Wiedmer: Wills a tribute to never giving up

Wiedmer: Wills a tribute to never giving up

June 15th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Maury Wills was 10 years old. He had no shoes on his feet. His baseball glove was actually a brown paper bag he'd pounded a pocket into to help snare ground balls.

"I was one of 13 children," said the 81-year-old former Los Angeles Dodgers great who will address the Southern League All-Star Game luncheon Tuesday at the Chattanooga Convention Center. "We lived in the projects in Washington, D.C. We slept four or five in a bed. But I had a good childhood."

On this particular summer day, his future adulthood was about to switch from uncertain to unbelievable. Dropping by a baseball clinic conducted by Washington Senators second baseman Gerald "Jerry" Priddy at the playground Wills and his buddies frequented in 1943, shoeless Maury was asked to field a few ground balls.

"His uniform was perfectly in place; he spoke well; I was very impressed," Wills recalled. "We were used to seeing black semi-pro players on weekends, Bingo Long-type teams, with their caps on sideways, wild uniforms, a pint of whiskey in their back pockets. And we wanted to be just like them. But this guy was completely different."

Priddy asked Wills to get about 30 feet from him and throw the grounders back.

"I remembered hearing that 70 percent of the ground balls infielders miss roll under their gloves," Wills sad. "So I got down in my stance, made sure to have my 'glove' on the ground and fielded them cleanly. Then I did a crow-hop, planted my feet and threw it back. It was perfect, just the way you're taught, but no one had taught me that at that time. It was just intuitive, maybe from watching the semi-pro guys with the pint of whiskey in their back pockets."

However he'd learned the skill, Wills immediately impressed Priddy, though the major leaguer was a little concerned about the kid's lack of footwear.

"I've never owned a pair of shoes," the youngster told him.

"Well, tell your parents to get you a pair of baseball shoes," Priddy said. "You've got a chance to be good in baseball."

This is the day for the past 104 years that we've annually set aside to honor fathers, and Wills was blessed to have his father around long enough to watch him become MVP of the 1962 Major League All-Star game and star in a World Series victory for the Dodgers over the Yankees.

But we also should recognize that males don't have to be biological dads to play a tremendous role in a young person's life.

"That man," Wills said of Priddy, "changed my whole life that day. I became a good kid after that. I quit thinking about what trouble I could get into with my friends and started thinking about doing well in school. I started being a better person around the house. I made it my goal to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers."

It wasn't as if Wills was a directionless youth. His father was a minister who "never left the house without a Bible in his hand."

Guy Wills also worked in Washington's Naval Yard while Maury's mother ran an elevator to help feed their 13 children. And while he was strict about his children attending Bible lessons in the family's living room each Sunday afternoon, he actually changed the time so they'd quit sneaking out early by crawling down a rope made of sheets from a second-story window.

"He understood how much we loved to play baseball," Wills said.

Seven years after meeting Priddy, the kid with no shoes and a brown bag for a glove signed his first professional contract.

"I jumped at the opportunity," he said. "I never hesitated."

Yet the Dodgers hesitated almost nine years to bring their sticky-gloved shortstop to the big leagues. Wills crisscrossed the country with minor league teams from Florida to Texas to Washington state. And this being the 1950s, where many of the towns he played in were still segregated.

"Sometimes the bus would stop at a restaurant for the team to eat and I couldn't be served," he said. "I was so humiliated, so angry. A teammate would bring me food, and most of the time I would refuse it. But if I was really hungry I might eat a little of it."

Wills said that all those years made him quit in his mind "a million times." But then he'd have a good game or a manager would offer encouraging words and he'd decide to stick it out a little longer.

"But I also knew that on any given team, if there were 20 players, there were maybe three prospects," he said. "I always felt like I was one of those other 17."

Yet in June of 1959, the Dodgers called him up from Spokane. Fourteen years, three World Series rings, one National League MVP award (1962), 586 career stolen bases (including a then-record 104 in '62), a career .281 batting average, seven All-Star appearances and one All-Star MVP trophy later, he retired, proclaiming his playing career "quite the Cinderella story."

A favorite moment from that run: "The 1962 All-Star game was in my hometown of Washington, D.C.," Wills said. "So I stayed with my parents instead of with the other guys at the hotel. But when I got to the stadium, the team bus had already dropped everybody else off. The security guard didn't believe I was who I said I was, so I asked him to escort me to the locker room so somebody could vouch for me. Naturally, all my teammates said, 'We've never seen this guy before in our lives.'

"Fortunately, a National League representative finally got me in and everything was fine. But when the game ended, the first person I went looking for was that security guard. I just wanted to show him my MVP trophy."

Unfortunately, the clock struck midnight on Wills' Cinderella run. After doing television work through much of the 1970s, he was hired to manage the Seattle Mariners in 1980. He was fired less than midway through the following season.

"I drove the entire 1,500 miles from Seattle to Los Angeles in one day," he said. "I stayed in my house for two years. I was too ashamed and embarrassed to come out. I started drinking too much and using drugs. I was a mess."

It took him eight years and more than a few failures to get clean and sober. Along the way he became estranged from his six children, including son Bump, who played seven years in the majors.

"I'll call him Sunday," Wills said Friday from Los Angeles. "He lives in Texas now, has two beautiful daughters. I'm so proud of him."

As he spoke, he talked of just coming from a sobriety meeting.

"I've been clean and sober for more than 24 years," he said. "It will be 25 years in August. In fact, I just finished mopping the floor at the center, something I do every day I'm here. They say there's magic in the mop."

And as the Southern League All-Stars are likely to find Tuesday, quite likely a good deal of magic in the message of the 81-year-old baseball legend pushing it.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com