Eric Peterson, Published July 03 2012
Video: RedHawks broadcaster and Dodgers legend reflects on MVP season
The pain isn’t all bad.
It takes the former Los Angeles Dodgers great to a good place.
“It takes me back to how it all started and developed, which makes me not mind having the arthritis, because 1962 pops up right away,” said Wills, now 79 years old.
This summer marks the 50th anniversary of that unforgettable season. Wills was given the National League Most Valuable Player award, stealing a then-record 104 stolen bases. He was also the MVP of the All-Star Game, which was played in his hometown. Wills played a record 165 games that season, a mark that likely will never be broken.
“Not only did I play in 165 games, I do believe I played in every inning,” said Wills, who has a museum in Newman Outdoor Field, the home of the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks. Wills is a part-time radio color commentator for the RedHawks and has been involved with the independent baseball team since 1997.
Many of the half-century-old memories from that 1962 season remain vivid for Wills.
One example is the first of two All-Star Games that season, the one that was played in Washington, D.C.
Wills grew up in the city and was one of 13 kids in his family. Instead of staying with the National League team at the hotel, Wills stayed with his parents leading up to the game.
“I got there after the team bus had arrived, and the security guy didn’t want to let me in,” Wills said.
Wills was wearing a Dodgers shirt and had his team duffel bag with his uniform, but that wasn’t enough to convince the security guard, he recalled.
“He said, ‘Get out of here. You are too little. You’re not a baseball player.’ ” Wills said.
Wills convinced the guard to let him stand in front of the clubhouse door so that the other National League All-Stars could identify Wills.
“Baseball players got a sick sense of humor,” Wills said.
The players said they had never seen Wills before, to which the guard responded: “I knew that. Get out of here.”
Wills said a man in a suit with credentials finally came along to let him into the stadium. It’s a good thing Wills got into the park. He went 1-for-1, scored two runs and stole a base in a 3-1 National League victory.
Wills said he remembers leaving the stadium with the security guard seeing him carry out the trophy.
“I’m walking out as the MVP and I showed it to him and he’s scratching his head,” Wills said with a laugh. “He still doesn’t believe I’m a baseball player.”
Wills batted .299 with 13 doubles, 10 triples, six home runs and 48 RBIs in 1962. He scored 130 runs and his 104 stolen bases set a single-season record, which stood until 1974. Wills also won a Gold Glove at shortstop.
Wills played 165 games that season because the Dodgers had a three-game tiebreaker against the San Francisco Giants to decide the National League champion.
The Dodgers lost to the Giants in the deciding game. The last two games of the series were played in Dodger Stadium, which opened in 1962. Wills was the first Dodgers player to have an at-bat in the new park.
In the third game of the tiebreaker, Wills scored in the seventh inning to give his team a 4-2 lead. That put the Dodgers on the brink of the National League pennant.
“The stadium went crazy and we were spending our World Series money already,” said Wills, who went 4-for-5 that game with three stolen bases. “We were excited.”
However, the Willie Mays-led Giants rallied for four runs in the ninth inning to earn a stunning 6-4 victory. The Dodgers walked in the game-tying run. The Giants scored the go-ahead run on an infield error that allowed Mays to score from third base.
“The clubhouse and the stadium were like a battlefield with us being the losers, sprawled out on the ground,” Wills said. “It was an unforgettable scene.”
Despite a disappointing ending, Wills would later learn he was the National League MVP. He also won the Hickok Professional Athlete of the Year award, which was given to the top pro athlete in the United States. He beat out Arnold Palmer for the award in 1962. Fargo’s Roger Maris was awarded the Hickok award in 1961.
Wills felt those accolades were going to lead to a sizeable pay increase.
That wasn’t what happened when he had a meeting Dodgers general manager Buzzie Bavasi.
“I thought, ‘I was going to get me a raise,’ maybe I can get a new car. All I wanted was a Ford station wagon,” Wills said.
“And I came out of the office in 10 minutes happy I was still on the team.”
Wills made $35,000 in 1963, according to baseball-reference.com, and $45,000 in 1963. Wills was hoping to get a salary around $100,000, similar to what stars like Mays and Mickey Mantle were earning at that time.
Wills said Bavasi told him not to tell anyone that he got a $10,000 raise.
“I’m thinking, ‘I don’t want anybody to know that is all I got,’ ” Wills said with a laugh.
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