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45 Years Ago Today: Maury Wills Returns to the Dodgers

Maury Wills and Dee Gordon
Maury Wills and Dee Gordon
David Blumenkrantz/Arroyo Seco Journal

Today's Dodgers don't make headlines with trades as early in the season as June 11. Yesterday's Dodgers did, and General Manager Buzzie Bavasi pulled off one such deal 45 years ago today, correcting the baseball injustice that had Maury Wills wearing something other than Dodger Blue for parts of three seasons: Bavasi acquired Wills and Manny Mota from the Montreal Expos for Ron Fairly and Paul Popovich on June 11, 1969.

Mota would go on to record a then-best-in-history 150 pinch hits (ex-Dodger Lenny Harris holds the current record with 212). Still an L.A. fan favorite, he has been with the team in one capacity or another since that very day (happy anniversary!). He is also the answer to the riddle, "What do you call a baseball coach with a flat tire?" Answer: "Manny Mota and jack."

But bringing back Wills - L.A.'s shortstop and captain - was the real story. Maurice Morning Wills had been a part of the club's 1959, 1963 and 1965 World Series championships, was the National League's Most Valuable Player in the near-miss 1962 campaign, when he broke Ty Cobbs's 47-year-old record with 104 stolen bases, and had been an All-Star in 1966.

But Wills went 1-13 in the World Series that October as the Dodgers were swept by the Baltimore Orioles in humbling fashion. Bavasi, no doubt employing the famous "better to trade a player a year too early than a year too late" strategy, shipped his shortstop off to Pittsburgh for Bob Bailey and Gene Michael on December 1, 1966.

Wills had also left the team's post-Series exhibition tour of Japan early, ostensibly to nurse an injury, only to stop for a banjo gig in Hawaii on the way home. Owner Walter O'Malley was none too pleased, making the decision to trade him that much easier for the GM.

With Sandy Koufax having retired in a somber press conference just days earlier, the Dodgers were heading into what would be a dark couple of seasons, minus both their shortstop and their ace hurler.

Bailey contributed little in his two years in Los Angeles, hitting .227 in both 1967 and 1968. Michael, the proud possessor of one of the most insulting nicknames ever - they called him "Stick" precisely because he wasn't one - managed all of a .202 average as Wills' replacement in 1967. Wills hit exactly 100 points higher as the Pirates' third baseman.

Wills, along with his Bucs' teammate Mota, were selected by the Expos in the 1968 expansion draft, and were on the chalk lines when Major League Baseball opened for business in Canada, April 14, 1969 at Jarry Park (Montreal 8, St. Louis 7, Dan McGinn with 5 1/3 innings of shutout relief over Gary Waslewski).

Hitting just .222 at the time of the trade 45 years ago today, Wills improved to .297 the rest of the way. The Dodgers moved into first place ten days after his return, ultimately finishing fourth in what was known that year as the NL's "Wild Wild West."

Wills, at 38, led the Dodgers to within a game of the division crown in 1971, losing out to the Giants on the last day of a memorable race, and retired after the 1972 season. He worked as a baseball analyst for NBC, managed the Seattle Mariners for parts of two seasons, and in recent years has been a fixture at Chavez Ravine during homestands.

Wills still instructs Dodger players in bunting during Spring Training, counting current speed merchant Dee Gordon among his proud pupils. His 490 steals leads the franchise (Brooklyn and L.A.) and his career total of 586 ranks 20th all-time.

And remember, glove conquers all.

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