Card Corner Plus, 1974 Topps: The Redemption of Willie Davis

Willie Davis' 1974 Topps card is a rarity for one simple reason -- he isn't smiling.

Willie Davis’ 1974 Topps card is a rarity for one simple reason — he isn’t smiling.

More often than not, you will find Willie Davis smiling on his Topps cards. One of the exceptions can be found in the 1974 Topps set, which highlights Davis with an intriguing action card. During this era, Topps sometimes drew criticism for using long-range action shots that simply made the player too small. Taken from such an extreme distance, such a photograph give us little idea of the player’s facial features. We are simply too far away, too distant to really see the player in proper light.

With this card, Topps attempts to give us a close-up of the player while in mid-action. Taken at close range, this photograph allows us a good view of Davis’ upper body, just moments after he has completed his swing and put the ball in play. We also notice that he is wearing a cap under his helmet, a fashion choice that was popular with some 1970s players, particularly Bobby Murcer and Al Oliver. Unfortunately, because of the extreme angle from which the Topps cameraman has shot the photo, we can only see a small portion of Davis’ face and head. We know he’s not smiling–who would be in the middle of a swing?–but we really cannot observe his features or his facial tics with any sense of accuracy or detail.

DavisIt’s a shame that we cannot see Davis’ face head-on, because his face told so many stories. A fascinating figure, Davis deserves to have a book written about him. He was a man of many emotions, perhaps too many for his own good. Those emotions nearly ruined him, before he ultimately saved himself.

Davis’ tangent-filled baseball life began in earnest in 1958, when the Dodgers signed him as an amateur free agent. The following spring, they assigned him to their California League affiliate at Reno, where he quickly showed he did not belong at such a low level by thoroughly dominating opposition pitchers. Though only 19 years old, Davis batted .352, compiled a .416 on-base percentage, clubbed 15 home runs, and stole 33 bases.

Davis’ speed was clearly his best talent. As a high schooler, he had once run the 100-yard dash in 9.5 seconds. He was also remarkably agile, having set a Los Angeles area record by jumping 25 and a half feet in what was then known as the broad jump.

Impressively mastering the Class-C level of the Dodgers’ farm system, the athletic Davis received a bump up to Class-B Green Bay before season’s end. He picked up only four hits in 30 at-bats with Green Bay, but the Dodgers understood that they now possessed a special teenaged talent.

Convinced that Davis was ready for the highest levels of the minor leagues, the Dodgers assigned him to Triple-A Spokane of the Pacific Coast League in 1960. Not flustered by the huge jump in competition, Davis compiled statistics eerily similar to what he had done at Reno. He batted .346, stole 30 bases, and hit 12 home runs. While the numbers were likely aided by the favorable conditions of the PCL, they were nonetheless impressive for a 20-year-old in only his second season of professional ball.

Once the minor league season ended, the Dodgers decided to test Davis’ ability to play in the National League. Manager Walter Alston put him into the lineup in center field, where Tommy Davis had been playing out of position most of the summer. With Tommy (Willie’s future roommate and friend) moving over to right field and Willie taking over in center, the Dodgers now had superior speed in two of their outfield positions. At the plate, Willie also handled himself well, hitting .318 in 22 games.

The late-season audition convinced the Dodgers they had an everyday player ready for duty in 1961. Alston played Davis regularly in center field, though he did spare him from having to play against some of the league’s tougher left-handers. Davis didn’t overwhelm, but he did bat .254 with 12 home runs and 12 stolen bases. Defensively, he played far better. With his long, loping strides, Davis covered as much ground as any National League outfielder, including Willie Mays. He also showed a strong arm, one that was unusually powerful for a center fielder.

Offensively, Davis showed more maturity in 1962. He raised his batting average by 30 points, finishing at .285. He also increased his walks (from 27 to 42) and raised his power, hitting a career-high 21 home runs. No one could have blamed the Dodgers for believing that they had a budding superstar in their stable.

Davis also led the National League by running out 10 triples in 1962. There was nothing quite like watching Davis run 270 feet, while challenging the arms of overmatched outfielders and infielders. His nickname, “Three Dog,” became a tribute to the game-breaking speed that he used in legging out triples.

