all are the retired jersey numbers of nine Dodgers who have been elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

He ticks off the names that go with the numbers, everyone from Brooklyn Dodgers legends Pee Wee Reese (1), Roy Campanella (39) and Jackie Robinson (42), to several Dodgers who played with him in Los Angeles -- Duke Snider (4), Don Sutton (20), Sandy Koufax (32), and Don Drysdale (53), as well as his deceased manager, Walt Alston (24), and Alston's successor, Tommy Lasorda (2). What is hanging in the air at this moment is the understanding of the Dodger number not out there -- the one not in the Hall of Fame. The number is 30.

His number.

"I've been close but not close enough," Maury Wills says, squinting at the numbers.

"I used to say it doesn't hurt but, deep down, I still think it hurts. It's more than an award -- do you know what I mean? It says something. If you played baseball and you get it -- or don't get it -- it says something about you. Pin me down and, I'll have to say, yes, it hurts. I used to drink over it, a long time ago. I had some other problems then, too. I've found peace. But it still hurts."

* * *

What makes the Hall of Fame so coveted by those locked out of it, is that it confers an official stamp of greatness. Implicit is the belief that if the ex-player can only push through the gates of Cooperstown he'll take his place forever alongside the gods of the sport.

The standard for accepted Hall of Fame candidates is 75 percent of the vote among Hall voters. In the case of long-retired players like Wills, the voters consist of all living members of the Hall of Fame, who comprise the Veterans Committee, which considers nominated players who have fallen short on votes cast by baseball writers for at least 20 years following their retirement. Every time over the last 30-plus years that Wills, a Washington native and perennial all-star shortstop for the Dodgers during the team's glory days in the 1960s, has come up for consideration, the ultimate verdict has been the same.

No.

He has just turned 77 and it is late -- late on this Sunday afternoon, late in life. His games, which began as a child for him in a housing project known as Parkside in Northeast Washington, ended 37 years ago. The former shortstop is sitting in the cathedral of his glory days, an empty Dodger Stadium, on a lethargic and sweltering summer afternoon, high above the left field line, glancing back and forth between those numbers above the Pavilion and the infield.

Wills raises an elongated finger. "There," he says, gesturing at third base. "That's where it happened. One-oh-four."

His 104th stolen base, the climax to his record-breaking year.

It was 1962, the same year that Wills began receiving hate mail. Robinson had integrated baseball only 15 years earlier, and Wills was poised to become the first African American in history to shatter a hallowed record in the sport, one that had endured for 47 years -- Ty Cobb's single-season major league mark for stolen bases in a season. Twelve years before Henry Aaron would travel through a cauldron of racist fury and death threats en route to shattering Babe Ruth's major league record for lifetime home runs, Wills endured epithets and taunts arriving in sealed envelopes at the Dodgers' clubhouse.

"It was a little sad, but I had a goal -- I wasn't going to let anything bother me, and I had a friend taking some of that pressure off me anyway -- we helped each other, we had our own ways of dealing with things," Wills recalls.

The friend, Wills's teammate and future Hall of Fame pitcher Koufax, coped with his own share of hate mail. Arguably the greatest left-handed pitcher of all-time, a quietly observant Jew who would decline to pitch the opening game of the 1965 World Series because it conflicted with Yom Kippur, Koufax routinely received ugly missives from anti-Semites, until finally he and Wills saw a method for reducing their discomfort. As Wills closed in on Cobb's record of 96 steals, the two friends began opening and silently reading each other's mail, throwing away hateful notes while using the opportunity to jocularly tease one another and lighten the mood. "I'd say, 'Sandy, I'm suuuuuure you don't want to read this one,' " Wills remembers, laughing. "And Sandy would chuckle and say something like, 'Gosh, Maury, I don't think you want to get a look at this note. No, sir.' "

Wills's final two stolen bases of the season came in a bitter season-ending playoff loss at home to the Dodgers' hated rivals, the San Francisco Giants. He won the National League most valuable player award for the season, as well as the Hickok Belt, emblematic at the time of the best professional athlete in all of sports that year.

He had settled into his prime years as a player, capturing two Gold Gloves as the league's best fielding shortstop, captaining two Dodgers teams to World Series titles and starring on a third. Alston called him the best clutch player he ever knew. During a 14-year-career that ended after the 1972 season at the age of 40, Wills built a lifetime average of .281, part of an array of personal statistics that compare favorably to three shortstops long ago elected to the Hall of Fame -- his career batting average higher than the Yankees' Phil Rizzuto, the Orioles' and White Sox' Luis Aparicio, and the Dodgers' Reese.

