Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Maury Wills Era In Pittsburgh

Hey, some of you old cats may remember when the Buccos penciled in Maury Wills at 3B in the late sixties. Yah, that Maury Wills, revolutionary of the go-go game, 1962 NL MVP, five-time All-Star and six time leader in the stolen base race, including a then-record of 104 larcenies in 1962, the first player ever to swipe 100+ bases. Heck, he even holds the record for most games played in a year at 165, the regular season plus a three game playoff round, in 1962. And he spent a couple of his 14 MLB campaigns with Pittsburgh.

After the 1966 season, the NL's title defending Dodgers traded team captain Wills to the Bucs for journeymen Bob Bailey and Gene Michael. Why so cheap? Well, for one thing, his base stealing heroics were winding down after all the wear and tear of nine seasons of slides, tags and pick off dives. Wills was a punch-and-judy hitter, though his ability to swipe a sack turned many a dink into a double. And he was 33 years old.

But the trigger was pulled after Wills jumped ship during a post-season barnstorming of Japan. It was voluntary, and Wills claimed to have bum wheels and tried to beg off. The Dodgers coaxed him along; the FO wanted him on the trip for PR purposes such as personal appearances and autograph sessions. But they did end up playing him, aggravating his injuries, and he asked to go home after three games.

The club said no, so Wills bought a plane ticket back to the States (stopping in Hawaii to strum a banjo on stage with bud Don Ho) on his own. Other variations on the theme said that he wanted paid for the extra games. Either way, Wills irked owner Walter O'Malley, who tolerated no wisp of disloyalty to the Dodger Blue, and shipped him to Pittsburgh. It wasn't a mutual divorce; Wills claimed that "I cried for a week when I heard about it.”

For whichever reason, the Bucs got their leadoff guy for the next couple of years in the switch hitting Wills. He was moved to third, as the sweet fielding Gene Alley was the incumbent SS. It was a logical switch; his arm was plenty strong enough to cover the hot corner. And it was sorta a big deal at the time; Sports Illustrated even had Wills as their cover boy in April 17th, 1967 edition. He was paid large for the times, earning $75 and $80 K in his two seasons at Forbes Field, and was a big fish in Pittsburgh's small pond.

The Bucs were a .500 club (161-163) in 1967-68 after making a run in 1966, building from within for the championship squads of the seventies. But Wills kept his end of the bargain by batting .290 over that span with a .330 OBP, though he was a free swinger and never much of a walk guy. And he was still a threat at the top of the order, stealing 81 bases, though tossed out 31 times for a blah 72% success rate. He was durable, too, playing 302 games for the Pirates in those two seasons.

He only had one memorable off-field incident in Pittsburgh. On June 10th, 1968, Wills refused to play a game against the Giants to mourn the death of RFK, one of three MLB players to do so. It wasn't exactly a rebel without a cause moment. The trio (Bob Aspromonte and Rusty Staub of Houston were the others) were fined and life moved on.

Wills was left unprotected by the Pirates in the October 1968 expansion draft and was selected by the Montreal Expos. The Bucs had Richie Hebner on the horizon, and he took over the hot corner. The Dodgers? They went from first to eighth in 1967, trying to fill Wills' spot with Michaels and another ex-Buc, Ducky Schofield. In fact, they brought Wills back in 1969 in a deal with the Expos, and he held sway in LA until Bill Russell was passed the torch in 1973.

In the short term, it gave the Bucs a draw and gave the farm time to develop some young talent. It also created a huge hole in the Dodger infield, so it was a small win for the Bucs and a big blow to LA. Because of that, the deal, engineered by Buzzy Bavasi on Walter O'Malley's whim, is rated as one of the worst the Dodgers ever made, although Octavio Dotel for James McDonald is looming large in the rear view mirror.

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