Card Corner: Topps’ Top 60 and Tommy Davis

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I have to admit to being a little biased in making this week’s selection. Tommy Davis was one of my favorite players. Of all the cards that Topps produced during his long career, his 1972 “In Action” card remains at the top of my list.

Why did I like Davis? Well, I’ve always favored the journeymen over the stars, the players who have to struggle vs. the players who seem to play the game so easily and seamlessly. I like guys who have to labor—and then persevere. They work so hard to reach their goals, helping them appreciate what they’ve accomplished all the more.

Davis’ career is especially fascinating to me because of his extensive travels. He seemingly played everywhere during his career, making numerous stops in both the National and the American leagues. He also went through distinct phases of his career. Early on, Davis was a star, an RBI champion who might have been on pace to make the Hall of Fame. Then came a devastating ankle injury, which robbed him of much of his natural talent, forcing him to adapt from everyday star to part-time role player. Unlike many other players, Davis successfully made that transition, becoming one of the most prolific pinch-hitters in big league history.

In the early 1960s, Davis ranked as one of the National League’s best all-around hitters. In 1962, the smooth-swinging left fielder led the league with a .346 batting average and 153 RBIs. He also slugged .535, by far the best figure of his career. In 1963, Davis’ numbers fell, but he still led the league in hitting with a .326 mark. His offensive numbers became even more impressive in light of having to play half of his games at Dodger Stadium, a veritable boneyard for hitters in the early 1960s.

Adversity struck Davis in 1965. Playing in a game against the rival Giants, he caught his spike on the second-base bag while executing a take-out slide. As the spike met the bag, Davis’ right ankle snapped. He suffered both a broken and dislocated ankle. The major foot fracture, a frightening injury for any position player, robbed Davis of much of his speed—he had once stolen 18 bases in a season—and his power-hitting capability.

Instead of giving up the game, Davis adjusted. He learned to hit off his front foot, making him more of a contact hitter and far less of a power threat. The injury rendered him a journeyman player, as he floated from Los Angeles to New York (Mets) to Chicago (White Sox) to Seattle (Pilots) to Houston to Oakland and back to Chicago (Cubs). By 1970, Davis had been traded three times, sold twice, made available in the expansion draft, and even released—on Christmas Eve, no less.

In 1971, Davis found a home in the Bay Area, at least temporarily. Playing a game in early April, Davis and the A’s trailed the Royals, 4-3, heading to the bottom of the ninth inning. With runners on first and second and two men out, A’s manager Dick Williams called on Davis to pinch-hit for Bob Locker, one of Oakland’s relief pitchers. With the A’s facing their third loss in four games to start the season, Davis belted a hard-hit ball into the left-center field gap. Dick Green scored easily from second to tie the game, and Steve “Orbit” Hovley raced home from first base to give the A’s a dramatic come-from-behind victory. Acquired from the waiver wire, Davis had paid his first major dividend as the leader of Oakland’s bench brigade.

Davis’ clutch hit marked the beginning of a summer filled with late-inning heroics. By mid-season, Davis had become the best backup player on the Oakland roster, forcing his way into a platoon that saw him play first base against left-handed pitching. Batting a team-high .324 with 42 RBIs in only 219 at-bats, Davis played a key supporting role for the A’s as they ran away with the American League West title. No American Leaguer played better off the bench than Davis, who batted a league-leading .464 as a pinch-hitter while driving in 13 runs with 12 pinch-hits.

So how did the A’s reward Davis for his part-time brilliance? In the spring of 1972, the A’s waived the veteran first baseman-outfielder. Nice. Davis realized trouble was brewing when he received his initial contract offer in the mail from team owner Charlie Finley. “I hit .324 for him and he offered me [only] a $3,000 raise,” Davis told the New York Daily News. Davis had also continued to hit well in the spring exhibition games, assaulting pitchers at a .563 clip prior to his release.

So why did Finley and the A’s essentially throw away such a valuable bench player while receiving nothing in return? The A’s claimed that the condition of Davis’ oft-injured legs prevented him from playing a position in the field. That was news to Davis, whose knees felt well enough that he played 35 games at first base and made 16 appearances in left field during the 1971 season. In fact, Davis played first base in both ends of a doubleheader on May 31, 1971. That’s the same overcast day that provided the setting for his cool 1972 action card. (1972 marked only the second year that Topps featured action shots among its regular issued player cards. Topps had started the practice by debuting action shots in 1971.) Davis went 5-for-9 and committed an error in the doubleheader, as Topps captured a wonderful afternoon shot of the old Yankee Stadium, with Davis and Yankee baserunner Horace Clarke (another favorite) holding their positions against the background of the Stadium’s iconic outfield wall.