But what Wills did better than anyone else was steal bases. Having toiled for 8 1/2 seasons in the Dodgers' heavily stocked minor league system and finally achieved a breakthrough after becoming a switch hitter, he made it to the major leagues at the advanced age of 26, midway into the 1959 season, a year when Willie Mays led the National League with 27 steals. The following year, in his first full season in the majors, Wills stole 50, the first time in 37 years that a National League player had stolen as many. It marked the start of his six consecutive stolen base titles.

In breaking Cobb's record and exceeding 100 stolen bases in a single season, Wills did more than reach a milestone. He pushed back the edge of a psychic envelope. The act of the stolen base, which involved a pair of mano-a-mano duels between pitcher and runner, and catcher and runner, became a thrilling staple of baseball in the 1960s and '70s. The Cardinals' Lou Brock, who shattered Wills's record with 118 stolen bases in 1974, observed that his predecessor had made it possible for players like him, the speed merchants, to be regarded as stars worthy of big salaries and fame.

"What Maury did, you can't think about it just in terms of numbers. He changed the game," says former New York Yankee left-hander Al Downing, whose brief joust with Wills during Game 2 of the 1963 World Series stunned a capacity Yankee Stadium crowd. As Wills took a lead in the opening inning, Downing tried to pick him off by throwing to first baseman Joe Pepitone. But, instead of diving back to first, Wills streaked to second, stealing the base and soon coming home to score, en route to a Dodgers victory and a four-game Series sweep. "It was like, "Ahhhhhhh,'" Downing remembers of the Stadium's collective buzz, a sound of incredulity.

"The Yankees never played that kind of ball."

* * *

As a youth, Wills received his introduction to the game during the all-white days of major league ball. At 12, living in the projects on Kenilworth Avenue, he didn't know that such a thing as the major leagues existed. His heroes played ball on all-black semipro teams, jaunty men with talent and flair who, regularly played with caps askew and half-pint whiskey bottles sticking out of their back pockets, he recalls.

"I'd never heard of the Washington Senators," he says. "My dream was just to be good enough to play semipro around there like those guys. Some were really good. . . . Some might have been able to play [in the majors] if they had the chance, I don't know -- we're never going to know."

His ambitions changed one day when a white man in a sparkling white baseball uniform visited Parkside. He was introduced to the kids as Jerry Priddy, a second baseman for the Senators, who played in a place called Griffith Stadium, about two bus tokens, 40 minutes and a galaxy away from Parkside.

Priddy tossed a ball around with some of the kids. Little Maury Wills, one of 13 children in his family, had no shoes. Even so, when groundballs came to him, he fielded, pivoted and threw hard and true. As Wills remembers, Priddy said to him, "You tell your parents to get you some shoes because you have a future in baseball."

Suddenly the young Wills had a new hero. He was regularly off to Griffith Stadium on the bus to watch Priddy and the other Senators. "Jerry Priddy, second base," he says, the way an announcer would. "I wanted to play where he played -- I wanted a uniform like that. I wanted to play in this major league thing."

Wills starred at Washington's Cardozo High, a 5-foot-9, 155-pound triple-wing tailback who turned down a college football scholarship offer at Virginia State in favor of signing with the Dodgers organization at 17 for $500, just three years after the Dodgers had signed Robinson.

Wills came to see matters of race as utterly unpredictable, as capable of inspiring as dividing. He witnessed redemption in the strangest of circumstances and unlikeliest of people. One day, deep into his minor league stint in Spokane, Wash., by which time he had been in the Dodgers' farm system for more than seven years, his Class AAA manager, Bobby Bragan, unexpectedly draped his arm around him. A surprised Wills, who had heard that Bragan once refused to play with Robinson, listened as Bragan volunteered to help teach him how to switch-hit.

Why? Wills asked.

"Because you look afraid of the curveball," Bragan told him, adding that, as a right-handed hitter, Wills was flinching at the curve, making it next to impossible for him to hit the pitch.

In the past, Wills had protested such suggestions -- "No man wants to be told he's afraid of anything" -- but this time he listened. "I think Bobby was put here partially to save my career, and he did, and I think I was put here to help him . . . help him show me and other people everything he could do for us," Wills said.

Within a year Wills was such a success as a switch hitter that when the Dodgers began searching for another shortstop, Bragan told the Dodgers' skeptical general manager, Buzzie Bavasi, that Wills was their man. Midway into the 1959 season, Bavasi agreed to give Wills a shot. By the season's end, Wills was the Dodgers' starting shortstop, and a leader on a team that beat the Chicago White Sox in six games to win the World Series.

Three summers later, Wills returned to Washington on a brief visit and a bit of business: He played in the All-Star Game, led the National League to victory, and took home the game's most valuable player award.

