By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
When you mention Maury Wills to most baseball fans, they reminisce about him as a fleet-footed infielder with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
And that only makes sense.
The speedy Washington, D.C., native spent almost 12 of his 14 major league seasons in Dodger Blue and was named to five all-star teams and won three World Series with them.
But longtime Canadian baseball fans are also likely to remember Wills’ brief but dramatic stint with the Montreal Expos in their inaugural campaign. After using their 11th pick in the 1968 expansion draft to select Wills, the Expos endured an eventful relationship with the aging speedster.
While with the Expos between March 1 and June 11, 1969, Wills:
- was a spring training contract holdout
- was booed by Expos fans for indifferent play
- He abruptly retired and then “un-retired” 48 hours later, only to be traded back to the Dodgers shortly thereafter.
Oh, and in between all of this, he slapped a Montreal Gazette reporter in the mouth on the team bus.
So it’s safe to say that Wills’ least interesting role with the club was as its leadoff hitter and starting shortstop.
“I came here because I was bewildered and I wanted to hear his explanation first hand,” Expos manager Gene Mauch told reporters at Wills’ hastily called retirement press conference on June 4, 1969.
A Montreal Gazette reporter caught up with Mauch after that press conference and asked him how he felt now.
“I’m still bewildered,” replied the Expos bench boss.
“Bewildered” must have been a consistent state of mind for Expos general manager Jim Fanning when dealing with Wills, whose soap opera-esque tenure north of the border would’ve made riveting reality television.
To give you some background about Wills: he was born in 1932 in Washington, D.C. and was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950. He toiled for eight long seasons in the club’s minors before finally getting his first big league shot in 1959. From there, the switch-hitting infielder established himself as a catalyst atop the Dodgers’ lineup and as one of the top base-stealing threats of his era.
He would lead the National League in stolen bases for six consecutive seasons from 1960 to 1965, and in 1962, he set a then Senior Circuit record with 104 stolen bases. That coupled with his .299 batting average and 208 hits helped him win the MVP award.
But Wills was a complex man with many interests. He often gave selflessly to community causes, but he also played the banjo and enjoyed the Hollywood night life. He dated Doris Day, golfed with Sammy Davis Jr. and at one point, had several different business ventures, including a chain of cleaning businesses and a night club.
He was also a free thinker who didn’t always conform to rules. For example, after the 1966 post-season, the Dodgers were playing a series of exhibition games in Japan when Wills returned to the U.S. without telling the club. He claimed it was to receive treatment for a knee injury, but on the way back to Los Angeles, he made a pit stop in Hawaii where he played his banjo at some shows starring Davis Jr. and Don Ho.
This stunt contributed to the Dodgers’ decision to trade him to the Pittsburgh Pirates on December 1, 1966. By this time, Wills was 34 and had lost a step, but he still managed to swipe 52 bases in 1968. That season, Wills made the news off the field again when he refused to attend a medical appointment the Pirates had set up for him and he was fined by the club. In protest, he staged a 24-hour strike against the Bucs before returning.
His declining skills and unpredictable behaviour are two reasons the Pirates left him exposed in the expansion draft. Prior to the draft, however, Wills said he’d retire if he was selected by one of the National League expansion clubs (the Expos or the San Diego Padres).
So when the Expos chose the 36-year-old Wills with their 11th pick, Roy McHugh, a Pittsburgh Press writer, tracked down the veteran infielder to ask him if he’d report to the Expos.
“I just don’t know what I will do,” Wills told McHugh.
But Mauch, the Expos manager, was confident he could convince Wills to join the club and thought the 36-year-old was capable of “two or three” more “great seasons.” Some felt the Expos chose Wills because he would help them sell tickets.
“Believe me, we picked solely on ability with no regard to box office attraction or position,” Mauch told the Montreal Gazette, when asked about the club’s decision to select Wills.
