Maury Wills Today and Yesterday nowhere else to run and nowhere else to hide
Dick Heller/Washington Times Sports Columnist
Maury aka Sonny Wills led the Major Leagues in stolen bases in six straight seasons. In 1962 he stole 104 bases breaking the legendary Ty Cobb’s record and was named MVP in the National League. Cobb held the record for 47 years. Maury defined and changed the way the game was played offensively.
Over a decade ago when Maury was “Dead Man Walking” as it pertained to the MLB Hall of Fame. His brother Donald and Maury asked me to start a media campaign to get him inducted into the hall–enter Dick Heller. I asked the late Washington Times sports columnist to undertake the mission on behalf of Maury. The same Dick Heller who helped me get Willie Wood inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1989, pioneer Earl Lloyd inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 2002 and help me get Jim Brown (NFL) out of jail in 2007. Willie Wood was the only one to say “Thank You.”
Sonny was like a big brother not only to his siblings but also to me and other youngsters growing up in the Parkside housing project in NE DC. He was a great all-around athlete at Cardozo High School. During breaks while playing in the minor leagues he would come home and join us in pick up basketball games. He was a great running back and played football for a popular DC group called the Stone Walls. The Stone Walls were made up mostly of a group of outstanding DC athletes. For whatever reason, they never got the opportunity to play at the next level, college or pro. They were truly “Weekend Warriors” who were admired and respected in The Hood.
My Spingarn high school coach Dave Brown would prepare us for the upcoming season by arranging for us to scrimmage against the Stone Walls. Sonny was a running back for the team, kick and punt returner. It was like “Men against Boys.” But it paid off, we had an outstanding 1955 season. We were led by Maury’s little brother QB, Donald Wills. We won the East Division title against a strong and talented Armstrong High School team. Their QB was future NFL Hall of Fame player Willie Wood. The final score was 13-7.
We would face Sonny’s alma mater Cardozo for the DC Public High School Championship in old Griffin Stadium. The two teams played to a 0-0 tie. Cardozo was declared the champions because of a rule use in tied games called “Penetration” (Cardozo crossed our 50 yard line more times than we crossed theirs). Even though I thought I was the straw that stirred the drink I was confined to the bench for the entire game for conduct detrimental to the team (bad grades). I was really lucky to be in uniform. Roper McNair one of the coaches told me later, that the only reason Coach Brown let me dress was because he felt if he didn’t, he would lose me to the streets. Coach Brown always knew best.
Donald like Sonny was an all-around athlete but they were not the best athletes or best baseball players in the family. Older brothers Guy, Bobby and Dukey were considered better. It was thirteen of them, even the sisters were great athletes (Mae and Pat). Rev. Wills their father was a preacher and Ma Wills was a stay-at-home mom. They were the typical “We Are Family” found in our NE housing project.
Maury spent close to 10 years in the Dodgers’ minor league farm system. He was a 27 year old rookie when he finally made it to the major leagues and he never looked back.
From 1961 to 1965 he made the home run almost obsolete. He was considered to be the best shortstop of his time, appearing in 7 All-Star Games. His lifetime batting average is higher than many of the Hall of Fame shortstops. For example, his average is 21 points higher than Bill Mazeroski, 19 points higher than Luis Aparicio and Ozzie Smith, 12 points higher than Pee Wee Reese, and 8 points higher than Phil Rizzuto.
I remember one summer the Wills Family rented a bus to travel to Philadelphia to watch the Phillies take on Maury and the L. A. Dodgers. Friends and family were invited to participate. Donald and I were roommates and teammates at Winston-Salem State University (aka Bighouse U). As college student/athletes we were struggling to maintain and we thought this trip would provide us with an opportunity to hit up “Big Brother” for some funds. Immediately after the game family and friends gather outside the visitor’s exit from the ball park waiting for Sonny to emerge. He was mobbed by family, friends and fans when he finally made his exit. It didn’t look like we were going to be able to get our sales pitch in–it looked like it would be impossible!
Donald and I kind of laid back off to the side trying to figure out the best way to get a few words in with him alone. As he was boarding the bus to leave for the airport he looked over and saw us. He pushed his way through the well wishers and took us around to the other side of the bus out of sight. He asked Donald, “Whats on your mind little brother?” Donald told him we were both in college at Winston-Salem State and needed a little cash to help us along the way.
His response blew me away, he said “Guys I am broke, but not broke in the sense of being broke like you. I am barely able to keep up with my life style I have to maintain during the baseball season.” I walked away and left him and Donald alone, because I didn’t believe him. I later discovered the Dodgers were paying him ‘Peanuts’ compared to the white superstars of baseball.
In 1962 our junior year at Winston-Salem Maury literally set the baseball paths on fire when he stole 104 bases for a Major League Baseball record. The Dodgers won the World Series and he was named MVP of the league. Following the season he send a check to Winston-Salem State University made out to the Winston-Salem athletic department. The check was from a corporate sponsor and earmarked to be donated to a non-profit organization–enter Winston-Salem State University. I have no idea how much the check was for or who it was from. Only Athletic Director Clarence ‘Bighouse’ Gaines and Donald have those stats.
Maury Wills’ omission from the baseball hall of fame has nothing to do with his baseball stats. It has everything to do with character and integrity and that is where he came up short and was thrown out before reaching the baseball hall of fame.