* * *

Before the 1962 season began, Alston appointed Wills as the Dodgers' captain, making him the first black to hold the position in the club's history. "Walt didn't think about anything except who was going to be able to help him win: that was the whole Dodgers' belief," Wills remembers.

But baseball, like all athletics, was an insular world. Two Americas existed and thus two different sets of lives for black ballplayers on the Dodgers -- one on the field, where their fame translated fleetingly to adoration, and another where Wills lived at night, fearful of ostracism if he overstepped the proprieties of the times. He played in a city renowned for its Hollywood cool and forward-thinking prosperity. But Los Angeles, like much of early 1960s America, masked a seething social and racial tension coursing beneath its surface.

Wills drove home at night to a black neighborhood in Southeast Los Angeles on Santa Barbara Avenue -- what is today Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. "I felt when the game was over that I knew my place," he remembers. "I went home on most nights pretty quickly -- it was where I felt most comfortable."

Dodger Stadium was his refuge and fantasyland, but a part of the fantasy was broken forever in August 1965, when a six-day race riot erupted in the Watts community of Southeast L.A., a short distance from Wills's apartment. It claimed 34 lives and destroyed hundreds of buildings. The violence threatened to engulf a business Wills co-owned just outside the riot area, the Maury Wills Stolen Base Cleaners. His panicked white partner called to ask him to stand outside in front of the cleaners, in hopes that rioters might spare it if they saw the face of a black athletic star.

"I did what he asked," Wills remembers. The cleaners went untouched. "I had to go through part of the [riot] area to go home and go to the cleaners. I was worried police might see me, not know who I was, and anything could happen. I was on pins and needles, I just wasn't used to anything like this. I knew it was bad, but I didn't know how bad. I was insulated from all that as an athlete. That kind of thing never had touched me here."

"Here" means the stadium. It is quiet, and he leans back in a padded seat on the club level, just a shortstop's throw from the Dodgers' executive offices where so many of the pivotal moments of his career and life occurred, good and bad. It was here where Dodgers executives hugged him after the Dodgers swept the Yankees in 1963 to win the World Series, and here where the team partied after winning another Series, two years later, against the Minnesota Twins.

It was also here, Wills recounts, where Bavasi called him into his office after hearing whispers that Wills was dating America's ivory-skinned sweetheart of the time, the actress and singer Doris Day. Is it true? Bavasi demanded. "It's just a rumor," Wills coyly responded. Several teammates and close Dodgers observers believed that Wills and Day were romantically involved, a story that Day vociferously denied in the years that followed and that Wills declines to publicly discuss today after a period when he said the rumors were true.

But, as Wills remembers now, Bavasi was less interested in determining facts than in delivering a cryptic warning meant to put a halt to a possible public relations problem for the Dodgers. The National League's MVP received an order that he dared not challenge in an era where players had no rights, no recourse and no free agency. "I was scared," Wills remembers, adding that he repeated to Bavasi that he was not dating the actress. Bavasi delivered an ultimatum, as Wills recalls. "He said, in so many words to me, 'Be sure you don't.' "

Many years later, it was here inside the offices in late 1972 where, as a slowing 40-year-old legend, the Dodgers told him they couldn't use him any longer. And it was here, in the 1980s, where after a short-lived, failed managerial stint with Seattle sent him into a personal spiral that included a long bout with alcohol and drugs, that he had to face up to a truth about himself. "I'd lost everything," he remembers. His marriage was over, and he worried about his relationships with his six children. "I was humiliated over what had happened in Seattle. My drinking had started, it was pretty bad, and when that wasn't enough I did other things. I'd lost my self-worth, my self-respect."

The Dodgers reached out and helped pay for his recovery treatment. He has been sober and clean for more than 20 years now, he says, and these days he works with Dodgers players as a roving instructor, as well as a spokesman for their community relations department. "The Dodgers were there for me," he says, "and I always try to be there for them."

He likes to work with ballplayers of all ages nowadays, which has accounted for the periodic clinics he has conducted over the years all over the country, including in his native Washington, particularly around Cardozo High, where his alma mater has named its baseball field after him. But always he has come back here. Off and on, for the last two decades, he has worked with young Dodgers.

One steamy Monday, he is on the field before a game against the Arizona Diamondbacks, dressed in a Dodger uniform with his name and his number 30, working on the art of bunting with a group of Dodger regulars that includes their fleet outfielder Juan Pierre. "Get your hands away from your body -- this isn't hard," Wills calls, demonstrating.