How fast was Davis? He was faster than Maury Wills, his teammate and record-setting base stealer, and faster than Lou Brock. Compile a list of the five fastest man in baseball history, and you’d almost certainly have to include Davis.

As well as Davis played in 1962, he could not sustain his performance. His numbers would fall precipitously in 1963. He failed to reach double figures in home runs, batted only .245, and reached base only 28 percent of the time. Davis’ struggles became a source of frustration to Walter Alston, who offered a blunt assessment. “He isn’t hitting,” Alston told the Los Angeles Times. “I don’t know whether he’ll ever hit.”

Even with a vote of no-confidence from his manager, Davis did receive his first chance to play in a World Series. Though he hit only .166 against the Yankees, the Dodgers swept New York in four games.

Davis would bounce back the following summer, hitting .294 with 42 stolen bases, but would slump again in 1965. Part of the problem stemmed from the offensive environment of the time, caused by expanded strike zones and spacious ballparks. But part of his difficulty resulted from his free swinging ways. Davis swung at anything remotely near the plate, making him susceptible to pitchers who lured him into expanding his strike zone.

Another problem developed for Davis in 1965. He and Maury Wills fostered a clubhouse feud that would last for two seasons. When Davis failed to hustle in an early season game against the Astros, Alston fined him $25. Wills, the Dodger captain, then went to Alston and asked his manager to double the fine, feeling that a message needed to be sent to a player who was developing a reputation for not playing all-out, all the time. Davis resented Wills, exacerbating the hard feelings that persisted even after the Dodgers traded their shortstop during the winter of 1966.

As with the 1963 season, Davis found consolation in reaching the postseason in 1965. Once again, he didn’t hit much in the World Series (.231), but the Dodgers defeated the upstart Twins in seven, giving Davis his second world championship ring.

Davis rebounded in 1966, playing well enough to earn some back-of-the-ballot support for National League MVP honors. A .284 average, 11 home runs, 21 stolen bases, and stellar defensive play in center field made Davis one of the more important players in the league. Considering that the Dodgers won the pennant by only a game and a half over the Giants, it’s likely safe to assume that they would not have won without Davis’ efforts.

Unfortunately, the pennant only set up Davis for an embarrassing set of moments in the World Series. It wasn’t bad enough that he managed only one hit in 16 at-bats against a dominant Orioles pitching staff. Playing in Game Two, Davis committed three errors–all in the fifth inning. First, he lost Boog Powell’s fly ball in the sunny sky; the official scorer saddled him with a two-base error. Then he dropped Andy Etchebarren’s fly ball and compounded the problem by making an overthrow of third base.

After the game, Davis didn’t help matters when he downplayed the importance of the three miscues. “It’s not my wife. It’s not my life. It’s just a game.” These were typical comments from Davis, who never took losing very hard, but even in laid-back Southern California, the remarks didn’t play well.

Although most of the Dodgers played poorly, the goat horns were hung on Davis. His Game Two gaffes stuck so much in fans memories that no one seemed to remember his incredible catch in Game Four, when he leaped several feet into the air to rob Boog Powell of a sure home run. Of course, the catch didn’t prevent the Dodgers from being swept by mighty Baltimore.

Davis’ World Series misfortunes seemed to carry over into the 1967 season. He hit .257 with only six home runs, his worst power output over a full season. The situation only worsened in 1968, the Year of the Pitcher, when his average fell to .250 and his OPS plummeted to an unmanageable .636. Davis had failed to become a superstar; and instead, he had become an offensive liability for a team that needed all the hitting it could find.

Facing the crossroads of his career head-on, Davis began to make some necessary changes in 1969. Too often in the past, he had changed his batting stance, as he tried to emulate some other star player. So he stopped tinkering with his stances, while also adopting a heavier bat and shortening his swing.

The changes paid immediate dividends. He hit .311, by far his best mark for a full season, and made headlines when he strung together a 31-game hitting streak. He also hit 11 home runs. Posting an OPS of better than .800 for the first time, Davis became such an offensive contributor that he finished 21st in the MVP race.

