It took eight and a half seasons in the minor leagues before Maury Wills got a chance to show what he could do in the majors.
Why the long wait? His path was blocked by Pee Wee Reese, a very talented and famous Dodgers shortstop.
Maury was ready for prime time in 1956 when he was 23 years old and in his sixth professional season. Give him those extra three seasons and maybe 450 hits and 120 stolen bases, and Wills is over 2,500 hits and 700 stolen bases. He won an MVP Award (deserved or not), single-handedly brought the speed game back to Major League Baseball, and he played on three World Championship teams. Do those three extra years push Wills over the tipping point and into Cooperstown? Probably.
Wills Could Have Been a Tiger
The Dodgers loaned Wills to the Detroit Tigers during spring training in 1959, a sort of “kick the tires” trial. If the Tigers liked what they saw, they could buy Wills from Los Angeles. But, Wills didn’t impress anyone in the Detroit organization. His arm wasn’t “strong enough to play short” and he “would never hit at the top level.” The Tigers returned the switch-hitting infielder to the Dodgers. It probably didn’t help that Wills was black: the Tigers had yet to employ a black everyday player.
Detroit didn’t field a black player until later in the 1959 season. They were the next-to-the-last team in MLB to integrate. Racism may have prevented Wills from being an everyday big leaguer.
Replacing Pee Wee
Finally, in June of ’59, back in a Dodger uniform, Wills was given his chance to play shortstop by Walter Alston. In a little over three months as a 26-year old rookie, Wills struggled with the bat, but he proved to be accomplished with the glove. That fall the team won the pennant, their first in Los Angeles. Wills hit .250 in the Fall Classic and stole a base as the Dodgers defeated the White Sox. But a lot more was to come from the tough infielder.
How Maury Helped the Red Sox Win a World Series
Wills was a baserunning coach for the Dodgers for years after his last job as manager (which was a disaster). He showed up in Vero Beach every year and put a uniform on, stalked the base paths, and taught young Dodgers how to steal and drag bunt. One of his pupils was Dave Roberts, a castoff from the Cleveland organization. Wills shared everything he knew about baserunning with Roberts: how to read a pitcher, how to know when a pitcher was going to throw a breaking ball, how to get a great jump. He told Roberts, “One day you’re going to have to steal a base when everyone in the park knows you’re going.” Two years later in the League Championship Series, Roberts entered Game Four as a pinch-runner in the ninth inning for the Red Sox. His team was down one run with one out and Mariano Rivera on the mound. Roberts got his lead and took off, stealing the bag. A few minutes later he scooted home with the tying run. It was the first act in the greatest postseason comeback in history.