The greatest baseball player to come out of DC, Wills grew up as the seventh of 13 children in the Parkside public housing project in Northeast. He said he first dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player after meeting Washington Senators second baseman Jerry Priddy at a youth clinic in the 1940s.
“I was barefoot and he said, ‘Don’t you have any spikes?’ “Wills recalled in 1975.” ‘You tell your folks to get you some; you’re a good little player. ‘ So he was always a favorite person of mine. “
For many years during his retirement, Wills returned to DC to hold clinics and camps in the summer. There’s a baseball field named in his honor of him across Georgia Avenue from Howard University.
A standout quarterback at Cardozo, Wills received nine scholarship offers to play college football, but he instead signed with the Dodgers. Wills spent nearly a decade in the minors, during which time he learned to switch hit, before making his major league debut at 26 in 1959. He was the Dodgers’ starting shortstop by the end of the season, which culminated in a World Series win over the Chicago White Sox.
From 2009: Dodgers’ Man of Steal Seeks at Gold Plaque
For the next 13 years, Wills tormented pitchers with his blazing speed atop the lineup. He led the NL in stolen bases for the first of six consecutive seasons in 1960 and was named to the first of his seven all-star teams in 1961. Dodgers Manager Walter Alston named Wills the Dodgers’ first Black captain before the 1962 season, which was the best of his career. Wills played in every game that year and managed to ignore the racist taunts and hate mail he received on a daily basis as he closed in on Ty Cobb’s single-season stolen base record set in 1915.
“It was a little sad, but I had a goal – I wasn’t going to let anything bother me, and I had a friend taking some of that pressure off me anyway. We helped each other; we had our own ways of dealing with things, ”Wills told The Post in 2009, referencing Dodgers ace Sandy Koufax, who endured antisemitic slurs. Wills, who blew past Cobb’s mark of 96 stolen bases, said he and Koufax would sometimes open each other’s mail and throw the most hateful notes away.
Ahead of being inducted to the DC Sports Hall of Fame in 2015, Wills recalled the best baseball memory of his career: sleeping at his parents’ house the night before the 1962 All-Star Game, which was held at DC Stadium.
“The team hotel was uptown, but I chose to go home to stay with my family,” Wills said. “I went back and stayed with my folks overnight and shared with everybody how it felt to be on a major league baseball team.”
When the 5-foot-11, 165-pound Wills arrived at the ballpark the next day, the security guard didn’t recognize him, decided he was too small to be a ballplayer and initially denied him entry. The situation was eventually sorted, and after Wills was named MVP of the game with a stolen base and two runs in the NL’s 3-1 win, he made sure to show the guard his trophy di lui.
“He still didn’t believe me. He thought maybe I was carrying it for somebody, ”Wills said. “I’ll always remember that.”
The Dodgers traded Wills to the Pittsburgh Pirates after the 1966 season. He switched teams again after the Montreal Expos selected him in the 1968 expansion draft but was traded back to Los Angeles in 1969.
After retiring in 1972, Wills spent five years as an analyst for NBC. He was hired to replace Darrell Johnson as the Seattle Mariners’ manager in the second half of the 1980 season and was fired in May 1981 after the Mariners got off to a franchise-worst 6-18 start. Wills would struggle with cocaine and alcohol addiction until getting sober in 1989.
Wills later returned to the Dodgers as a spring training instructor and left an impression on Manager Dave Roberts, who was an outfielder for the team from 2002 to 2004.
“He just loved the game of baseball, loved working and loved the relationship with players,” Roberts, who wears No. 30 in honor of Wills, told the Los Angeles Times. “We spent a lot of time together. He showed me how to appreciate my craft and what it is to be a big leaguer. He just loved to teach. So I think a lot of where I get my excitement, my passion and my love for the players is from Maury. “