Claim to fame: Wills revolutionized baseball in the 1960s by the leading the National League in steals from 1960 through 1965. In his 1962 MVP season, Wills stole 104 bases, broke Ty Cobb’s 47-year-old Major League record, and personally accounted for 13 percent of the steals in the National League, a rare feat. Other players soon followed suit. By 1965, the stolen base total in the National League was nearly twice what it was the year before Wills began playing, setting the stage for speedsters like Lou Brock, Tim Raines and Rickey Henderson.
Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Wills exhausted his 15 years of eligibility with the Baseball Writers Association of America in 1992 and can be enshrined through the Veterans Committee.
Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? This post was inspired a piece from Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray in January 1978, not long after Wills first fell short on the Hall of Fame ballot with the writers. Murray wrote:
It’s a good thing these guys aren’t on the gates of heaven. It’s all right to be selective, but will someone in the congregation please rise and tell me why Maury Wills only got 115 votes? Will someone please tell why Rabbit Maranville is in the Hall of Fame and Maury Wills isn’t?
Murray went on to point out Wills’ 1962 record (since broken multiple times), career marks and his impact on bringing back the steal. He added:
If Maury Wills doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame, Babe Ruth doesn’t. He did the same thing Ruth did–change a national pastime, forever. For him to get only 115 votes and finish 11th behind a pack of journeymen players is a joke.
Murray was and remains one of the most respected sportswriters ever, nearly 12 years after his death, and in the three years after his column, Wills’ Cooperstown votes rose, to a peak of 40.6 percent in 1981, though he never again cracked 30 percent thereafter. Of the 11 men who finished in front of Wills on the 1978 ballot, all but one — Gil Hodges — is now in Cooperstown. Wills also finished 11 spots in front of future Veterans Committee pick Bill Mazeroski.
So the question is, does Wills belong in Cooperstown? Much as I respect Murray, one of my writing idols, my vote is no though I suspect the Veterans Committee may tab Wills before too long because of how he did on the writer’s ballot. Wills has also gotten sober since leaving the big leagues and turned his life around. As I wrote about another man who did this, Don Newcombe, the committee could do well to honor players who find recovery after falling short of greatness due to substance abuse.
For me, though, Wills’ career was too brief, his game didn’t offer much besides base running (though he did win two Gold Gloves) and his career marks aren’t impressive. He ranks 19th all-time in career steals. Raines is fifth all-time and until he gets a plaque, I can’t support giving one to Wills. These days, Wills seems more like the Home Run Baker of base stealers than the Babe Ruth.
I’m not surprised at Murray’s piece. It’s common for sportswriters to lobby for local heroes. I recently watched a DVD compiled from 8 mm color footage shot by Washington Senators outfielder George Case and there’s a clip at the end from 1989, after Case’s death, where longtime Washington Post writer Shirley Povich says Case belongs in the Hall of Fame. And though it wasn’t a plug for Cooperstown, the last published words Red Smith ever wrote were, “Indeed, there was a longish period when my rapport with some who were less than great made me nervous. Maybe I was stuck on bad ballplayers. I told myself not to worry. Some day there would be another Joe DiMaggio.”
Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.