Maurice Morning Wills was the heart and soul of the Los Angeles Dodgers offense. From 1959 to 1966, Chavez Ravine was packed with fans who were the antithesis of today’s stereotyped laid-back, casual Southern California fan. When their lithe shortstop and team captain Wills would get on base, Dodger Stadium rocked with exhortations of “Go….Go….Go.” It came with good reason– Wills revolutionized baseball with his base stealing, setting the stage for speedsters such as Lou Brock and Rickey Henderson. Opposing pitchers and position players alike were seemingly hypnotized, fans were mesmerized, and Wills’ aggressive running helped make Los Angeles great.
A snap-shot summary of Wills’ amazing career
Maury Wills demonstrated that a good little man could be equally effective as a good big man. At 5’10” and 165 pounds, Wills hit 20 home runs in his 14-year career but scored 1,067 runs thanks to savvy base running. He stole 586 bases and was the National League leader in steals for six consecutive years, 1960 to 1965. This included his record-setting single-season mark of 104 in 1962 when Wills broke Ty Cobb’s mark of 96 steals from 1915. Wills, the National League MVP in 1962, even played a record 165 regular season games that year, thanks to the three-game playoff with the Giants that ended the Dodgers’ season.
Other career highlights for Wills included:
- Five-time NL All-Star (1961–1963, 1965, 1966)
- Two-time Gold Glove Winner (1961-1962)
- NL Triples Leader (1962)
- Four-time NL Singles Leader (1961-1962, 1965, 1967)
- Helping spark the Dodgers to four pennants and three world championships in eight years. The 1965 World Series against the Minnesota Twins as Wills’ best as he collected 11 hits for a .367 average in seven games and a .387 OBP.
Wills was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates after the 1966 season, went to the Montreal Expos in their inaugural season of 1969, and returned to the Dodgers that June. Before retiring after the 1972 season, Wills was named MVP for the 1971 Dodgers as he batted .281 with a .323 OBP and led his team to a blistering September stretch drive that brought LA from eight games back early in the month to within one game of the first place Giants. The Dodgers finished second place and one game out, their best showing since winning the NL Pennant in 1966 and a preview of the Babes of Summer 1970s era in which the Dodgers were pennant winners in 1974, 1977, and 1978.
Persistence, patience, and determination
Wills signed with the Dodgers in 1951 and spent almost nine years in the minor leagues. The knock on him was that he wasn’t enough of a hitter to be a serious prospect. However Wills honed his base running skills and remained a persistent if not visible prospect until he made a major breakthrough in 1958– under manager Bobby Bragan he learned to switch hit. When Wills learned to hit left-handed and batted .313 for Spokane, the Dodgers finally called him up. Wills differentiated himself with the dynamic combination of switch hitting and voracious base running that would soon be the Dodgers most potent offensive weapon as they dominated the National League from 1959 to 1966.
With the Dodgers not only making the geographic transition from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, but gradually replacing the Boys of Summer homerun hitting/slugger style to a pitching-running-defense mode, Wills eased into both the shortstop position and later the team captaincy anchored by Pee Wee Reese since 1940. Wills joined the Dodgers mid-season in 1959 as a 26-year-old rookie and helped Los Angeles capture the National League pennant. Wills only stole seven bases in 83 games but was the offensive spark for the Dodgers winning the World Series in six games over the “Go-Go” White Sox of Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox. With the simultaneous emergence of the greatest righty/lefty pitching duo in baseball history– Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax– it was the beginning of a mini-dynasty and a revolution.
Revolutionizing the game with “Hot Wheels” base running
Having celebrated his 27th birthday with a World Series title and now regarded as a 10-year overnight success (a humorous reference to his lengthy minor league apprenticeship), Wills was soon off and running, literally. He stole 50 bases in 1960 to win his first stolen base crown. Then there was 1962. Not only was it the first time a player topped 100 stolen bases in a season, it vastly exceeded the steals totals for each team. In the 1994 book Baseball: An Illustrated History, it is noted that during the first seven years of the 1950s, not one of the 16 MLB teams had stolen 100 bases. Just five years later, Maury Wills’ 104 stolen base mark would signify the shift toward what Roger Angell would write of as a combination of tap-ball and hot-wheels base running.
With the constant threat of base stealing, Wills was able to upset the timing of opposing pitchers and alter the stance of opposing position players by putting them into a defensive posture. Maury Allen wrote of the Dodgers offense as Wills getting on, stealing second base, and then scoring on a hit by Tommy Davis, Ron Fairly, or Willie Davis. With the Dodgers record-setting Drysdale/Koufax pitching tandem, ably supported by very competent third and fourth starters like Claude Osteen, Johnny Podres and Don Sutton and stalwart relief pitching from the likes of Ron Perranoski and Jim Brewer, this low-scoring but consistent offensive threat enabled Los Angeles to defeat superior hitting teams such as the Giants, Reds, and Pirates.
