Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Willie Davis Gone, But Never Forgotten

Willie Davis holds six team records,
including most career hits (2,091) and
triples (110). Herb Scharfman/SI

Dodgers speedster will live on forever in franchise lore

No one knew Willie Davis better than Tommy Davis, his Los Angeles Dodgers teammate.

Because they shared the same last name, many thought they were brothers.

"We were as close as brothers," said Tommy as he recalled his memories of Willie, the Dodgers player they called the "3-Dog" because of his uniform number and his blazing speed.

The headline in the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday on the passing of Davis at the age 69 declared: "Brilliant on the field, troubled off."

It's not a description that fits the memories of Tommy Davis.

"I think of Willie and I think of a guy who was always laughing," he said, "and he had that great laugh. He loved his family, loved his golf and loved his race horses.

"He lived his life the way he wanted to live it. I think Willie enjoyed each and every day. We were roommates for six years and we shared great times and great memories."

"The first time I saw Willie was at Dodgertown in the spring of 1959," he continued. "We were put together with several other players to run a 60-yard dash. I remember that Maury [Wills] was in our group and I figured Maury would win the race with me right behind him, because I could run in those days.

"Willie left us in the dust."

When Dodgers scout Kenny Myers signed Willie Davis out of Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles in 1958, the fleet-footed youngster was regarded as a candidate for the 1960 Olympic team. He once ran a 9.5-second 100-yard dash in high school and set a city record in the long jump.

In Willie Davis' first two Minor League seasons, with the Reno Silver Sox in a Class C Minor League in 1959, and with Spokane in the Pacific Coast League in 1960, Willie led both leagues in runs, hits, triples and batting average. His composite batting average for his first two years: .352.

He stole 33 bases for Reno and 30 for Spokane.

"Willie has only begun to run," said Pete Reiser, a former Dodgers great who tutored Davis as a member of the team's Minor League department.

Reiser couldn't have been more on target, as Davis became the Dodgers' regular center fielder in 1961, and in the next dozen seasons ranked in the top-10 in stolen bases in the National League each year. He finished his 18-year Major League career in 1979 with 398 career stolen bases and a .279 batting average.

Davis remains the all-time Los Angeles Dodgers leader in hits, extra-base hits, triples, runs scored, at-bats and total bases.

It wasn't just Davis' stolen bases that caught the fancy and fascination of Dodgers fans. It was his style, his flare and the blazing speed that saw him go from first to third with his helmet flying off in the process.

"I once saw him score from second base on a sacrifice fly," recalled Tommy Davis.

He was a fan favorite on Dodgers teams that included the likes of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Wills, Jim Gilliam, John Roseboro, Johnny Podres, Ron Fairly, Wes Parker, Jim Lefebvre, Frank Howard, Claude Osteen, Wally Moon, his great friend Tommy Davis and others.

These were the players who eased the transition of the Dodgers' move from Brooklyn and the teams of the "Boys of Summer" while building a foundation of great popularity for Dodgers baseball in Los Angeles.

Davis was traded by the Dodgers to the Expos after the 1973 season, and although his shining star in Los Angeles lost its luster as the years went by, the memories of "3-Dog" in Los Angeles remain in the minds of long-time fans.

Willie Davis never tried to hold onto stardom or fame. He lived his life, as Tommy Davis described, in his own style.

He lived quietly in Burbank, Calif., near Dodger Stadium, and would show up at the stadium from time to time for various events. Every January he would call for tickets to the L.A. Open because golf was his passion. He once told a friend that meeting golfing great Ben Hogan while he was a member of the Texas Rangers was one of the highlights of his time in baseball.

Willie would often go for a walk around his Burbank neighborhood and have his 9 iron in hand so he could always be in contact with a club. He was a good enough player to lower his handicap to a 3 at one point.

My son, Jeff, called me on Tuesday to say that he was sorry to hear about the passing of Willie, and Jeff relayed the story that he once saw Davis walking along with a golf club in Burbank and stopped to say hello and give his regards.

"How did you know it was me?" inquired Willie.

"Everybody in Los Angeles knows you, Willie," replied Jeff.

Davis was surprised to be recognized and remembered.

The fact is those of us who were fortunate to know him, and the fans who cheered him, will never forget Willie Davis.

Fred Claire was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1969-98, serving the team as executive vice-president and general manager. He is the author of "Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue."

1 comment:

Unknown said...

As a young teenager, I remember seeing him play. He was incredibly fast.