|Tuesday, July 23
Hall debates: Maury Wills
By Bob Stevens
Special to ESPN.com
"He changed the game!" How many players can make that claim? How many Hall of Famers? Certainly Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, Ty Cobb and the Big Train before them. Johnny Bench and Cal Ripken made people in the game reconsider their positions as offensive ones. All are in the Hall of Fame or will be.
What about Maury Wills? Ichiro's 2001 MVP season reminds us what a difference a disruptive leadoff hitter can make despite hitting only eight homers. With Ozzie Smith hailed into the Hall on the first ballot, primarily for his defensive prowess at shortstop, it is a good time to revisit another shortstop who won multiple Gold Gloves and was his league's MVP in a season where he homered only six times (only two post-war MVP's had fewer, Nellie Fox and Dick Groat).
But more importantly, Maury Wills changed the game.
Where was the stolen base as an offensive weapon before the arrival of Wills in the big leagues in mid-1959? The steal had fallen into disuse since the days of Cobb. Willie Mays led the National League in steals in '59, with 27. In 1960, Wills' first full season, he stole 50 bases. The last player to steal that many in a season? Luis Aparicio did it in the American League in 1959, but prior to that it was Max Carey, with 51 in 1923, just when the Babe was showing what sluggers can do.
When Wills broke Cobb's 47-year-old record for steals in a season with 104 in 1962 (the year after Maris had broken the Babe's home-run record that had stood for "just" 34 seasons), that total was nearly 15 percent of the league's total that year, but to show how he changed the game, the National League's per-team average steals that year was 60 percent higher than it was in 1958, the year before Wills debuted at shortstop for the Dodgers.
By 1962, Wills had shown a homer-happy game that you could win games with your legs as well. More important than leading the National League in steals in six straight seasons, he led the Dodgers to four pennants (remember, no divisions back then) and three World Series championships in his first seven seasons in the majors. His arrival in mid-'59 sparked a ballclub that had finished next-to-last in its first season in Los Angeles to a pennant and World Series title over a White Sox team, whose own middle infielders (Aparicio and Fox) both eventually made the Hall.
Anyone who remembers the Dodgers teams of the early '60s -- and they were even more successful than Ozzie's mid-'80s Cardinals -- remembers Koufax and Drysdale (both in the Hall), and an offense built around Wills slapping his way on base, stealing second and maybe third, and scoring on a groundball or sacrifice fly for what might be the only run of the game.
Wills could lead, his teams won, and he could dominate at his position (he was named to five All-Star teams). How does he stack up to his Hall of Fame shortstop peers? His career batting average of .281 is 19 points higher than Ozzie or Aparicio, 12 points higher than his predecessor Pee Wee Reese, eight points higher than Phil Rizzuto. He had over 2100 hits in only 12 full seasons (he didn't reach the majors until he was nearly 27 years old) and scored over 90 runs four times. Ozzie did it only twice. Smith did steal over 40 bases five times, but was only in the top three once ... maybe because somoebody else had already changed the game? When comparing Wills to a Hall of Fame Cardinal table-setting leader, one should compare him to his immediate successor as a basestealer, and pennant winner, Lou Brock.
Wills retired 10th on the all-time stolen base list. Six of the nine ahead of him at the time are in the Hall. He's currently 18th. Among those he paved the way for include Hall of Famers Brock and Joe Morgan, who reiterated the theme at Coopertown in 19999 when he told espn.com that among the handful of those on the outside of the Hall who should be in, "Wills revolutionized the game."
The Hall of Fame should be made up of the very best of three types of players: those who were great leaders, those who dominated their era statistically, and those who "changed the game." By those criteria, Maury Wills, despite just 20 career homers (Ozzie got there with 28) was considered a Hall of Fame-caliber player during his career, should have been in the Hall a decade ago, and, with the inclusion of Rizzuto, Aparicio and now Ozzie Smith, might be even more deserving now.
Bob Stevens is an anchor for SportsCenter and ESPNEWS.