Another way Wills altered the game is that he showed how a team could consistently manufacture runs with this high pressure, aggressive base stealing approach. During 1959-1966, the Dodgers scored 5412 runs in 1280 games, an average of 4.23 runs per game. During the 1965-66 pennant winning seasons, Dodgers averaged less than 3.75 runs per game. But given the manner in which LA registered its run scoring totals by moving the men around the bases through hit-and-run, sacrifice and steals, the Dodgers record-setting pitching staff coupled with efficient fielding was able to consistently play at this level throughout the course of a 162-game season.
As a result, in this same period, the Dodgers finished first four times (1959, ’63, ’65-66) and second twice (1961-62.) Moreover, the Dodgers had a winning record each season except 1964 and averaged 91 wins per year. The same cannot be said for its hard-hitting NL rivals, despite those teams having superior fire power. In other words, a weak-hitting Dodger team led by Wills that could consistently manufacture runs was a very formidable opponent because of the deadly combination of aggressive base running, efficient fielding, and superior pitching.
Wills’ contributions are best reflected in how his stolen bases contributed to three World Series Championships in eight seasons for Los Angeles. But his legacy goes beyond that. Wills’ style of play is now a standard weapon in the arsenal of most contending MLB teams. When he burst on the scene in 1959 and then led the NL in stolen bases for six consecutive years, Wills stole better than any man since Ty Cobb. Eventually, with other teams- notably the Cardinals acquiring Lou Brock in 1964- treating the stolen base not as an artifact from the distant past but a perennially relevant and powerful offensive weapon, the excitement of the game was now heightened.
The hypnotic effect: the story behind the story
In today’s saturated sports media world, the personal struggles of a professional baseball player being revealed to the public is no longer news. But in the 1960s such revelations were uncommon. Wills made big news with the revelation he used hypnosis to help cope with the psychological and physical struggles of stardom.
Following his ’62 MVP season, Wills gave a lengthy interview to Melvin Durslag of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner where he explained how hypnosis enabled him to overcome physical discomfort and anxiety associated with holding an athletic championship. The irony, of course, is that Wills achieved his MVP status by hypnotizing the opposition with his constant threat of base stealing. Now he was revealing how hypnosis was helping him as a baseball player. But it also helped lead to Wills’ shocking banishment from the Dodgers following the 1966 season.
The Intimate Casebook of a Hypnotist, by Arthur Ellen with Dean Jennings, published in 1968, provides a most insightful perspective on this aspect of Wills’ career. Wills consulted with Ellen on a recurring basis during the 1960s, and while Durslag wrote in his article of how much Wills valued his hypnosis sessions with Ellen, it is the hypnotist’s casebook that provides a rare look at what took place and its consequences. Prior to Ellen’s book, The Artful Dodgers by Tom Meany revealed the Dodger team captain to be a person with a very high energy level and keyed up to play every game as if it would be his last. Perhaps this can be attributed to Wills having to play in minor league obscurity for almost 10 years before reaching the majors.
In Meany’s book, Wills explained he had to follow a routine each day that often included playing his banjo to stay relaxed during the season. In this same book, and citing the Durslag interview and subsequent article, Wills is a strong adherent regarding the benefits he received from hypnosis. This was as far the hypnosis story went until Ellen’s book was published two years later.
Ellen’s book revealed that Wills thought he would be unable to sustain his high level of play following his MVP season in 1962 due to the physical pain, hemorrhages, scars, and bruises on his legs resulting from the often violent slides along the base paths. Ellen noted that beneath Will’s cool façade was a turbulent spirit that was often tense and insecure when it came to his athletic achievements. Through a series of hypnotic sleep sessions Ellen was able to help Wills overcome his anxiety (and overprotective attitude) concerning his legs so that he walked away from treatment with a springy step and a smile replacing the tight lips and jaw muscles which had been straining when he first arrived.
Wills continued to perform at a high level in the ensuing years but once again sought out Ellen following the 1966 season. The Dodgers had just lost the World Series in four straight games to the Baltimore Orioles and were in the midst of an exhibition tour of Japan. Since Wills was team captain and a major box office draw, Dodger management insisted he make the trip. The 1966 pennant race was one of the most intense in baseball history, with the Dodgers, Giants, and Pirates all clustered together for six months. It was not until the final day of the regular season that the Dodgers emerged as pennant winners, but it came at a high price.
Both the pitching staff and everyday players such as Wills were exhausted by season’s end. After just three games Wills bolted from the team while in Japan and showed up several days later in Honolulu where he joined his musical friend, Don Ho and entertained night club audiences with his banjo playing. When he arrived home in Los Angeles Wills had three more hypnosis sessions with Ellen where he expressed fear that his playing days were numbered due to the physical pain and scarring on his legs as well as mental exhaustion from the rigorous season-long pennant race. Again, Ellen was able to reset Wills back on the right track and the Dodger captain was ready to resume his baseball career.