That fall, Fanning initiated contract negotiations and in January 1969, the club invited Wills to Montreal to see the city and discuss the team’s plans. While in Canada, the veteran infielder made promotional appearances for the team in Drummondville and on Hockey Night in Canada. And after the visit, Fanning felt confident that Wills would be relatively easy to bring on board.
But Wills had been a vocal player representative for the Pirates and at the time, the Players Association and Major League Baseball were hammering out a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) and Wills was under orders not to sign a contract.
The speedy veteran reportedly earned close to $80,000 in 1968 with the Pirates, and once the new CBA was in place, Fanning approached Wills, but the former MVP wanted more money than Fanning expected. The two sides were unable to come to terms until March 9 and by that time, the Expos were already playing spring training games. Canadian Magazine reported that Wills’ contract paid him $105,000 in 1969, which made him the highest salaried athlete in Canada.
After signing the deal, Wills told reporters he would be ready to play quickly.
“I’ll be in shape in two days,” he told the Montreal Gazette after signing the deal.
When the Expos drafted him, they pencilled him in as their starting third baseman, but Wills made it known that he was preparing to be the everyday shortstop.
“If Maury says he can play all-star shortstop for me, then I know he can and that’s where I’ll use him,” Mauch told the Montreal Gazette that spring. “And don’t worry about a third baseman, I’ll find one.”
Wills joined the Expos in West Palm Beach, Fla., and batted leadoff and started at shortstop and went 0-for-3 in his spring training debut on March 14. Over the next few weeks, he got himself into game shape and made progress both offensively and defensively,
The Expos started their inaugural season on the road on April 8 against Tom Seaver and the New York Mets at Shea Stadium. As the leadoff hitter that day, Wills became the first batter to walk to the plate for the Expos in a regular season game. He struck out looking, but later had three hits – including two doubles – two runs and a stolen base in the Expos’ 11-10 win.
He then fell into an 3-for-20 slump before hitting second and starting at shortstop in the Expos’ home opener at Jarry Park against the St. Louis Cardinals on April 14. He went 1-for-5 with two runs in the Expos’ 8-7 victory.
Unfortunately, hits and runs were hard for Wills to come by that month. He batted a paltry .163 and was pressing at the plate and in the field.
“He’ll have to play out of it,” Mauch told the Montreal Gazette when asked about Wills in late April. “There’s mental slumps, fielding slumps and hitting slumps and it’s unfortunate Maury is going through all three. It’s not hard to figure out why. He’s just trying too hard to please these people [Expos fans].”
Wills was disappointed with his performance.
“I’m not happy with my play naturally,” he told the Montreal Gazette in an article published on April 29. “I’m going to have a talk with myself. This week it will be baseball, nothing else. I’ve got to do something for these people at Jarry Park.”
Wills began showing up early and taking extra batting practice, but his batting average only rose to .207 in May. And his frustrations boiled over off the field. On the team bus on May 19, Wills got into a confrontation with Montreal Gazette reporter Ted Blackman. Frustrated with some criticisms that Blackman had written about him, Wills told Blackman to stop using his name in his column. Blackman said he couldn’t agree to that. Wills then slapped Blackman across the mouth. The two were separated before the incident could escalate.
To both Blackman’s and Wills’ chagrin, the confrontation made headlines, and Blackman eventually downplayed it in a column.
“An incident is all it was,” wrote Blackman, who wanted to put it behind him, “an impulsive, momentary loss of cool by a normally placid individual [Wills].”
Blackman was applauded by his colleagues for not making a bigger deal out of it, but the reporter wrote that he believed Wills regretted the incident, if only for selfish reasons.
“I believed he regretted the incident. I still do – but not because he treasures my friendly countenance. Only because the incident did not enhance his own image. And Maury is very sensitive about his own image,” wrote Blackman.
