Friday, May 06, 2011

Andre Ethier closing in on a Dodger record: Willie Davis' 31-game hitting streak

Willie Davis' 31-game string of hits is now being
threatened by Andre Ethier. (Los Angeles Dodgers)
In 1969, Davis -- a center fielder known for speed, not power -- put together a string of hits that's now being threatened by Ethier. Davis found the winning formula for the streak by emulating the mechanics of Matty Alou.

By Ben Bolch
Los Angeles Times
May 5, 2011

Pick a renowned slugger from the 1960s and chances are the late Willie Davis tried to emulate him.

Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Willie McCovey, the list goes on. Davis even implemented a style that was a cross between the long-retired Mel Ott and Japanese home-run king Sadaharu Oh.

The Dodgers center fielder could imitate them perfectly, former teammate Wes Parker recalled — until the pitch came.

"And then he was Willie Davis," Parker said Thursday.

Davis, whose greatest asset was speed, not power, found a winning formula late in the 1969 season after duplicating the mechanics of Matty Alou, a diminutive spray hitter from the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was this approach that enabled Davis to embark on the Dodgers-record 31-game hitting streak that is being threatened by Andre Ethier.

"If you want to put your finger on one thing, it was that he changed to a batting style that he should have used all his career: choking up on the bat, a short, compact swing and not trying to pull the ball," said Maury Wills, the former Dodgers shortstop.

Davis didn't make much of his burgeoning streak until late August, when he neared the franchise record of 29 games that had been set in 1916 by Zach Wheat of the Brooklyn Robins. The Dodgers were engaged in a heated five-way race in the National League West, but soon there was a dual focus around the organization.

Reporters started asking Davis about the streak before games and Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley, who had given Sandy Koufax $500 for each of his no-hitters and Don Drysdale's wife a string of 56 pearls after the right-hander pitched 56 consecutive scoreless innings, promised to reward Davis handsomely if he broke Tommy Holmes' National League record of hitting safely in 37 consecutive games.

Davis, who was 69 when he died of natural causes in 2010, may have benefited from a break or two along the way. He extended his streak to 27 games with a sharp grounder to Philadelphia's Richie Allen that the first baseman lost from his glove as Davis crossed the bag. The official scorer contemplated the play for several minutes before ruling it a hit.

"Given Willie's speed and the difficulty of the play, I thought it was a hit all the way," said Ross Newhan, the Hall of Fame baseball writer who then covered the Dodgers for The Times.

After tying Wheat's franchise record Sept. 1 with a second-inning to single to center field, Davis received a good-luck telegram from the record-holder the following day before taking the field against the New York Mets at Dodger Stadium. Wheat was then 81 and living in Missouri.

Davis broke the record with a sixth-inning double, bowing his head in response to a standing ovation. But he was more focused afterward on his ninth-inning strikeout that stranded two baserunners during a one-run loss.

He avenged the failure the next day with a ninth-inning double that drove in Wills with the winning run against the New York Mets and stretched his streak to 31 games, the longest in baseball since Dom DiMaggio's 34-game streak in 1949.

The streak ended Sept. 4 when Davis went 0 for 4 against San Diego. He hit .435 during the streak, raising his average from .262 to .316 and winning a legion of admirers by realizing his immense potential.

The Dodgers faded over the final month of the season, finishing fourth in their division. Davis' final batting average was .311, a threshold he never reached again over an 18-year career that included 13 productive seasons with the Dodgers. He still has more hits, extra-base hits, triples, runs scored, at-bats and total bases than any Dodger during their years in Los Angeles starting in 1958.

Still, his former teammates said the fleet-footed outfielder who played in two All-Star games and won three Gold Gloves could have done more.

"He's not in the Hall of Fame and he had as much talent as any Hall of Famer ever," said Parker, who played first base for the Dodgers from 1964-72. "He wasn't satisfied with being a singles hitter. He wanted to hit home runs, and it killed him because it took away his biggest advantage, his speed. He was the fastest man in baseball."

Nevertheless, Wills said he believed Davis wouldn't mind if Ethier took his record this weekend.

"I really feel in my heart," Wills said, "that Willie is pulling for him to break it."

Times researcher Robin Mayper contributed to this report.

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