The USA Network proudly proclaims that “characters are welcome.” Well, the network could have found plenty of material in a sitcom or drama about the life and times of Willie Davis. The longtime Dodgers center fielder, who died on Tuesday at the age of 69, lived a life that could safely be described as unconventional.
Davis arrived on the major league scene in 1960, given the challenge of essentially trying to succeed Duke Snider as the Dodgers’ regular center fielder. By 1961, he had the job. Replacing future Hall of Famers is never easy, especially for an emotionally sensitive man like Davis.
The Dodgers, however, felt that he was fully capable of his own greatness. With the build of a tall greyhound, Davis ran faster than any of the Dodgers, including Maury Wills, and as fast as anyone of his era. He also had surprising power for his rail-thin frame. He could throw like a right fielder, and catch anything with hang time in center field.
To the disappointment of the Dodgers, Davis did not become a superstar. He simply did not have enough patience at the plate. Overly aggressive, he too often swung at pitches outside of his reach. His power remained occasional, not consistent. Only once did he hit 20-plus home runs in a season.
Still, he forged a niche as a very good ballplayer. From 1961 to 1973, Davis served as the Dodgers’ starting center fielder. He regularly collected 170 hits a season, stole 20 to 30 bases, and played a smooth center field. He made two All-Star teams, won three Gold Gloves, and played for two world championship clubs. Though clearly not the caliber of a Willie Mays or even a Reggie Smith, Davis established himself as one of the better all-around center fielders of the 1960s and early ’70s.
Perhaps the expectations were simply too high. Davis himself set unreasonable goals. Before the 1969 season, Davis predicted that he would hit. 400. Davis ended up hitting .311, a perfectly acceptable batting average, but 89 points short of his predicted goal.
From the standpoint of style, Davis had few peers, both on and off the field. With his outgoing personality and willingness to socialize, Davis became a natural fit for Hollywood. He made a memorable appearance as himself on the TV show “Mr. Ed.” As the talking horse made his way around the bases, Davis and Leo Durocher provided witty commentary from the Dodger Stadium sidelines. Later, Davis played a manager on “The Flying Nun.” And then he made an uncredited appearance as a police officer in a 1971 film called “The Love Machine.” (How’s that for a diverse set of credits: talking horses, flying nuns, and love machines?)
Davis left us with some distinct images from his playing days, too. First off, I’ll always remember him as one of those players who wore his cap under his helmet, like Al Oliver and Bobby Murcer. Then came his running style. He glided silkily in center field, using loping strides to track balls from one outfield gap to the other. On the bases, he used his long legs to run out triples, twice leading the National League in that category. (Davis, who wore No. 3, called himself “Three Dog” because of his ability to hit triples.)
How fast was Davis? During one minor league season, he collected seven inside-the-park home runs. He was one of the five fastest players I’ve ever seen, along with Willie Wilson, Mickey Rivers, Joey Gathright, and an obscure middle infielder from the 1970s named Larry Lintz.
Unfortunately, the balance and dexterity that Davis showed in running the bases and playing the outfield didn’t always carry over to his off-the-field demeanor—or his interviews with the media. Davis talked about how losing never upset him, since he saw how happy the players on the other team became after beating the Dodgers. As Dodgers vice president Buzzie Bavasi once said of his center fielder: “He can run, hit, and throw. The only thing Davis has never been able to do is think.” Ouch.
Davis could think; he just didn’t do so in conventional ways. That included his choice of religion. In 1971, Davis drew attention to himself when he joined a Buddhist sect. Displaying prayer beads, he began chanting before games. In contrast to most other players, Davis’ choice of religion became a major story with both the local and national media. Some of his teammates resented the chanting, calling it a distraction. Others were simply amused by his pre-game ritual.
By 1973, Davis’ standing in Los Angeles deteriorated. That summer became a tumultuous one for Davis and the Dodgers. Although he was team captain, Davis stopped hustling on routine grounders and fly balls. Fed up with his lack of leadership, Dodgers general manager Al Campanis traded him to the Expos for workhorse reliever Mike Marshall, who would emerge as the National League’s MVP in 1974.
Now playing north of the border, Davis predicted that he would have his best season yet. Then again, he made that prediction every year. Like most seasons, Davis fell short of his lofty goals. He played up to his usual standards—a .322 on-base percentage, 12 home runs, 25 stolen bases—but nothing beyond his best days as a Dodger.
After his peak years in Southern California, Davis bounced around with several clubs, including the Rangers, Cardinals, Padres and Angels, and two Japanese teams, the Chunichi Dragons and Crown Lighter Lions. When he first arrived at spring training with the Rangers in 1975, he reported directly from a Los Angeles jail, where he had been held for alleged non-payment of spousal support to his ex-wife. What an entrance!
While he was with Texas, some of Davis’ teammates noted his unusual habits and his strange physique. He shared living quarters with an intriguing choice of roommates—a Doberman pinscher with large fangs. He diligently performed yoga, which was frowned upon in some baseball circles, as part of an overall conditioning program that left him with an odd physical appearance. Davis had such little body fat that his veins bulged out throughout his body, giving him almost a surreal look. As one Rangers beat writer put it, Davis appeared to be all “skin and veins.” One of his teammates dubbed Davis the “Strange Ranger.”
To the surprise of no one, Davis didn’t last long in Texas, not with a manager like Billy Martin. One day, Davis and Martin engaged in a clubhouse fistfight. I don’t know who won the actual fisticuffs, but Martin won the war. Within minutes of the fight, Davis received his walking papers in the form of a trade to St. Louis.
With his batting and running skills fading, Davis eventually found his way to the Japanese Leagues. As a Buddhist, Davis felt the Japanese culture would embrace his religious beliefs. As it turned out, Davis was too extreme for the Asian culture. In the opinion of some, Davis displayed his religion too fervently. He chanted in the clubhouse before each game, to the point of disturbing some of his teammates. “It gave the others the feeling they were at a Buddhist funeral,” complained Wally Yonamine, Davis’ manager with the Chunichi Dragons.
After Davis’ playing days, his eccentricities degraded into the realm of the bizarre and the near violent. In March of 1996, Davis was arrested after threatening his parents with a samurai sword and ninja-style throwing stars. Davis demanded that his parents pay him $5,000; when they refused, he threatened to burn down their house and kill them. Davis was booked under investigation of assault with a deadly weapon and attempted extortion, but his parents opted to drop the charges.
Though Davis escaped prison time, the incident brought him public humiliation, making him a punch line. Having hit rock bottom, Davis proceeded to make a slow but steady climb toward respectability. The Dodgers hired him to work in their speakers bureau. He delivered motivational speeches to youngsters, urging them not to repeat the mistakes he had committed in abusing drugs and alcohol. In many ways, he reminded me of Dock Ellis, another abuser of drugs who had found redemption during his final years.
I was especially saddened to hear about Davis’ passing on Tuesday because he appeared to be winning the toughest of the battles with his demons. Though I never met him, he seemed to be a good man at heart, based on the testimony of teammates and officials in the Dodgers organization. As his former Dodgers teammate Tommy Davis told Fred Claire of MLB.com: “I think of Willie and I think of a guy who was always laughing.“
Just as importantly, Willie Davis demonstrated that people can come back from adversity, even later in life. Like many of his fans, I just wish that life had been longer.