In reality, Davis’ defensive limitations had little to do with his sudden unemployment, since the A’s planned to use him mostly as a pinch-hitter. The real reason had to do with Davis’ agent—a man named Bob Gerst—who happened to be representing Oakland’s celebrated holdout, Vida Blue. Davis had first introduced Blue to Gerst, an act that Finley now considered unforgivable given Blue’s unwillingness to accept contract terms and report to spring training in Arizona. “If that’s the reason they cut me,” Davis told the New York Times, “there’s nothing I can do about it. If it is [the reason], it’s very childish.” And oh so like Finley.

With teams looking to reduce their rosters to the 25-man limit late in spring training, the timing of the release could not have been worse for Davis. “I figure I had a job, hitting for Oakland and maybe playing sparingly… the next thing I’m out of baseball,” Davis told Black Sports magazine. Davis would eventually find work with the Cubs, but not quickly enough to earn a Topps card for the 1973 season.

The new designated hitter rule would provide a necessary salve to Davis’ career. After being released by the Cubs, Davis found a job in Baltimore. Signing Davis to be their first DH, the Orioles watched the veteran slug a mere .391. But he did steal a surprising 11 bases in 14 tries while piling up more RBIs than all American League designated hitters, a group that included such luminaries as Tony Oliva and Frank Robinson.

Davis’ fairly productive 1973 season put him back on Topps’ wanted list. Now returned to good graces with a 1974 card, Davis would remain one of the more effective designated hitters in the American League that summer, at a time when Finley continued to search high and low for viable DH candidates.

Davis alternated the rest of his career between the related roles of DH and pinch-hitting. After the Orioles released him in February of 1976, he received a tryout from the Yankees, the team that had originally tried to sign him out of high school but was foiled when Jackie Robinson convinced him to sign with the Dodgers. Davis failed to make Billy Martin’s squad as a part-time DH and pinch-hitter, so he signed with the Angels, with whom he played briefly, before finishing up his career with Whitey Herzog’s Royals.

By the time he ended his 18-year major league tenure in 1976, Davis ranked first on the all-time pinch-hitting list with a batting average of .320, breaking the .312 mark established by former Brooklyn Dodger Frenchy Bordagaray. Davis’ success in the pinch remains a remarkable benchmark, given that pinch-hitters spend most of the game sitting cold on the bench and then often have to face a dominant reliever in the late innings. Among more recent pinch-hitters who have accrued at least 150 career at-bats, only ex-Phillie and ex-Marlin Alex Arias has matched Davis’ average.

After his retirement, Davis worked briefly as a coach, returning to Seattle. The Pilots no longer played there, but the Mariners saw fit to include him on their staff in 1981. Deciding that the life of a coach was not for him, Davis hung up his uniform at the end of the ’81 season.

Davis is no longer in Organized Baseball, though he did co-author a book, Tales From the Dodgers Dugout, in 2005. He frequently makes appearances at signings, clinics, and charitable events, but most of those seem to take place on the West Coast. I hope that one day he’ll venture into the northeast, giving me a chance to meet him for the first time. Heck, I’d even settle for a long distance phone call.

Until then, I’ll just have to make do with my 1972 Topps card.

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Comments

  1. RON ELHILOW said...

    Tommy Davis was a great baseball & basketball stickout Star @ BOYS HIGH SCHOOL (BROOKLYN,NY)in the mid 1950,s.He played under baseball coach “OLD MAN KANE”(who also years before had coached the great LOU GEHRIG).Needless to say Mr Kane compared the two very favorably.A couple years after graduation I meet Mr Kane while doing a job in his neighborhood,he recognizes me as a past baseball team member.I asked him why Tommy was playing left field & not catching.Thats when I learned that Tommy had Diabetes & the Dodgers wanted him to last longer!Can you imagine how much greater he could have been without the ankle &Diabetes; setback &LOU; GEHRIG likewise who was the victim of a career shorting devastating disease.

  2. Red Nichols said...

    Another enjoyable read, Bruce.  The Gehrig mention is apt.  Check Tommy’s line for ‘62 – those numbers wouldn’t have embarrassed Columbia Lou.

    Nice tribute to a fine player who adjusted well to his altered circumstances, post-injury

  3. John Shreve said...

    I was playing miniature golf with my girlfriend on a foggy night at Playland at the Beach in San Francisco when Davis wrecked his ankle.
    The game was being broadcast over the course bitch box. 
    I didn’t know how badly he was hurt, but my reaction would have been the same.  I threw my putter in the air and danced all over the course cheering.  My girlfriend patiently tried to cover for me with the other golfers, but the loon was loose.
    I have to admit, a few years later, I felt bad for him,  and admired how he continued to chug along.

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