This annotated week in baseball history: May 4-May 10, 1981

On May 5, 1981, Maury Wills lost his job as manager of the Seattle Mariners. Wills had led the team only since Aug. 4 of the year before, but already had one of the most disastrous managerial tenures in history. Richard looks back on the lowlights.

Earlier this year, I wrote a column about the Chicago Cubs and their “College of Coaches” managerial rotation. Among other things, that article characterized the College of Coaches as “laughable,” “a joke” implemented by someone who “didn’t really have a clue.”

From such comments, you might assume that I regard the College of Coaches as the worst possible managerial choice. However, as bad as the College was, it was bettered (in a manner of speaking) by Maury Wills. Wills was a disaster in pretty much every aspect of managing a major league team, often in ways you could only imagine.

Before we get into his dramatic failures, it’s worth spending a little time on his playing career. Wills first drew regular time as a player in 1960 as a 27-year-old and made an instant impact, stealing 50 bases. That was the first time any National League player had stolen more than 40 since Kiki Cuyler in 1929, so you can imagine the effect it had on the game.

Wills’ total dropped to 35 the next season—though he still led the league—but in 1962 Wills really showed off his speed. He stole 104 bases. That was quite a lot. It is best illustrated by pointing out that the next four mens on the NL stolen base leader chart stole 104 bases collectively. Wills also led the league in triples and won a Gold Glove at shortstop. All of that combined to give Wills the 1962 Most Valuable Player award.

Wills never reached that level of success again—though he was probably the best shortstop of the 1960s. He retired after the 1972 season and while his official website touts him as “Future Hall of Famer Maury Wills” that’s an honor that will likely elude him.

At some point Wills, decided he wanted to be a manager. In 1976 he published How to Steal a Pennant. It was called that because Please, Please, Please Hire Me, Maury Wills, to Manage Your Team wouldn’t fit on the cover. The book outlined just what Wills would do as a manager and how he expected to lead a team to success. (Basically, turn everyone on the team into a Maury Wills clone.)

Wills spent a few years managing in Mexican winter leagues, but it was not until the end of the 1980 season that he was placed at the helm of a major league franchise. Before we get into the specifics of what a train wreck Wills was in his decision-making, it is worth looking at his performance from a strict statistics standpoint.

Fairness dictates that I point out Wills was inheriting a pretty terrible Seattle team. When he took over on Aug. 4, the team was playing at a 100-loss pace, due in no small part to the nine-game losing streak the M’s were riding when Wills took over for Darrell Johnson.

Wills did not do much to turn around the team right away. In fact, the Mariners were swept by the nearly equally dire California Angels in Wills’ first three games in charge. After winning two of the next three, the Mariners lost six more in a row. The high point would come on Sept. 26, when the Mariners won their sixth game in a row.

To that point, Wills’ record in charge was 20-30, not outstanding by any means but a respectable showing for a manager taking over a fairly dire squad with less than two months left in the season. Unfortunately for Wills, the Mariners then lost their next eight. This left Wills with a 20-38 record in 1980, actually worse than the record that got Johnson fired.

In 1981, the Mariners’ season quickly descended into farce. The team won only three of its first 10 games, and failed to win back-to-back games with Wills as manager. After 20 games, the M’s were 5-15, in last place in the American League. They had been outscored by 50 runs.

Wills lasted only four more games and left the team with a 6-18 record, the worst in the American League by three full games. Unsurprisingly—for reasons about to be discussed—Wills never managed in the majors again and is left with a career 26-56 record, a .317 winning percentage.

Mere statistics, however, can’t describe the absurdities of Wills’ time running the M’s. After an initial period when he failed to discipline openly insubordinate players, the skipper attempted to run spring training in a manner more familiar to boot camp, with predictable results.

Of course, part of Wills’ problems in spring training might have been that he decided being a major league manager was too easy. To attempt to make things more difficult for himself, Wills developed a cocaine problem.

The coke habit might have had something to do with a spring training game Wills left in the sixth inning without telling anyone why. Wills also developed a habit of announcing he had roles planned for players who were no longer on the Mariners’ roster.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

He also made pronouncements about players, batting order, what position players would occupy and the like, only to go back on them, sometimes within a day of the original announcement. About the only thing Wills didn’t do was accuse his players of stealing a quart of strawberries from the manager’s office.

In On the Run, Wills’ third book, he largely blames his problems with the Mariners on his inability to get along with the media. (Though Wills is big enough to admit that his weakness for hard drugs didn’t help any.) In truth, it didn’t matter what relationship with the media Wills had.

He was simply unqualified to be the manager of a major league team. Wills couldn’t run the team on the field at all, and was even worse managing personalities in the clubhouse. That he has never managed in the majors again is not only predictable but also proper.

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