Coinciding with his turnaround season, Davis saw his Hollywood career begin to sprout. Six years earlier, he had appeared as himself on a hysterical episode of Mr. Ed, but now he was asked to portray a fictional character on an episode of The Flying Nun. Davis played the manager of a convent baseball team, and did so well that he received two offers to appear in films. In 1970, he appeared in the Jerry Lewis comedy, Which Way to the Front?; the following year, he made an uncredited appearance in a film called The Love Machine.

All seemed well with Davis. Off the field, he enjoyed going to the racetrack and playing golf.  On the field, more good results followed in 1970 and ‘71. In the former season, he batted .305 and led the league with 16 triples. In the latter, he hit .309 and made his first All-Star Game appearance. Now equipped with a better offensive reputation, the appreciation for his always fine defensive play soared. Davis won the first of what would be three consecutive Gold Glove awards.

Another significant change came to Davis’ life in 1972. Influenced by his wife’s religious choices, Davis became a devout practitioner of Buddhism. His new faith involved the practice of chanting, which he did while handling prayer beads. As part of his pregame routine, Davis began chanting in the clubhouse, in full view of his teammates. Some of his Dodger mates expressed the thought that the chanting was a distraction, while others considered it only amusing—and nothing more. The Los Angeles media played up the story, drawing Davis some unwanted attention.

On the field, Davis continued to hit well. Showing a newfound power stroke, he clubbed 19 home runs in 1972. Though he failed to hit .300 for the first time in four seasons, he still batted .285 and reached base 32 per cent of the time. The Dodgers also made him their captain, a tribute to his veteran status with the organization.

Posting almost identical offensive numbers in 1973, Davis should have been looking to continue—and cement—his career in Los Angeles. But he tested the patience of Alston, his old school manager. In the past, Davis had occasionally failed to hustle, but the habit became far more frequent in 1973. He sometimes chose not to run out routine ground balls and pop-ups. By season’s end the Dodgers had seen enough. GM Al Campanis decided to trade Davis, a lifelong Dodger, sending him to the Montreal Expos for another controversial player, workhorse reliever Mike Marshall.

Though Davis’ lack of hustle had made him some enemies, Dodgers fans did not react favorably to the deal. They liked Davis, whose constant smile and outgoing personality made him a popular staple with Dodger Blue. Those fans would have preferred that Davis remain a Dodger for life.

Davis reacted well to the change of scenery. Though he continued to eschew walks (again failing to draw even 30 bases on balls in 1974), he remained an effective player for the Expos. A .295 average, 25 steals, 12 home runs, and solid defense in center field won him the praise of his new manager, Gene Mauch. The Expos were pleased, enough to name him the team’s Player of the Year.

But Davis was also making a lot of money,  for the era, was now 34, and didn’t fit into an Expos team that was building for the future. So after only one season in Montreal, the Expos sent him packing. They traded him to the Rangers, receiving only two unproven players, infielder Pete Mackanin and young reliever Don Stanhouse, in return.

Before he could report to Texas for spring training, Davis faced some personal problems. He had to sit in jail for two days, the direct result of his failure to pay child support to his wife. Even though Davis drew a good salary, he claimed he couldn’t afford the payments.

Once he settled his legal trouble and agreed to make the payments, Davis became an intriguing character in the Rangers’ clubhouse. Known for his conditioning and his strict regime of yoga, Davis had such little body fat that his veins practically stuck out from underneath his skin. He looked like no other player. He also had an intriguing choice of roommates; a Doberman pinscher with the fangs of a vampire. One unidentified Ranger began referring to Davis as the “Strange Ranger.”

Oddities aside, Davis appeared to fit well into the speed game preferred by Rangers skipper Billy Martin. But the two strong personalities were bound to clash—and clash they did. One day, as Martin berated his players during a clubhouse meeting, Davis interrupted his manager. Martin did not appreciate that began yelling at him. Davis yelled back, escalating a nasty incident that soon became the talk of the Texas beat writers.

