Welcome back to my series for Dodgers Nation, the Dodgers NL MVP Annals! In each installment, I take an in-depth look at every single MVP season by a Dodger and the player who won it. The Dodgers franchise can currently lay claim to 13 National League MVP awards, won by 11 different players. These stretch from 1913 to 2014, spanning from the lean nascent days in Brooklyn to the Guggenheim Era in Los Angeles today.
In the past few years, baseball has increasingly lived by the home run. Whether it’s the batter, the ball, or both who are juiced, offensive fundamentals have fallen by the wayside. Not only is bunting a virtually disappearing art form, but stolen bases are in steep decline as well.
In their first heyday in Los Angeles in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the Dodgers won not because of an overpowering lineup, but rather a strict reliance on fundamentals. Pitching, defense and speed were the keys to victory almost every game. At the heart of this balanced approach to the game was shortstop Maurice Morning Wills, better known as Maury.
Born in 1932 in Washington D.C., Maury Wills found success almost instantly as a Los Angeles Dodger. They won the World Series in his rookie year of 1959, and in 1960 he revolutionized the game. In stealing 50 bases, he not only led the National League for the season, but effectively revived a long dormant offensive weapon from the Deadball Era.
The year where Wills displayed his gifts at their best was 1962, the first season in which the Dodgers took to the field in Chavez Ravine. He outright doubled his previous high for stolen bases to an incredible 104, shattering the mark for switch-hitters set by Ty Cobb in 1915. His speed also resulted in a National League-best 10 triples. For all this, he not only earned his second All-Star selection, but was also All-Star Game MVP. His defense was sterling as well, winning a Gold Glove.
As if the high volume of steals wasn’t impressive enough, it’s even more impressive when juxtaposed with the fact that he was only caught stealing 13 times. By comparison, Ty Cobb was caught 38 times when he set the mark in 1915. As a result, he won NL MVP over San Francisco’s Willie Mays by seven points, and would be the last NL shortstop to win it until Cincinnati’s Barry Larkin in 1995.
It has been a common thread in this series to revel in a Dodger legend’s MVP heroics in the regular season, only to have to acknowledge a painful end come October. None may crueler than this instance, in which the Dodgers lost a three-game tiebreaker playoff series to the Giants for the pennant. The team’s inaugural year at Dodger Stadium, and Wills’ torrid base-stealing, wouldn’t extend into the World Series. One silver lining, however: the three extra games gave him the all-time MLB record for games played in a single season, 165.
Fortunately, Wills would enjoy two more titles in 1963 and 1965, before being traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates after the 1966 World Series. After brief stints in Pittsburgh and Montreal, he came back to finish his career with the Dodgers from 1969 to 1972. His 1962 record of 104 stolen bases by a switch-hitter would stand until Vince Coleman of the Cardinals surpassed it with 110 in 1985.
Today, Wills remains a vital part of the Dodgers organization, having been part of the Dodgers Legend Bureau since 2009. With sterling career totals of 2,134 hits, 586 stolen bases and .281 average, he has come close to election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in recent years. Whether or not he makes it into Cooperstown, his place in baseball history is secure for reviving one of the game’s greatest secret weapons, and fueling a championship juggernaut in the process.