"With the transistor radio pressed to my ear, I can feel the electricity of 25,000 people in Dodger Stadium and a million more who are tuned in coast-to-coast. I can feel it pouring into Maury Wills, surging through his body. The Dodger infielder, having drawn yet another walk against the Chicago Cubs, takes a huge lead off first base, and the frenzied L.A. crowd, knowing he's feeding off their energy, is on its feet, chanting 'Go, Maury, go!' willing him to fly, to again steal second, now only 80 feet away." —from Bobby in Naziland
In the summer of 1962, I listened to a lot of baseball on a transistor radio my parents had given me for my birthday. Mostly I tuned in to the Yankees, the reigning World Series champs. Since the Brooklyn Dodgers had split for L.A., in 1957, I'd become a Bronx Bomber fan. There was no choice, really. I never understood how anybody could root for the Mets, the "lovable losers" created out of thin air, in 1962, to replace the irreplaceable Dodgers.
When the Yankees had a day off, I'd listen to a Dodger game if I could find one. Of course it bothered me that "dem bums" had moved 2,500 miles away, but fellow Brooklyn Jew Sandy Koufax was still a Dodger, so I felt a connection to "dem," though Koufax had been injured in July and was out for the rest of the season.
Even without Koufax, the Dodgers were a thrilling team—thanks to Maury Wills, a player I could relate to, despite his lack of Jewishness. Unlike my Yankee idols, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, who blasted baseballs into the bleachers, Wills, a 5-foot-10-inch, 160-pound infielder, who never hit more than six home runs in a season, got by on pure speed. I, too, was a fast runner and I devoted a significant portion of my childhood to trying to figure out how to apply my speed to baseball, even though my hitting abilities were akin to those of Gus Bell, the Mets right fielder, who finished the '62 season batting a hefty .149. If I could just find a way to get on base, I thought that I could be like Maury Wills.
With Wills providing the spark, the Dodgers were locked in a life-and-death struggle for the National League pennant with those other New York deserters, the San Francisco Giants, with the winner gaining the right to lose the World Series to the invincible Yankees.
Hanging out in front of my house or wandering around the neighborhood, I'd listen to Dodger games, the voice of Vin Scully transporting me to distant ballparks where I'd become one with the crowd, urging Wills to get on base and make something happen—and just about every time he came to bat, something did happen.
Though hitting an unspectacular .299, Wills's blazing speed forced errors, turned routine ground balls into singles, and turned walks into triples. His on-base percentage was .347, and every time he got on base, everybody watching or listening to the game knew he was going to try to steal—second, third, and sometimes home. There was little anybody could do to stop him. In 117 attempts, he was thrown out stealing only 13 times—8 of those times on hit-and-run plays when the batter didn't hit the ball. No team's entire roster had more steals than Maury Wills alone. The Washington Senators came closest, with 99.
Wills stole his 96th and 97th bases, tying and breaking Ty Cobb's record of 96 steals, which had stood for 47 years, in the 156th game of the season, on September 23, 1962, in a 12–2 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. (No asterisk for Maury!)
The Dodgers and Giants both won 100 games, finishing tied for first place and forcing a three-game playoff series. On October 3, in the seventh inning of game three, Wills stole his final base of the season—number 104.
But the Giants pulled the game out—1951 déjà vu all over again!!!—and went on to lose the World Series to the Yankees.
I watched game seven on TV, a 1–0 nail-biter at Candlestick Park. The game ended as Willie McCovey lined out hard to second baseman Bobby Richardson, with the tying and winning runs on second and third base.
Somewhere Maury Wills, the National League MVP—Willie Mays of the Giants, batting .304, with 49 home runs and 141 RBIs, finished second in the balloting—was watching, too.