This certainly wasn’t good press for Wills and by the end of the month, the Expos enthusiastic home fans were growing tired of Wills’ act on the field as well. In a game on May 29, the veteran shortstop gave little effort on a ground ball that went up the middle, booted another grounder and went 0-for-4 at the plate. And for the first time, he was booed by Expos fans.
Perhaps the boos motivated Wills who proceeded to go 5-for-12 in the next three games.
But then again, maybe not.
On June 3, in a move no one on the Expos saw coming, Wills abruptly retired. Fanning received a typed letter from Wills stating his intentions at 5 p.m. on June 3. The Expos had a game that night and Mauch hadn’t been informed and had to quickly insert Bobby Wine in Wills’ leadoff spot in the lineup.
“Tonight Maury Wills asked me for and submitted a letter requesting voluntary retirement status,” Fanning read from a statement prior to the game. “We had a nice visit and there is no doubt in my mind that he is sincere. We hate to lose him but we are respecting his wishes.”
Wills was at Fanning’s side when the general manager was reading the statement, but he told reporters he didn’t want to say much and that he would have more to say soon.
The next day Wills held a press conference at the local Ville Marie restaurant.
“I have always said that when Maury Wills is not doing his job – and I’m not saying I can’t do it – it would be time for him to retire,” Wills told reporters. “Fans have a right to expect more. I expect it from myself and I’m paid to do it. I haven’t been doing it this season.”
Wills hesitated though when he asked if his retirement was permanent.
“That’s the way I feel right now and that’s the way I felt last night,” he said. “But someone said you should always reserve the right to change your mind.”
And change his mind he did.
Within 48 hours of his initial retirement, he decided he wasn’t finished with baseball. He told reporters he had spoken to more than 30 of his friends who felt his decision to retire was made in haste.
“Yes, I realize I’m going to be criticized in some areas,” Wills told reporters of his decision to end his brief retirement. “I didn’t want to hold that press conference. I called it only because I believed I owed you the courtesy . . . I’m happy Jim Fanning and Gene Mauch accepted me back. I didn’t know how they’d take it.”
Though still bewildered, Mauch reinserted Wills into his lineup and the unpredictable infielder proceeded to 8-for-17 in his next four games, increasing his batting average from .186 at the end of May to .222.
His hot hitting also made him more appealing on the trade market. And on June 11, the Expos dealt Wills and Manny Mota to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Ron Fairly and Paul Popovich.
Wills was told he had been traded while the Expos were on a road trip in San Diego and the Montreal Gazette reported that within 15 minutes of being notified, Wills was packed and headed north to join the Dodgers.
Back with his former club, Wills returned to all-star form, batting .297 with 25 stolen bases in 104 games with them that season. He’d play three more seasons with the Dodgers before retiring for good.
Following his playing career, he tried his hand at broadcasting and then managed the Seattle Mariners for parts of two seasons in 1980 and 1981.
Sadly, according to his SABR bio, Wills became addicted to drugs and alcohol during the 1980s. He was in and out of rehab until he got sober. In more recent years, he has served as a guest coach at Dodgers’ spring training.
Wills, who will turn 89 this year, now lives in Sedona, Ariz. And there are some that believe that – with his 586 stolen bases, five All-Star selections and 2,134 career hits – he’s worthy of a plaque in Cooperstown. If he’s elected, it will have to be through the Hall’s Golden Days Committee, which examines cases for overlooked candidates who starred between 1950 and 1969.
Wills probably won’t get a Hall of Fame endorsement from former Montreal Expos owner Charles Bronfman, who, when asked about Wills for the 2014 book, Up, Up & Away, offered this blunt assessment of the former stolen base king’s tenure in Montreal:
“To him, he had gone from the Los Angeles Dodgers, where he was famous, to goddamn Pittsburgh, and now he’s going to this honky-tonk joint in Montreal where they goddamn spoke French, and the infield is terrible, and you’re playing in a bandbox, it was a triple-A stadium. Who needs that? So he played like he didn’t give a damn, and he didn’t.”