The Man Who Brought Theft Back in Style

 

Career Year: Maury Wills – 1962

What kind of Most Valuable Player takes that award based on a season where he hits only six home runs and drives in a total of 48 runs … with a batting average under .300?

Maury Wills won the National League’s Most Valuable Player award in 1962 while leading the league in only a single offensive category … a record-breaking 104 stolen bases.

What kind of player wins the MVP while leading the league in only two offensive categories, and leading the league in only one hitting category (triples)?

Only one player has done that, and that was the Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills, the National League’s 1962 Most Valuable Player. In addition to being an excellent shortstop (a two-time Gold Glove winner), Wills did one thing exceptionally well: steal bases.

Wills was so good at stealing bases that he caused the second “unbreakable record” to fall during the 1960s. First, in 1961, Roger Maris toppled Babe Ruth’s sacred record of 60 home runs in a season. Then only a season later, Wills shattered the single-season stolen base record time at the expense of the game’s greatest all-time hitter and base runner.

When Ty Cobb stole 96 bases in 1915, the stolen base was still a primary offensive weapon, right along with the bunt and sacrifice fly. Cobb’s brand of baseball prided itself on an economy of runs, backed by pitching and defense. The popularity of that kind of baseball – both within the game and among fans –did not survive Babe Ruth and the more “lively” baseball of the 1920s and beyond.

When Ty Cobb set the single-season record of 96 steals in 1915, the stolen base was a primary offensive weapon.

Fast-forward to 1962. Ty Cobb’s stolen base record survived his passing in 1961, and surely looked like a record that might never be broken – especially with all the attention on the power game that Cobb despised. After putting the country through the emotionally exhausting circus that surrounded Roger Maris’s 1961 bid to break Babe Ruth’s home run record, the fans probably wouldn’t care all that much about a shortstop trying to break Cobb’s 47-year-old stolen base record.

Or would they?

They did. While excitement about the chase for Cobb’s record never quite reached the fervor that hounded Maris, Wills’ assault on Cobb’s record definitely engaged the country, and again extended baseball’s impact beyond the everyday fan, much the same as the quest for Ruth’s home run record had done the year before.

As the 1962 pennant race entered September, Wills had 73 stolen bases. He needed 23 more to catch Cobb, and had 27 games left to do it (19 games if he wanted to match Cobb in 154 games and avoid the expanded schedule controversy that had haunted Maris).  Wills stole four bases in one Friday night game against Pittsburgh, bringing his total to 82. In the next week he stole nine more, giving him 91 after 148 games.

Maury Wills led the National League in stolen bases five times during his 14-year major league career. He remains the Dodgers’ all-time leader in steals with 490.

Maury Wills led the National League in stolen bases five times during his 14-year major league career. He remains the Dodgers’ all-time leader in steals with 490.

Number 92 came the next day, and he got his 93rd in Milwaukee three days later (off Braves catcher Joe Torre).  Stolen base 95 came against the Cardinals in Game #154. Wills tied and passed Cobb’s mark with two stolen bases in Game #156.

He ended the season with 104 stolen bases, accomplished in 165 games, thanks to the addition of three games needed to break the regular season dead heat between the Dodgers and Giants.

Wills never bested that total. The closest he came was with 94 stolen bases in 1965. During his 14-season career, Wills averaged 49 steals per season, leading the league five different times. When he retired, he was ninth all-time in career steals with 586. He ranks 18th on the all-time list today.

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