He stole the rules. Steal the championships. Stole the heart of a city.
However, for all his accumulated fortunes, Morey Wells often laments the shiny thing that was forever out of his reach.
He couldn’t steal his way to Cooperstown. The inventor of the modern stolen base couldn’t run and slip into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Baseball writers rejected him for 15 straight years. The Veterans’ Committee rejected him for another 10 years.
It agonized and haunted him until his death on Monday at the age of 89.
“Why don’t they let me enter the Hall of Fame?” he asked me once during a quiet moment at Dodger Stadium. “What more should I do?”
Wills was an underappreciated Dodgers legend, three-time world champion and most expensive National League player traded due to off-court issues, a fast driver who set records and nevertheless couldn’t escape the lure of drugs and alcohol, a brilliant but flawed champion.
In his later years, he found redemption as a Dodgers advisor who is credited with saving the career of Dave Roberts and setting him on the path to becoming a team manager, but by then it was too late for the national recognition he deserved.
“Oh my God, how did you come back,” Wells told me in 2002. “But what a price I paid.”
He should be considered among the all-time greats of baseball. It has literally changed the way the game is played. He joined the Dodgers in 1959 after spending nearly nine seasons in the minor leagues. He didn’t appear anywhere, he was suddenly everywhere.
He led the league in stolen bases in the Dodgers’ first full season in 1960, again in 1961, and then in 1962 he ran. This was the year he stole 104 bases, breaking the record that has held 47 years since Ty Cobb stole 96 in 1915. It was the year that changed everything.
Before Wales, baseball wasn’t all about speed. Before Wills, baseball wasn’t all about intelligence. The Wills showed that a stolen base could be as powerful as a clutch stroke, as unnerving as a big hunt, and ultimately as impactful as running on his own land.
“He brought speed into the game, and that speed fueled the Dodgers’ dynasty in the early 1960s,” said Mark Langel, Dodgers historian. “Instead of the strength of those last years in Brooklyn, this new L.A. team won by dashing, defending, speed…and Morey was that fast.”
Wales stole so many bases that whenever he made it to base in 1962, fans at the newly opened Dodger Stadium chanted, “Go! Go! Go!”
He heard them wills, as he shared with Houston Mitchell of The Times this summer in the text of the speech.
On the days when I was really in pain, I heard ‘Go! he goes! Go Mori, go! Wills Books.
It was a hymn that he basically called Chavez Raven. It was the kind of reaction that hasn’t been repeated since then.
“It’s the only time there’s been this kind of interaction at Dodger Stadium between a player and the fans during a game,” Langel said. “He’s the only player who has people constantly cheering him on, begging him, and chanting for him to steal a base.”
Wells played such mind games with his opponents that ground crews at Candlestick Park in San Francisco soaked base lanes to slow him down before a critical streak in 1962.
“Morri was the man in the spotlight,” said Fred Claire, former general manager of the Dodgers. “The attention he drew, the attendance he created, no one was more important to the Dodgers and building interest in the team.”
However, his intensity on the pitch was matched by off-court partying. And although he was short-lived for the team that won three world championships, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates after the 1966 season because he left the Dodgers’ tour of Japan without permission and was seen in Hawaii playing banjo and telling jokes. On stage with Don Ho.
Regardless, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Wes Parker missed that trip as well. Wills were considered a difficult character, and thus were sent to package them for Bob Bailey and Jane Michael, a trade that should never have been undertaken. Wills was meant to be a lifelong dodger, and although he returned to the team after four years, his impact wasn’t the same. He retired after the 1972 season in which he stole exactly one base in 72 games.
“He changed the game with his ability and determination,” Claire said. “He was just a very special person.”
In 1980 he became the third black manager of baseball when he was hired to lead the Seattle Mariners, but he acted sporadically and did not last an entire season as he began turning to drugs and alcohol. The abuse continued until the Dodgers helped him become clean and sober in 1989.
At one point during Welles’ low moments, Claire and former Ramy Dodgers Don Newcomb drive to his locked home and convince him to accept himself into a rehab center under the alias “Don Claire”.
“It took him over eight years in the minor leagues to find himself as a baseball player, and in life he also needed time to find himself,” Claire said. “But once he did, he changed his world again by helping others.”
In fact, Wills designed his life to be complete as he returned to the Dodgers as a special counsel, working with players on stealing pennants and stealing rules, focusing on one notable student.
From 2002 until mid-2004, he devoted most of his time to a rowdy kid named Dave Roberts, helping him hone his game in pre-game drills, in-game chats, and post-game phone calls. It’s no coincidence that after being traded with the Boston Red Sox in July 2004, Roberts implemented what became arguably the most important rule stolen in baseball history, a playoff criticism against the New York Yankees that eventually led to the Red Sox’s first world. The title of the series in 86 years.
When Roberts spoke to reporters about wills on Tuesday, he did so with tears streaming down his cheek.
“I just love baseball, I love the job and I love the relationship with the players,” Roberts said. “We spent a lot of time together. He showed me how I value my profession and what it means to be a top rider. He just loves to know. So, I think a lot of the places where I get excited, and my passion and my love for the players is from Morey.”
In the end, the pioneering bassooner didn’t have a Hall of Fame statue, but he might have gotten something more important. He may not have a retired shirt, but he does have a living shirt that breathes.
While managing the team to annual success for the past seven years, Robert has intentionally donned number 30.
Yes, this is the number that Morey Wells once wore.
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