Maurice, or Sonny as he was called at Cardozo Senior High School, first showed up as an All City Pitcher in the local Washington Daily News. He played on Sal Hall's '48 Cardozo football team that went unbeaten and unscored upon. In the '49–'50 school year, 3 sport standout Sonny Wills, was named All City quarterback in football, basketball and Pitcher in baseball. On May 8, 1950 in a game against Phelps, Wills threw a one-hitter and struck out seventeen.
In his first-full season (1960), Wills hit .295 and led the league with 50 stolen bases, being the first National League player to steal 50 since Max Carey stole 51 in 1923. Wills stole 104 bases in 1962 to set a new Major League record, breaking the old modern era mark of 96, set by Ty Cobb in 1915. Wills also outstole all of the other teams that year, the highest total being the Washington Senators' 99. Wills success in base stealing that year led to another remarkable statistic. He was caught stealing just 13 times all season. He also hit .299, led the league in triples (10), and was selected the NL Most Valuable Player (beating out Willie Mays by seven points). Not until Barry Larkin in 1996 would another shortstop win a National League Most Valuable Player Award. Late in that record-setting 1962 season, the Giants reinforced their legacy as a dirty team when Manager Alvin Dark ordered grounds crews to water down the basepaths, turning them into mud, to hinder Wills' base-stealing attempts. Wills played a full 162 game schedule, plus all three games of the best of three regular season playoff series with the San Francisco Giants, giving him a total of 165 games played, a record that still stands for games played in a single season. His 104 steals remain a Major League record for switch-hitters.
Although Luis Aparicio had been stealing 50+ bases in the American League for several years prior to Wills' insurgence, Wills brought new prominence to the tactic. Perhaps this was due to greater media exposure in Los Angeles, or to the Dodgers' greater success, or to their extreme reliance on a low-scoring strategy that emphasized pitching, defense, and Wills' speed to compensate for their lack of productive hitters. Wills was a significant distraction to the pitcher even if he didn't try to steal, because he was a constant threat to do so. The fans at Dodger Stadium would chant, "Go! Go! Go, Maury, Go!" any time he got on base. While not the fastest player in the majors, Wills accelerated with remarkable speed. He also studied pitchers relentlessly, watching their pickoff moves even when not on base. And when driven back to the bag, his fierce competitiveness made him determined to steal. Once when on first against Mets pitcher Roger Craig, Wills drew twelve consecutive throws to first. On Craig's next pitch, Wills stole second.
In the wake of his record-breaking season, Wills' stolen base totals dropped precipitously. Though he continued to frighten pitchers once on base, he stole just 40 bases in 1963, 53 in 1964. Then in 1965, Wills set out on a pace to break his own record. By the All-Star game he was 19 games ahead of his 1962 pace. But at 32, Wills began to slow in the second half. The punishment of sliding led him to bandage his legs before every game, and he ended the season with 94 stolen bases, still the second highest in National League history. Following the 1966 season, in which he dropped to 38 stolen bases and was caught stealing 24 times, the Dodgers traded Wills to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Despite his age, Wills batted .302 in 1967 and the following year, at age 36, stole 52 bases. He was traded back to Montreal and then back to the Dodgers in 1969, ending his career with the club in 1972.
After retiring, Wills spent time as a baseball analyst at NBC from 1973 through 1977. He also managed in the Mexican Pacific League—a winter league—for four seasons, during which time he led the Naranjeros de Hermosillo to the 1970-1971 season league championship. Wills let it be known he felt qualified to pilot a big-league club. In his book, How To Steal A Pennant, Wills claimed he could take any last-place club and make them champions within four years. The San Francisco Giants allegedly offered him a one-year deal, but Wills turned them down. Finally, in 1980, the Seattle Mariners fired Darrell Johnson and gave Wills the reins.
