Willie Davis (1940-2010)

Willie Davis was before my time. He spent 18 seasons in the major leagues, from 1960 through 1976, with a brief comeback in 1979, so unless he made a cameo appearance in an Angels game I was watching in that latter year — he wasn’t in this Nolan Ryan near no-hitter — I never actually saw him play. I knew of him primarily because of a gruesome inning in the 1966 World Series in which he made three errors, a moment which represented the fall of the Sandy Koufax-era Dodgers’ mini-dynasty. He lost one fly ball in the sun, dropped the next ball, and overthrew third base on the same play as three runs scored.

Alas, that turned out to be Koufax’s final game. The pitcher was actually forgiving of Davis’ woes, and as the great Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray wrote, “I don’t think the shock of Game 2 of the World Series was that Willie Davis dropped two fly balls off Koufax fastballs in center field, I think it was that Koufax fastballs ended up in center field in the first place.”

Anyway, Davis was so much more than that. He patrolled center field for the Dodgers for 14 year, from 1960 through 1973, a span during which they won three pennants and two World Series. The tail end of his career overlapped with the beginnings of the great Longest Running Infield which drove the team’s next four pennants (1974-1981). He is the Los Angeles era franchise leader in hits (2,091), extra-base hits (585), at-bats (7,495), runs (1,004), triples (110) and total bases (3,094). His legacy looms large.

Davis passed away on March 9, and he was fondly remembered at a ceremony at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday which brought together several generations of Dodgers, from Peter O’Malley to Frank McCourt, from Maury Wills and Tommy Davis to Bill Russell, Ron Cey and Reggie Smith. Both his talent and humanity drew tribute. “Willie treated every player with respect and he made you feel welcomed,” said Smith, who watched Davis while growing up in Southern California and played with him in St. Louis in 1975. “Willie had it all and he was probably the fastest man I ever saw in baseball.”

Indeed, his speed was remarkable. “He was the only man I’ve ever seen who, when he hit a ball in the gap, the opposing team watched him run,” said Lou Johnson, another Dodger teammate from the Sixties. Recalled Tommy Davis (no relation), who raced against him in a 60-yard dash in spring training, “”I realized he was fast,” Davis said, “because Johnny Podres and Stan Williams were betting on him — and those guys knew how to bet.”

Davis had his critics as well, not to mention his problems. He converted to Buddhism late in his career, and was often ridiculed by closed-minded sportswriters. He had financial woes late in his career, and following it. Playing in the death valley of 1960s Dodger Stadium, the most parched run scoring environment on earth, his numbers looked meager; he hit .275/.306/.385 for his career at Chavez Ravine, .281/.314/.428 everywhere else. Still, his lifetime True Average (a/k/a Equivalent Average) was .274; a .260 is league average after adjusting for park and league scoring levels, so he was actually a significantly above-average hitter for his time. Translated to a 4.5 runs per game environment (as BP does for every player), his career line comes out to .300/.335/.467, with 2,738 hits, 242 homers and 438 steals — numbers that start to look Hall of Fame caliber — and his defense, according to BP’s numbers, was 104 runs above average for his career.

Still, he was viewed as something of an erratic player and character. As the New York Times obituary notes, Murray “suggested that Davis had tinkered with his batting stance too much. ‘Willie, you see, did imitations. The only way you could tell it wasn’t Stan Musial was when he popped up.'” (The entire Murray column from which that was taken is here. It’s worth a read.)

The best of the Davis tributes online belongs to Bruce Jenkins of the San Francisco Chronicle:

Willie Davis might have been the coolest ballplayer I ever saw. He exuded style, a sense of the pure aesthetic, and he could have excelled at any sport. His choice of baseball was a blessing to the game, and among those of us who watched him up close at Dodger Stadium in the early 1960s, there was no question he was the fastest man alive. In a race from first to third with a running start, I’m not sure even Bob Hayes could have caught him.

Davis was found dead Tuesday at the age of 69 (authorities believe there was no foul play), leaving behind a legacy of unique, unforgettable talent. He made two All-Star teams, racked up 2,561 hits, had a 31-game hitting streak, won three consecutive Gold Glove awards, but he wasn’t an elite outfielder in the National League. With the likes of Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Frank Robinson and Roberto Clemente in the mix, that just wasn’t possible.

What none of those players had — few that I can recall in any era — was Davis’ combination of urban cool and blazing speed. He addressed the world at a slow, measured pace, never in a rush. He basically let life come to him. Even as he approached home plate with a bat in his hands, he struck the impression of a man wearing shades at the far corner table of a jazz club.

There was lightning inside him. He turned it loose at the crack of the bat. Like so many good left-handed hitters, he crushed the low fastball, drilling it up the alleys on a laser path. That’s when Willie Davis struck fear in the hearts of every opponent, because that would be a triple.

As Tommy Lasorda inevitably lamented, Davis has gone to visit the big Dodger in the sky. So long, Willie.

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