The following is the first of two parts, depicting two Los Angeles Dodgers teammates whose careers totally turned around for the better and how that all happened.
The first player is Maury Wills…
From the time he was a grade school youngster in Washington, D.C., Maury Wills wanted to be a big league ballplayer. In 1951, at age 18, the lean 5-foot-10, 160-pound shortstop signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers for a measly $500 bonus and $150 monthly salary. Then the tough stuff emerged: having to face the racism still very prevalent in the game, despite Jackie Robinson breaking the color line in 1947. In fact, black players remained a novelty for a number of years yet with teams like the Boston Red Sox--the last holdout--not signing one until the late 1950’s.
Wills’s skin color was his first problem (actually, it was the problem of others, not him): the second being the hard, bus-riding life in the Dodger minor leagues while learning his trade. He languished in the bushes for the next eight-plus seasons, beginning in a Class D league in Hornell, New York and ending across the continent in Spokane, Washington in the Triple A Pacific Coast League. In between, the much-travelled Wills bounced around: Miami, Fort Worth, Pueblo, and Seattle.
By 1958, the Dodgers had moved to fun-in-the-sun Los Angeles, California. By then, growing ever impatient, the Dodgers’ staff had their doubts about Wills. An accomplished base-stealer, he had too many things missing in his play--on offense and defense--to replace the aging shortstop “Pee Wee” Reese on the big club. In addition, he had to beat out his rival, Don Zimmer, a player much more gifted than Wills. Already on the team backing up Reese since 1954, the strong-armed Zimmer could play second, third and shortstop equally well, plus hit for power--15 homers with the championship Dodgers in 1955 in only 88 games. Then in his first season in the new home of Los Angeles, Zimmer found his way into 127 games as the main shortstop hitting .262 with 17 homers.
Wills, on the other hand, bobbled balls in the infield, displayed no significant power, and couldn’t hit the curve who every minor league pitcher who faced him knew. As a right-handed hitter, Wills could not hit the hard-snapping balls thrown by right-handed pitchers that came close to his body before breaking down and away. Oftentimes, out of fear, he would back away at the plate. If this wasn’t fixed, Wills had no chance of making the majors. Then Spokane Indians manager Bobby Bragan came to the rescue.
“Why not try switch-hitting?” Bragan asked Wills one day mid-way in the 1958 season while Wills was seen taking cuts in the batting cage from the left side of the plate as a joke. Frustrated by this point, Wills was hitting only a few points above 200.
At first, Wills thought he didn’t have a hope of switch-hitting at 26. It was too late in his career. But Bragan persisted by convincing Wills that positioning himself to either side of the plate curve balls thrown by both right-handers and left-handers would be breaking on the far corner of the plate, a much better sight line for Wills to make bat contact. Wills practiced every moment he had and within a few weeks he was a card-carrying switch-hitter.
Wills finished the season at an improved .253 mark. However, the Dodger brass still was not impressed. They even let the Detroit Tigers take a look at him in spring training in 1959, only to send him back to Spokane before the season started. Now Wills was faced with the grim fact that two teams didn’t want him. Then something clicked early in the season, with Bragan continuing to work more relentlessly with Wills on his switch-hitting skills. Suddenly, his batting average climbed, his defense improved vastly, and he was stealing bases with ease. He also was fast becoming the team leader and looked up to by his teammates.
Wills began to prepare himself before games. He would watch pitchers warming up to catch any quirks the hurlers had that could be taken advantage of. During games, he didn’t hesitate to whiz a ball close to the head of any cocky baserunners who dared to head into second base standing up to thwart a double-play throw to first base.
By phone that spring, Bragan pestered Dodgers GM Buzzie Bavasi continually to call Wills up to the big club because he was now the best shortstop in the organization and ready to bump Zimmer, who, as it turned out, had injured his foot early in season anyway.
June 1959, Wills got the call and took a flight to Milwaukee where the Dodgers were playing on the road. Within a month, manager Walt Alston had the speedy Wills inserted into the lineup as the regular shortstop. The Dodgers won the National League pennant and World Series that season with Wills hitting a decent .260 and stealing seven bases in 83 games. In the World Series, he added five hits in 20 at bats for a .250 average, along with a stolen base.
The following year, Wills fell into a terrible slump in the first few weeks after spring training. Like Bragan, another bystander came to the rescue. This time it was coach Pete Reiser, who had already been working closely with Wills on stealing bases more affectively. Unlike Bragan seeking Wills out, Wills turned to Reiser, a lifetime .295 hitter during a short career.
In the early 1940’s, “Pistol Pete” Reiser, the Brooklyn Dodger “Mr. Everything,” could switch-hit, field, throw, and run, including seven steals of home in one season in 1946, a league record to this day. A National League batting champ at 22 in 1941 at .343, with 39 doubles and 17 triples, he was well on his way to being one of the greatest all-around players in baseball history, except he ran into too many injuries before reaching 30 that brought him down to the level of one of those sad “what if” cases. Until retirement, he was carried off the field on a stretcher a total of 11 times, five unconscious.
In an early morning batting practice session at LA Coliseum with Reiser throwing from the mound, the coach pointed out some problems. He told Wills to stop trying to pull the ball from both sides of the batter’s box AND stop trying to hit the ball so hard. Hit it on the outside of the plate. Wills took the advice and began connecting straight away and to the opposite field. These solo sessions in the batting cage continued for weeks until Wills felt comfortable. Then, he went on a tear, finishing the season at .295 and a league-leading 50 stolen bases.
Given his second shot of adrenalin, Wills never looked back. He just kept getting better. For six straight years from 1960-1965 he re-created the stolen base as an offensive weapon by leading the National League in that department, peaking at a record-setting 104 swipes in 1962 against only 13 times caught, breaking Ty Cobb’s mark of 96 stolen bases in 1915. That same year, Wills started every game at shortstop, hit .299, and collected a Golden Glove (his second straight) and his first and only league MVP award.
In his 14-year career, he was a prime factor in the Dodgers appearing in four World Series, winning three of them. They were the “Go-Go Dodgers,” a team of pitching, timely hitting and running. During that span, he hit .281 with 2,134 hits and stole 586 bases, while also seeing action with the Montreal Expos and Pittsburgh Pirates. Throughout his career opposition team meetings prior to games consisted of how to keep Wills off the base paths because he could win games by manufacturing runs. He dominated the game that much.
To this day, Wills is forever thankful to two people in management--Bobby Bragan and Pete Reiser--who were in the right place at the right time to help turn him, a two-time frustrated player, into a winner and an impactful star. It’s beyond me why Wills isn’t in the Baseball Hall of Fame, especially when you consider that many of the shortstops who are enshrined in Cooperstown were not any better.
Next month Part Two…pitcher Sandy Koufax.