CAMP VERDE – A Camp Verde resident for less than a year, Travis Storey grew up a big baseball fan.
When he would play ball, he wore in his cap a baseball card of his favorite player – for good luck.
That was in the mid-1960s in Florida, a place and time when segregation was the norm – and most Anglo Americans were proud of it.
Which is why his teammates asked Storey why his favorite baseball player was an African American.
His team went 18-2 with Maury Wills in his cap, Storey proudly says.
“I won the batting title,” Storey says. “And I attribute that to carrying his card. It was very exciting. He was my baseball idol.”
Imagine how Storey felt when he met his idol a few months ago.
How they met
Storey and his son Zach run their own construction business. In Sedona on a job, they got drift that Wills was a Village of Oak Creek resident – and that Wills lives near a job they were working.
It took Storey a lot to introduce himself to Wills one day.
“I knocked on his door,” Storey says. “His wife came to the door. Talked to her for a bit. Then Maury came to the door.”
Storey, a grown man in the shadows of 60, says he “melted” at the sight of his favorite ball player.
“He stepped outside onto his front porch, then I told him the story about the card in the hat,” Storey said. “He just looked at me and said, ‘are you kidding me?’”
Next thing you know, Wills invited Storey into his home, showed Storey some of his memorabilia, then autographed a photograph – and they continued to talk.
Nowadays, it’s like they’ve known each other their whole lives.
Going back in time
Though Wills retired following the 1972 season after stealing 586 bases and amassing 2,134 hits, mostly for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Storey still plays baseball.
Two Saturdays each month, Storey is a first baseman for the Prescott Champions of the Arizona Territories Vintage Base Ball League. Recently, Storey told Wills about his own diamond escapades, and invited his famous friend out to watch the Champions take on the Fort Verde Excelsiors.
On Jan. 6, Wills joined his friend at Fort Verde State Historic Park in Camp Verde – and even took a turn at bat.
“In my wildest dreams as a kid, I never once imagined any major leaguer ever batting for me,” says Mike ‘Ace’ Adrian, coach and pitcher for the Prescott Champions. “Yet in this first match I asked Mr. Wills if he’d like to have an at-bat, and he ended up batting for me in the third inning.”
A few swings at the ball, and Wills, now 85, hit the ball and made it safely to first base.
“When he came up to bat, I was wondering whether the experience from a lifetime of at bats would win out over his advanced age, and after a few swings and misses, he got it,” says Josh Freeman, centerfielder for the Excelsiors.
James Clarke, third baseman for the Excelsiors, calls Wills a “very high spirited and high energy guy.”
“What impressed most about Maury was his knowledge of the game and his never-ending desire to talk about the game of baseball,” Clarke says. “I love that. The man has a great sense of humor. I loved him being around us and he made me play better. I ended up having a great game. I don’t know what gets many people out of bed in the morning, but I am certainly glad that he got out of bed this day and joined us for a game over at the Fort.”
Most Valuable Player
One of 13 children in the Wills household, Wills says his older brothers were his heroes.
“I wanted to be like them when I grew up,” says Wills, a Washington, D. C. native.
At 14 years of age, Wills attended a Washington Senators clinic with some of his friends, older children he played ball with on a local team.
“I knew that’s where I wanted to play,” Wills recalls.
Though he wanted to play ball at Griffith Stadium, Wills heard about Jackie Robinson and decided he wanted to be a Dodger.
In 1962, Wills did play ball at Griffith Stadium – as a member of the National League All-Stars. He almost didn’t get into the game – or the ballpark.
A man slight of build at 5-foot 11-inches, 170 pounds, Wills says he couldn’t convince the security guard at the ballpark’s gate that he played for the Dodgers – Jackie Robinson’s old team.
Staying the night with family rather than with the team apparently was not a good idea at the time, Wills says, because he didn’t get to ride on the team bus.
“I told the security guard to take me to the clubhouse and the players would identify me,” Wills says.
But his all-star teammates played a joke on Wills, he recalls.
“’Do you know this guy?’” Wills recalls the security guard shouting into the clubhouse. “’Nope!’” Wills says they responded.
They were joking, but the security guard wouldn’t believe Wills.
Wills eventually made it into the clubhouse … and the joke was not only on the security guard, but on his all-star teammates.
Wills won the Most Valuable Player award for the all-star game.
Once a winner, always a winner
Though Wills took but one at bat for the Champions, his friend’s tam beat the Excelsiors in both games of their Jan. 6 doubleheader.
Though nothing is certain, Wills says he may return to Fort Verde on Feb. 3 to see the Champions and Excelsiors play two games. First game is at 10 a.m., second game is at noon.
“It was really an honor to meet Mr. Wills and actually play a little ball with him,” says Brian Lane, head captain of the Fort Verde Excelsiors. “Mr. Wills was kind enough to sign autographed photos for all our vintage base ball players.”
Good thing that one of the Champions had his wife on speed dial. Stacie Kee brought her husband Phil his Maury Wills card.
“I had a 1969 Topps baseball card he signed for me,” says Phil Kee, third baseman for the Champions. “I was like a kid in the candy store when he handed me that card back.”
Kee says that Wills was “one of the nicest people I ever met.”
-- Follow Bill Helm on Twitter @BillHelm42