It became obvious that someone would have to go. About a week and a half before the old June 15 trading deadline, Davis lost the battle of wills. The Rangers sent him back to the National League, this time to the Cardinals, in exchange for veteran shortstop Eddie Brinkman and young right-hander Tommy Moore.

The trade turned out to be a blessing for Davis, who would now play for a more tolerant manager, Red Schoendienst. Furthermore, for the first time in his career, Davis would play his home games on artificial turf, a surface that fit his stun-and-run game. Davis hit .291 while playing all three outfield positions for Schoendienst.

Once again, Davis should have found a home. Instead, he found a one-way ticket out of St. Louis. That October, the Cardinals traded Davis to the Padres, settling for a far inferior player, light-hitting outfielder Dick Sharon, in return.

Davis was a bad fit for the Padres, a sub-.500 team that should have been going with youth. He hit only .268, his lowest average since the Year of the Pitcher. With only five home runs and 19 walks, Davis was an offensive bust.

In January of 1977, the Padres released Davis, allowing him to sign with the Chunichi Dragons of the Japanese Leagues. On paper, a player with a reputation for not hustling looked like a disaster-in-waiting to play in Japan, where players were expected to work hard and play hard. But Davis did well, albeit in an injury-shortened campaign, as he hit 25 home runs in only 72 games, while also batting .306.

Davis switched franchises in 1978, moving from Chunichi to Crown Lighter, and continued to play well. But Davis longed to return to the United States. So in the latter days of spring training, he signed with the Angels as a free agent. But the Angels had a crowded outfield and DH situation, and could only offer Davis a backup role. For the first time in his career, he was a fourth outfielder and pinch-hitter. Accumulating only 56 at-bats in 41 games, Davis hit .250 and drew his release.

Even at 39, Davis wasn’t ready to retire. In 1980, he took his glove and bat to the Mexican League, where he played for Veracruz for one season, before finally calling it quits.

Unfortunately, Davis was poorly equipped to handle life after baseball. He lacked the temperament to become a coach or manager. His Hollywood career, which once had seemed so promising, had hit a dead end; agents and directors, as they often do, lost interest in Davis once he left baseball.

More alarmingly, Davis became heavily involved with drugs. He also struggled to find work, putting himself in dire financial straits. His situation reached rock bottom one night in March of 1996, when he showed up at his parents’ home demanding that they pay him $5,000 they allegedly owed him. To make matters worse, not to mention bizarre, Davis brandished a Samurai sword and several ninja-style throwing stars. He threatened to use the weapons against his parents if they did not pay him the money. He also threatened to burn their house to the ground. Summoned to a scene that could have turned tragic, the police took Davis away in handcuffs before he court hurt his parents—or himself.

When asked about her son, Davis’ mother said that she and her husband owed him no money. She told the police that she believed Davis was acting so strangely because of an addiction to drugs.

Davis spent some time in jail, but his parents refused to press charges against their troubled son. The Dodgers also did their best to intervene. Given the go-ahead from owner Peter O’Malley, they dispatched one of their executives, Tommy Hawkins, to counsel Davis, make sure that he received proper medical treatment, and then eventually attempt to include him in alumni and reunion events. While some might have given up on Davis as a lost cause, the man known as Three Dog was receptive to the advice he received. Slowly but surely, he worked his way back, becoming part of the Dodgers’ alumni outreach program.

For nearly 15 years, Davis led a life that seemed peaceful and content. All was well, until the day in March of 2010, when a neighbor delivered Davis’ breakfast to his Burbank home, as he did routinely. The neighbor called out to Davis, but heard no answer. He then found Davis unresponsive. The 69-year-old Davis was dead, for medical reasons that remain a mystery to this day.

The loss of Davis hit the Dodgers’ community hard, bringing out a number of former teammates to his memorial service. Almost to a man, each Dodger praised Davis as a good teammate, a man of positive spirit who made the clubhouse a better place.

There was also a sense of relief that the prodigal son had come home before his death. “Willie for a period of time was a troubled person. He’d come to Dodger Stadium in various states of disarray,” Hawkins told the Los Angeles Times. “Eventually he did get his act together and worked his way back to the Dodger fold.”