Once finished, he changes out of his uniform and walks in a pinstriped suit to a Dodgers dining room frequented by season ticket holders. He is that rare septuagenarian who bears a striking resemblance to his thirtysomething self: He still has the lean face of his playing days, his toothy smile, and all his hair, which makes him immediately recognizable to Los Angelenos. Balding, paunchy, middle-aged fans, who cheered him during their youth, approach with balls and programs, shyly looking for autographs, and he affably obliges. Now and then, someone will ask him to sign "Maury Wills, Hall of Fame." He says he can't do that. He offers instead to sign his name and jot the number of lifetime bases he stole.

* * *

Baseball analysts and historians are divided over Wills's Hall of Fame candidacy -- he has both impassioned boosters and dismissive naysayers. The highly respected baseball historian and statistician Bill James, now an adviser to the Boston Red Sox, praised Wills's abilities in a 1985 book, but he seemed to stop short of a full-throated endorsement, reflective of the uncertainty of Wills's fate. "While active, I think it was generally assumed that Wills was a Hall of Fame-caliber player" James wrote. "He was a smart player, and as a Gold Glove winner, a .300 hitter and a base-stealing champion on an outstanding team, a player with too many positives to be lightly dismissed."

"But I'm still here," Wills says, meaning not in Cooperstown.

While blocs of fans and baseball analysts tend to rely chiefly on a retired player's numbers in assessing his worthiness for the Hall of Fame, great players generally don't. Many Hall of Famers think the focus on statistics obscures what they regard as the most important consideration: a player's everyday impact on winning games.

Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan watched Wills on telecasts of Dodgers-Giants games as a teenager growing up in northern California. Later, as a young player with Houston, Morgan encountered first-hand the chaos and quandary that Wills created. The leadoff batter on notoriously light-hitting Dodgers teams, Wills made a habit out of slapping a single or bunting his way on to first, stealing a base or two, and coming home on groundouts and flyballs. Often, he so unnerved opposing pitchers and catchers that they unraveled, their errant pickoff throws enabling him to score all by himself. Wills was the game's disturber.

Morgan remembers well the Astros' pregame clubhouse meetings before games against the Dodgers. "They began and ended," he recalls, "with talk about how we were going to try to stop Wills, because if you didn't stop Wills and keep him off base, you weren't going to beat the Dodgers."

Like all Hall of Famers, Morgan is eligible to vote for Hall of Fame candidates in the Veterans Committee selection process, the next vote will take place in 2010 for induction in 2011. "I've written down Wills's name before anybody else's in every election in which I've voted," says Morgan, nowadays a baseball analyst for ESPN. "I meet baseball guys who think he's already in the Hall of Fame -- they can't believe he's not in there."

Koufax, a devout Wills booster for the Hall, voices frustration that his friend has had to wait so long for the honor. "I don't understand why some people receive the [honor] and some people don't -- you've had some people elected with very similar careers to his, statistically," Koufax says. "He revolutionized the game. He should be in there."

One evening, after working with some Dodgers on their bunting, Wills walks into the clubhouse and gestures at his old locker stall, occupied these days by Dodgers first baseman James Loney. Walking back into his old clubhouse is like walking back into an old boyhood bedroom. It is his but not his. The slugger Manny Ramírez walks by, bobbing his head and dreadlocks to some song only Manny hears. Manny plays in the stratosphere and will make about $23.8 million this year. Wills made his living in the dirt, earning $97,000 in his most lucrative season. Wills calls to him: "Hey, Manny, could I get you to sign a couple of your bobbleheads if I can bring them in?"

"Sure, why not," Ramírez says over his shoulder without breaking stride.

"He can hit it, huh?" Wills says, watching Ramírez trudge toward the dugout. "Manny. Whoooo. They love to see the long ball now."

Wills walks on to the field, past a gaggle of kids in field box seats who glance at the elderly man in the uniform without a trace of recognition. It is hot and Wills closes his eyes and sips water. "Right there," he says, revived, and points in the general direction of the outfield.

Where?

"There," he says, his finger jutting, and points upward, out at Alston's 24 and Koufax's 32 above the Pavilion. "That's where my number would go if it ever happens. 30. Right? It would go right between Alston and Sandy." And he looks out, trying to imagine it. "If it happens, I'd feel like I could rest. I'll be okay if it doesn't, but it's just that I won't believe I reached my full, my full, I don't know what you call it really."

Ramírez strolls by and the gaggle of young fans scream, "Mannnnnnnneeeeeee."

Wills is fixated on the Pavilion. "I don't know if it will ever happen," he says. "I came up a long time ago. Some people's memories get short. A few people came up after me, broke all the records."

And that is true enough. Brock, Rickey Henderson, Vince Coleman: they long ago surpassed his single-season mark. Eighteen men have more career stolen bases now. Does it matter? "I know what he did," Koufax says of his friend.

What he did was set imaginations afire. That 90-foot dash in Yankee Stadium, his hook slide into third in Dodger Stadium: He jolted fans from their seats.

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