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Maury Wills - Changed the Game of Baseball

September 28, 2013

by William Szczepanek

1971 Topps Maury Wills #385By the time this Topps card #385 was released in 1971 Maury Wills was winding down his career. It would be his last full year and he would finish 6th in the MVP voting. The effect of his career was to change the game of baseball more than anyone since Babe Ruth. Wills was remembered best for his season of 1962 when he revived the stolen base as a strategic weapon and led the Dodgers to a second place finish and an MVP Award for himself. Wills nearly stole the pennant for the Dodgers in 1962. The Dodgers would lose to the San Francisco Giants in a 3-game playoff with the winning run being walked home in the ninth inning. Maury Wills would go 4 for 5 in the game and have 3 stolen bases to clock him out at 104 for the season.

Stolen bases were not an integral part of the game of baseball in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Luis Aparicio would steal 56 in 1959 for the Go-Go White Sox who relied on Aparicio to walk, single or bunt for a hit, then steal second and finally to be driven home by one of Nellie Fox's barrel-bat singles. Aparicio was an anomaly. In fact, in 1950, Dom DiMaggio lead the AL in stolen bases with only 15 for the entire season. George Case would steal 61 for Washington in 1943 and Ben Chapman would do the same for the Yankees in 1931, but otherwise there was not much running in the game.

Since Wills' historic season the average number of stolen bases has risen nearly 20 more per season than for the previous four decades, back to when Ty Cobb stole 96 bases in 1915 when the game was one of singles, bunts and hit-and-runs. You have to go back 25 years from now to 1988 before we find a super-speedster by the name of Ricky Henderson, who stole 93, to find anyone with more than 80 stolen bases.

So Maury Wills was the first player in nearly 50 years to have such a significant effect on the game, similar to that of Babe Ruth who made the home run a popular approach to the game. Wills never really received the credit he should have for changing the game as such. There are really only a finger short of a handful of players who have ever played the game who have been able to accomplish the feat of 100 or more stolen bases. (Wills, Rickey Henderson, Lou Brock and Vince Coleman).

Maury WillsRaw speed was not the only factor that made these players great at base thievery and of those mentioned Wills was not the fastest. What was most memorable about Wills was his ability to take an enormous lead-off and be up to full speed in one step. He felt that if he did not have to dive back to first base, then he didn't have a big enough lead-off. He was rarely picked-off because he was one of the first to really study a pitcher's intentions from their motions or even facial expressions to take advantage of their slightest flaw. Wills was picked off only 3 times and caught stealing only 13 times in 1962.

With Mets pitcher Roger Craig on the mound, Wills once drew twelve consecutive pickoff attempts. On Craig's thirteenth pitch, Wills stole second.

Wills was so good at base running that he had a perpetual green light from manager Walter Alston of the Dodgers. He was the most efficient runner I have ever seen. His slides were sharp and quick, hitting the base with his back to the throw going to the outside with his left foot to elude tags, but never over sliding a base.

"He lands like a striking snake."  ─ Casey Stengel

In a game against the Cubs umpire Jocko Conlan called Wills safe as the throw from the catcher passed the mound. The Cubs protested to which Conlan replied, "You ain't got him all year. Why would you think you'd get him this time?"

I'm sure we'll see another player steal over 100 bases, but we will likely never see another player change the running game as much as Wills did.

You can check out Wills' stats at Baseball-Reference.com.

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