That is how I’ll remember Willie Davis, not for that bizarre night when he threatened his parents, but for turning his life around. His comeback from the brink showed that it’s never too late.

Before he left us, Willie Davis found his way.

References & Resources

  • The Los Angeles Times
  • The Sporting News
  • Willie Davis’ clippings file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library
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Comments

  1. Dennis Bedard said...

    Funny how first impressions last. The 1966 World Series was my first exposure to major league baseball. For years, and because of those 3 errors in game 2, I could not help but consider Davis the worst player in baseball. The flip side of that equation, and equally wrongheaded, is that I could never figure out why Moe Drabowsky did not become the game’s best pitcher after his performance in game 1. For what it is worth Bruce, Drabowsky, of baseball’s most colorful characters, deserves a post of his own.

  2. Joe Pilla said...

    Thanks for another terrific and illuminating piece, Bruce! You always manage to focus on the humanity of your card subjects, and not just their stats. (Having written that, Willie Davis seems to be a player whose prime years were particularly affected by the weak offensive climate that afflicted MLB from ’63 to ’68. I think that he was one near star who would have truly benefited if the Reserve Clause had fallen earlier.) His troubles immediately after retirement from the Game sadly illustrate how hard it can be to endure that first “death.” Would that MLB and the Dodgers had intervened sooner.
    I also enjoy your appreciation of the surprising (in retrospect) visual variety of the ’74 Topps. Frankly, I loved the cards that captured movement, so much more fun than the usual shots of batters and pitchers in clichéd poses.
    ‘Sure hope that Willie wasn’t popping up to third in that shot.
    I can remember exulting in the Orioles’ sweep of the Dodgers in the ’66 Series, but still feeling very sorry for Davis, a clearly splendid player enduring a nightmare inning in the Game’s brightest spotlight. He’s in that unfortunate fraternity of fine players (including Ralph Branca, Donnie Moore, Mitch Williams, and Carlos Beltran) whose claim to infamy was of devastating failure at a crucial postseason moment.

  3. Mike Friedman said...

    Jimmy Wynn hit a homer and made a diving catch on Opening Day 1974 and became an immediate fan favorite. Willie is appreciated more in retrospect than he was at the time.

  4. said...

    Great piece. It brings an added level of understanding about a popular but very complicated player. However, here’s something that I never understood. Willie Davis was eligible to appear on the Hall of Fame ballot in 1985, but he never made it onto the ballot. In fact in spite of his popularity and his lengthy career he never made it on the Hall of Fame ballot. As far as I know he and Pete Rose are the only post-WWII player with more than 2500 career hits that never made it onto the Hall of Fame ballot. We know why Pete Rose never made it on the ballot, but the ineligibility rule wasn’t around in 1985, and Willie was never declared ineligible. It’s one of the most puzzling things to me.

  5. gary lester said...

    Another great bio. I remember running home from school to catch the rest of that World Series game and my Mother, who knew little about baseball, trying to tell me about “a player named Davis dropped missed 2 fly balls” and I was sure she had misunderstood what happened.

  6. john boudreau said...

    Bruce, you need to take all of these great pieces, add a little baseball card flavor with some new pieces and publish a book. i’d buy it in a heartbeat

  7. Kim Davis said...

    Yes, a book should be written. He was amazing and passionate about everything that he did. Your piece was beautifully written. Thank you. He is my father.
    Kim Davis

  8. Michael said...

    At one time I was attending between 30 and 40 Dodger home games every season, and Willie Davis was “my guy.” Imagine my shock when I spotted he, Von Joshua and another player whose name I can no longer remember, coming out of a market I was heading into. I stopped to talk to them and before we were done, they had invited me to an NSA meeting. I don’t remember how long I chanted after that, but certainly long enough to annoy my best friend from college as he had to endure it all the way to Hawaii one year. When Willie hit bottom, it broke my heart, but nothing like the day I heard he had died. Bruce, thank you for bringing up the memories. Some of them hurt, but most make me smile. Willie Davis was a unique man…

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