50 years ago today, the Los Angeles Dodgers caught a huge break they didn’t deserve when the Detroit Tigers returned minor leaguer Maury Wills to them. Los Angeles had sent Wills to Detroit at the end of the 1958 season for “future consideration.” As spring training ended, the Tigers decided they had no use for Wills and he became the “consideration.”
Three years earlier, Cincinnati had claimed WIlls in a minor league draft, but he failed to make it as Red. The Dodgers just couldn’t get rid of the guy.
In April 1959, the Dodgers sent Wills back to the minor leagues. However, they called him up in June, and he became a 26 year-old rookie. The Dodgers went on to win the pennant and the World Series.
At the time the addition of Wills was considered a key to that success. The Dodgers did, indeed, go 60-45 after adding Wills (they were barely above .500 when he arrived). However, modern statistical analysis suggests that Wills (who had no power, didn’t walk much in 1959, and had only seven stolen bases that year) may have only been slightly more productive than the player he replaced, Don Zimmer. Could our eyes have been lying by that much?
In any event, the Dodgers needed a post-season playoff to clinch the pennant. Thus, any improvement at the shortstop position was probably decisive.
Wills would go on to become a star. In 1962, he broke Ty Cobb’s record for stolen bases in a season, and was named National League MVP and Sporting News Major League Player of the Year. The next year, when the Dodgers won the pennant and swept the Yankees in the World Series, he was just as good.
Meanwhile, during most of this period, the Tigers made do with Chico Fernandez at shortstop.