Wills' tenure was an unmitigated disaster. Baseball writer Rob Neyer, in his Big Book of Baseball Blunders criticized Wills for "the variety and frequency of [his] mistakes" as manager, calling them "unparalleled." In a short interview appearing in the June 5, 2006 issue of Newsweek, Neyer said, "It wasn't just that Wills couldn't do the in-game stuff. Wills's inability to communicate with his players really sets him apart. He said he was going to make his second baseman, Julio Cruz, his permanent shortstop. Twenty-four hours later he was back at second base. As far as a guy who put in some real time (as a manager), I don't think there's been anyone close to Wills."
According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Steve Rudman, Wills made a number of gaffes. He called for a relief pitcher even though there was nobody warming up in the bullpen, held up another game for 10 minutes while looking for a pinch-hitter and even left a spring-training game in the sixth inning to fly to California.
The most celebrated incident of Wills' tenure as manager occurred on April 25, 1981. He ordered the Mariners' grounds crew to make the batter's boxes one foot longer than regulation. The extra foot was in the direction of the mound. However, Oakland Athletics manager Billy Martin noticed something was amiss and asked plate umpire Bill Kunkel to investigate. Under questioning from Kunkel, the Mariners' head groundskeeper admitted Wills had ordered the change. Wills claimed he was trying to help his players stay in the box. However, Martin suspected that given the large number of breaking-ball pitchers on the A's staff, Wills wanted to give his players an advantage. The American League suspended Wills for two games and fined him $500. American League umpiring supervisor Dick Butler likened Wills' actions to setting the bases 88 feet apart instead of 90 feet.
After leading Seattle to a dismal 20-38 mark to end the 1980 season, new owner George Argyros fired Wills on May 6, 1981 with the M's deep in last place at 6-18. This gave him a career record of 26-56 for a winning percentage of .317, one of the worst ever for a non-interim manager. Years later, Wills admitted he probably should have gotten some seasoning as a minor-league manager prior to being hired in Seattle.
In his autobiography, "On the Run: The Never Dull and Often Shocking Life of Maury Wills," Wills claimed to have had a love affair with actress Doris Day. Day denied this in her autobiography Doris Day: Her Own Story, and said it was probably advanced by the Dodgers organization for publicity purposes.
Wills was well known as an abuser of alcohol and cocaine until getting sober in 1989. In December 1983, Wills was arrested for cocaine possession after his former girlfriend, Judy Aldrich, had reported her car had been stolen. During a search of the car, police found a vial allegedly containing .06 grams of cocaine and a water pipe. The charge was dismissed three months later on the grounds of insufficient evidence.
The Dodgers paid for a drug treatment program, but Wills walked out and continued to use drugs until he began a relationship with Angela George, who encouraged him to begin a vitamin therapy program. The two later married.
In his New Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James is highly critical of Wills as a person, but still ranked him as the #19 shortstop of all time.
Maury is the father of former major leaguer Bump Wills, who played for the Texas Rangers and Chicago Cubs during his six-year MLB career. The two had a falling out following the publication of Maury's autobiography in 1991, involving a salacious anecdote, but now occasionally speak.
In 2009, Wills was honored by the city of Washington, D.C. and Cardozo Senior High School with the naming of the former Banneker Recreation Field in his honor. The field was completely renovated and serves as Cardozo's home diamond.
While Wills had broken Cobb's single season stolen base record in 1962, the National League had increased its number of games played per team that year from 154 to 162. Wills' 97th stolen base had occurred after his team had played its 154th game; as a result, Commissioner Ford Frick ruled that Wills' 104-steal season and Cobb's 96-steal season of 1915 were separate records, just as he had the year before (the American League had also increased its number of games played per team to 162) after Roger Maris had broken Babe Ruth's single season home run record. Both stolen base records would be broken in 1974 by Lou Brock's 118 steals; Brock had broken Cobb's stolen base record by stealing his 97th base before his St. Louis Cardinals had completed their 154th game.