Maury Wills never seemed to get much respect in the big leagues until he became a thief. When he was finally given a chance to play in the majors, he led the National League in stolen bases in each of his first six full seasons. In 1962 the speedy little infielder shattered Ty Cobb’s single season stolen base record when he pilfered 104 and was named NL Most Valuable Player.
But few may remember that Wills was almost a Detroit Tiger. If it hadn’t been for the decision made by a forgotten Tiger manager in spring training, Wills may have had an All-Star career with Detroit in the American League.
By 1959, Wills had already spent eight years in the minor leagues, forever stuck behind shortstop Pee Wee Reese in the Dodger organization. Wills had gradually improved his defense and become a better hitter. He’d always had speed and by the late 1950s he was finally using that quickness to steal bases – regularly swiping 20 or more for Dodger minor league clubs. By the 1950s most teams had abandoned the stolen base as a weapon, preferring to rely on the home run. In 1956, Luis Aparicio led the AL with just 21 steals.
In February the Dodgers agreed to send Wills to the Tigers for spring training if Detroit would agree to pay half of his salary. If Wills made the team, the Tigers would assume his contract. Wills came into camp eager to finally earn a shot at the majors. The Detroit manager was Bill Norman, who had assumed the position the previous year in mid-season. Norman had enjoyed a brief, unassuming career in the big leagues, followed by decades as a minor league player, coach and scout. He had played so many years in the minors that he’d accumulated more than 2,100 hits at that level. He was a good friend of Bill Veeck, who often employed Norman after his playing career ended in 1946. Norman was known for his poker playing, a pastime that earned him the nickname “Willie Card”. He wasn’t known for his ability to evaluate talent, however. The Tigers saw him as a placeholder until a better option came along. Unfortunately, Norman played a part in the organization missing out on a chance to have Wills at the top of their order.
Wills played well for the Tigers in spring training in 1959, impressing several observers. But Norman, who had been a hard-hitting outfielder (he clubbed 295 homers in the minors), felt Wills would never have enough extra-base power to stay in the lineup. Norman favored Rocky Bridges, whom the Tigers had acquired in a deal with the Senators in the off-season. Bridges was a veteran infielder who had never hit much at the major league level either, but he had played for Norman in the minors and the two were friends. In the final week of spring training Norman cut Wills, sending the little infielder back to the Dodgers.
The rest, as they say, is history. Wills was taken north with the Dodgers and played in the World Series in 1959 for Los Angeles, beating out Don Zimmer for the starting spot. In 1960 he hit .295 and stole 50 bases to lead the NL for the first of those six straight titles. Two years later he broke Cobb’s record and he eventually collected more than 2,100 hits in the majors. A five-time All-Star and two-time winner of the Gold Glove, Wills helped usher in a new era of base-stealing.
Bridges hit .268 for Detroit in 1959 and made 24 errors in just 110 games at shortstop. He wasn’t the answer for the Tigers at shortstop. When Detroit started the season 2-15, Norman was fired. His time as a Tiger was over, but one decision he made in Lakeland during spring training in 1959 cost Detroit the services of Maury Wills.