Maury Wills, the 1962 National League Most Valuable Player, came to Jackson June 6, 2003, 44 years to the day after he was called up to the major leagues. He was here to meet 47 inner-city elementary and middle-school kids—all wannabe pro ball players—at Battlefield Park for a baseball clinic. None of the kids knew who he was. In fact, very few of the Jackson Senators who helped Maury with the clinic had heard of him. They soon learned.
Before the clinic started the morning of June 7, Maury told old baseball stories, entertaining some of the Senators and me. I couldn't believe it; I was actually hanging out with Maury Wills and tossing around names like Ty Cobb and Sandy Koufax. Through the course of the conversation, David Fuqua, a Senators pitcher, and Maury discovered that Fuqua, a Benicia, Calif., native, had played high school baseball with Maury's grandson, Robinson, named after Jackie Robinson. I asked Maury—born Maurice Morning Wills in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 2, 1932—if he still remembered his first professional baseball game. He began talking to me as if it had happened last week. He said he had been called up from the minor leagues in the middle of the 1959 season. The Dodgers were playing in Milwaukee, and the Dodgers manager, Walter Alston, told Maury to sit by him that first game. Alston kept asking him, "Are you OK?" Maury kept replying, "I'm fine."
The second game he was in the line-up at shortstop. The first and second innings went by, and no balls came his way. Alston, once again, between innings was asking him, "Are you OK?" and again was getting the same response, "I'm fine." Then in the third inning a ball was hit to him. He said, "I fielded it and dropped it, fielded it again and dropped it again, then picked it up and threw it into right field." Alston said, "That's OK, kid, if you're gonna throw it, let it go."
The next year, Maury's first full season in Los Angeles, the Dodgers played an exhibition game mid season in Spokane, Wash., where Maury had played his minor-league ball. He normally batted eighth in the lineup, but his manager told him that the fans had come to see Maury play that day, so he moved him to lead-off and gave him the green light on the bases. Maury said, "I had a blast. I was stealing second, stealing third and sliding all over the place. One of the players said to take it easy. You don't want to get hurt in an exhibition game. When we got back to L.A., my manager said, 'Stay where you are in the lineup and steal when you want.'" Maury went on to bat .295 and steal 50 bases that year.
By 10:30 a.m. all the little wannabes with gloves larger than themselves had arrived and Maury assembled them on the bleachers for instructions and to introduce the Senators. He told them he had started right where they are, and if they really wanted to be professional baseball players they needed to start now, work hard and be dedicated. He said, "You can't decide when you are 20 or 30 that you want to play." As he called out different positions, the kids ran onto the field to the waiting Senators. There they received instructions on hitting, throwing and other fundamentals of the game. After the kids had worked out at different positions, Maury had them line up to leave the field to get a sack lunch provided by Bumpers and t-shirts provided by The Clarion-Ledger. As each child left the field, he shook hands with each one of them, asked each his or her (there were five young ladies) name and had them respond while looking him in the eye, no looking down. Very impressive.
While everyone was eating, Maury took the time to sign everything put in front of him. He signed baseball bats, baseballs, gloves, t-shirts, hats and shoes. As the clinic crowd began to dwindle, other youth from around the area began to congregate at the field. Maury took the time to visit with and sign items for them also. As I sat back and watched the end of my morning with Maury unfold, he walked around the baseball field and collected gloves and baseballs, holding them up and trying to find the owners. He also walked around the field and picked up leftover sack lunch trash.
That night before the Senators' game, Maury signed autographs and posed for pictures. He then threw out the first pitch and coached first base. As I sat in the stands and watched him wearing his famous number 30, I thought of how hard it was for a black player then to make it in pro baseball, playing 10 years in the minors before he broke through to the major leagues. He had told me that morning about his last AAA game. They were playing in Phoenix, and his manager, Bobby Bragan, told him that it was his last game, that he was going up to the Dodgers. He said he had a good game; he had several hits and several stolen bases. He looked at me and grinned and said, "Now, when a ball player knows he had a good night, he gets the paper the next morning to read about it. If he has a bad night, he leaves the paper alone. I picked up a paper the next morning and there was a quote in there. 'I like the way that kid slides.' Ty Cobb." Ty Cobb had seen him play his last minor-league ball game. Three years later on Sept. 23, 1962, in St. Louis, Maury, after hitting a single in the third, slid head first into second base to tie Cobb's 47-year-old record of 96 stolen bases in one year. Later, in the same game, he broke that record in the seventh. He went on to steal 104 bases that year.
Last year Maury Wills received the 2002 Ernie Banks Positive Image Lifetime Achievement Award presented by BAD (Baseballers Against Drugs). He is currently involved with the Red Ribbon Program, a national organization for the prevention of drug abuse, and he sponsors the Maury Wills' Knot Hole Gang, a day camp for more than 600 children in Fargo, N.D. (In the old days, kids who couldn't afford to get into baseball games stood on wooden crates to watch through the knot holes in the fence.)
Maury seems to understand the importance of being a role model for our kids, and is using baseball to teach life's lessons. I've seen the quote, "Baseball is life." Maybe so. Being around Maury for a day helped me remember just why I love baseball.
Help Maury Wills get into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Add your name to a petition posted by his supporters at http://www.maurywills.com