However, a nasty surprise was soon in store as Dodger management traded Wills to the Pittsburgh Pirates as punishment for his defection during the Dodgers Japanese exhibition tour. The loss of face for a legendary franchise steeped in tradition like the Dodgers, occurring in a nation where courtesy, good manners and a fierce devotion to baseball are accorded the highest priority was too much for Dodger ownership and management to accept.
It’s worth noting the two seasons where Wills posted his highest batting averages occurred in 1963 and 1967 following his intense hypnosis sessions. Both years, Wills batted .302, the only times he topped .300, in fact. Was there a direct connection? It is axiomatic that hitting a baseball is one of the most difficult of all athletic feats. Since Ellen observed that after both occasions in 1962 and 1966, Wills was noticeably more relaxed and confident it is not unreasonable to infer that these benefits carried over, and thus made a positive difference at the plate in the ensuing seasons of 1963 and 1967.
Defining an era and farewell
Maury Wills helped define the glory days of the 1959-1966 Dodgers. His return from exile helped making the Dodgers a contender once more. Earlier it was noted that Wills was named team MVP for his inspiring leadership and on-field play during the 1971 season. In the years following the retirement of Sandy Koufax after the 1966 season– save for Don Drysdale’s record-setting six straight shutouts in 1968 and Willie Davis’ 31-game hitting streak in 1969– Dodger fan attendance had declined along with the team’s fortunes. The renaissance of 1971 resulted in the highest Dodger home attendance since its last pennant in 1966. Although his stolen base totals were well below his ’60s numbers, Wills’ presence once again upset the timing of opponents and served notice the Dodgers were again a contender.
The Dodger resurgence in 1971 was featured in a September 27 Sports Illustrated cover story “Dodgers and Giants at War Again – General Maury Wills” with the Dodger team captain leading his troops against their longtime rival. The article highlighted a series of games between the arch rivals that were eerily similar to their storied battles from both the 1950s and 1960s. Appropriately, this was the last hurrah for Wills, as he and fellow ’60s infield mates Jim Lefebvre and Wes Parker retired after the 1972 season. This paved the way for the eventual Garvey-Lopes-Russell-Cey infield that would be the nucleus for the Babes of Summer teams of the 1970s. But even in the swan song season of 1972, there was still an opportunity for one more moment of glory for the Dodger team captain who had revolutionized the game.
On Saturday evening June 10, 1972 the Dodgers in their 51st game of the season defeated the defending World Series Champion Pittsburgh Pirates 2-1 in the second contest of a 3-game series at Chavez Ravine. Longtime Dodger fans
such as yours truly who was listening on his transistor radio, along with 38,937 in attendance, witnessed Maury Wills leading LA into a first place tie with late-game heroics that were right out of the glory days of the 1960s. Here is the account of those late innings.
In the bottom of the 8th inning with the game tied 1-1, Wills led off with a single to left field. Bill Buckner, batting second, sacrificed Wills to second base with a bunt groundout. The next batter, Manny Mota, singled to center field with Wills running all the way and coming in to score the go-ahead run. With the next batter, Frank Robinson, grounding into an inning-ending double play, it was left to the stalwart Dodger pitchers to hold this lead. In a moment seemingly out of the glorious past, starter Claude Osteen and reliever Jim Brewe held the Pirates to 1-hit in the top of the 9th inning and preserved the 2-1 victory for LA.
I recall listening on the AM dial that night. Following the Dodger post-game wrap-up, in the ensuing radio show featuring famed LA radio host Paul Compton, he opened his program with signature “cool jazz” music declaring it was an evening to celebrate the return to glory for “the captain” Maury Wills as he led the Dodgers back into first place with the same late-game heroics that had made the former NL MVP a longtime fan favorite. By this time, Bill Russell was being eased into the shortstop position so this appearance by Wills was truly his valedictory performance in a Dodger uniform. But what a fitting way to close out a career, in front of a home crowd to boot.
About the author
George A. Haloulakos, MBA, CFA – Teacher, Author and Entrepreneur. Chartered Financial Analyst [CFA] and consultant: DBA Spartan Research and Consulting specializing in finance, strategy and new business ventures. Award-winning university instructor. Published author of DOLLAR$ AND SENSE: A Workbook on the ABCs of Investments. Hobbyist – aviation, baseball, spaceflight and science fiction. Lifetime member of Strathmore’s Who’s Who Registry of Business Leaders. Member of ordained clergy in Orthodox Church in America (rank/title of Reverend Protodeacon).
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The Intimate Casebook of a Hypnotist, Arthur Ellen with Dean Jennings. New American Library, 1968.
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On the Run: The Never Dull and Often Shocking Life of Maury Wills, Maury Wills and Mike Celzic. Carroll & Graf, 1992.
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Vassilios E. Haloulakos – Scientist, Engineer and Professor. Personal library and recollections from his face-to-face meeting with hypnotist Arthur Ellen in 1969.