As readers know, I am fascinated by the Hall of Fame voting process, in part because of the critical role election plays in our hobby, but more generally just because as a lifelong baseball fan I am heavily invested in understanding as much as I can about the arcane route to baseball immortality.
Would it surprise anyone to learn that there are no National League shortstops from the decade of the 1960s enshrined in Cooperstown? Ernie Banks is a HOFer, obviously, but by 1962 he had moved to first base for the duration. The absence of any National League shortstops from that decade isn’t in and of itself a sufficient reason to install Maury Wills, but it is one of the secondary reasons to prompt someone to take a closer look at his candidacy.
(Wills is portrayed above right in one of those Topps cards that never actually rolled off the presses. Famously snubbed by the Topps guys as an unlikely prospect, Wills didn't get his first Topps card until 1967, so ersatz-card guru Keith Conforti produced a 1959 Topps rookie card of him.)
The best reason to elect Maury Wills to the Hall of Fame is that he was a revolutionary force in the game in the 1960s, one of the key players on four World Series ball clubs and arguably the top shortstop in the league for much of the decade.
A late bloomer, he didn’t get up to the Bigs until he was nearly 27 years old, but the resulting numbers that he put up in a 14-year career are easily on par with his closest contemporary, Luis Aparicio, and right in line with shortstops across any number of eras that don’t include some guy named Wagner.
But I wouldn’t have to wave statistics at anyone to make the case for Wills: I suspect any fan old enough to have watched him in those years remembers the kind of extraordinary impact he had on the game. Saying he led the league in stolen bases is informative but barely a fragment of the story. In a kind of dilapidated baseball decade that watched offensive numbers plummet to truly noxious levels, he transformed the game he played by putting on emphasis on speed and “small ball” many, many years before the term came into the baseball parlance.
Remove Maury Wills from those great Dodger clubs from 1959-66 and it’s a pretty fair bet that the outcome of several pennant races would look a bit differently that they do. Geez, they won everything in 1965 with a total of 78 home runs on the season – the whole club! OK, having Koufax and Drysdale helped a bit, but you’ve still got to score a couple of runs every game, and Wills played a huge role in that department.
I fear that Wills got such short shrift from the BBWAA over the years precisely because of those two pitchers contributing to the widely held view that pitching was what got them to the World Series back then. True as far as it goes, but ultimately obscenely unfair to somebody like Wills who was so important to that other pesky requirement of championship teams: the ability to score if not a huge amount of runs, at least enough of them nicely allocated to appropriate moments.
The Veterans Committee looks at managers and executives this year – another chance to right another injustice by electing Marvin Miller – and so Wills won’t get another look until 2010. Here’s hoping he fares a good deal better than the last time in 2008 when he got around 25 percent of the vote.
God knows we’re going to have trouble figuring out which modern ballplayers get plaques in Cooperstown so you’d think at least we get it right when talking about the guys from years gone by.