Cooperstown Confidential: Willie Davis and the Cardinal-Ranger connectionby Bruce Markusen
October 21, 2011
For me, baseball is word association. When I hear the name of a team, I quickly associate the team with certain players. So it is with this year’s World Series match-up between the Cardinals and Rangers. Almost immediately, I tried to come up with players common to both teams.
To be honest, I struggled to come up with big names who have played for both franchises. (In the case of the Rangers, I’m thinking only of their franchise tenure since 1972, and not when they played as the Washington Senators.) The biggest name I could come up with was a manager, Hall of Famer Whitey Herzog. We all know about the skillful job he did in leading the Cardinals to World Series appearances in 1982 and 1985. Herzog made over the Cardinals to fit the parameters of Busch Stadium, where the ball skipped along the artificial turf like a marble in a bathtub. Better than any manager of his era, Herzog skillfully adapted his club to its environment.
If we think a little harder, we remember Herzog’s days managing Texas, when he succeeded a fellow named Ted Williams in leading a band of unproven Rangers. Under Herzog’s guidance, Rangers like Jeff Burroughs and Toby Harrah developed into very good players, but the team was done in by poor defense (that’s what happens when Mike Epstein, Rico Carty and Alex Johnson all play for you at the same time), a scattershot pitching staff, and the premature arrival of high school sensation David Clyde.
As much of a role as Herzog played with both the Rangers and Cards, I really wanted my game of word association to involve players, not managers. Without looking up any names at Baseball Reference, four St. Louis/Texas players immediately came to mind: Ted Kubiak, Jim Bibby, the aforementioned Alex Johnson, and the late Willie Davis.
So that left me with Davis. He did not spend a lot of time with either club; in fact, he split the 1975 season between the Rangers and Cardinals. But he managed to leave a distinct imprint on both clubs. With the Rangers, he emerged as one of the oddest characters in the franchise’s history. With the Cardinals, he continued his offbeat ways but also put together a productive half-season playing on the turf of Busch Stadium, giving him one last hurrah in the major leagues before an unproductive season in San Diego and then a jaunt in Japan.
In his prime, Davis was an enormously talented player. He was arguably the fastest player of the '60s. He had oceanic range in center field, along with a strong throwing arm. He could run out triples better than anyone, had power, and with his smooth left-handed swing, could launch low fastballs into the outfield gaps.
By 1973, Davis’ standing with his original team, the Dodgers, had fully deteriorated. Although he was still team captain, Davis stopped hustling on routine ground outs 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.
Davis lasted only one season north of the border. He not only clashed with no-nonsense manager Gene Mauch, but he also made it clear he wanted more money. So the Expos traded him to the Rangers for promising infielder Pete Mackanin and a throw-in reliever named Don Stanhouse. When Davis arrived in Florida for his first spring training with the Rangers, he reported directly from a Los Angeles jail, where he had been held for alleged non-payment of spousal support to his ex-wife.
While he was with Texas, some of Davis’ teammates noticed his strange physique, which came from diligently performing yoga as part of an overall conditioning program. Davis had such little body fat that his veins bulged out throughout his body, giving him almost a surreal appearance. As one Ranger beat writer put it, Davis appeared to be all “skin and veins.” One of his Texas teammates dubbed Davis the “Strange Ranger.”
Davis also had unusual personal habits. For example, he shared living quarters with an intriguing choice of roommates—a Doberman pinscher who owned a set of large fangs. A devout Buddhist, Davis chanted loudly before each game. And faced with financial problems, Davis continually asked the Rangers for advances on his salary.
Davis had a temper, too. One day, hes engaged in a nasty clubhouse shouting match with manager Billy Martin, another man who struggled to control his emotions. And then came the final straw. When Rangers right-hander Steve Hargan chose not to retaliate after Davis was beaned by a Red Sox pitcher, Davis took off his glove and squatted down in center field as a show of protest. Martin was not pleased. Within a matter of hours, Davis received his walking papers in the form of a trade to the Cardinals.
In many ways, the 35-year-old Davis was a perfect fit for the Cardinals, who played on the fast turf of Busch Stadium. Davis’ line-drive swing and sprinter’s speed played more effectively than on the natural grass of Arlington Stadium in Texas. At times, the Cardinals started one of the fastest outfields in major league history, with Lou Brock in left field, Bake McBride in center, and Davis. The Cardinals had the outfield gaps covered--and then some.
In 98 games for St. Louis, Davis played well. He batted .291 (though his on-base percentage fell below .320), stole 10 bases in 11 attempts, and collected 50 RBI. With Davis serving as a catalyst, the Cardinals re-entered the pennant race, whittling down a 13-game deficit before finishing a solid third in the NL East, at 82-80.
Yet, there were problems. In August, Davis had to leave the team because his wages were being garnished by his ex-wife. The Cardinals placed him on the disqualified list, which meant that he would not be paid, at least temporarily. After five days on the DQ list, Davis and his ex-wife reached a settlement, allowing him to return to his team and continue receiving his salary.
Davis remained eccentric as ever. During one game in Los Angeles, he emerged from the Cardinals dugout shirtless. One of the umpires noticed that Davis had only shorts on, and ordered him to return to the clubhouse. As befuddled Cardinals coaches looked on, Davis shouted at the umpire, gestured heatedly, and then left the dugout.
Although he played hard for St. Louis, Davis was still not happy. His salary called for him to receive $105,000, but that wasn’t enough to meet his extravagant spending style. He wanted a new five-year contract worth $1 million, an outrageous demand for a 35-year-old player of that era. He talked about giving the Cardinals the “first shot” to sign him, even though he was already under contract and free agency was still a full year away. That was not the kind of thing that August Busch’s Cardinals did. So in late October, the Cardinals dumped Davis on the Padres, extracting only a fringe player, light-hitting backup outfielder Dick Sharon, in return. It was a case of trading a player for about 30 cents on the dollar. And so, Davis’ career as a Cardinal came to a crashing end. But it was memorable
By putting in time with both the Cardinals and the Rangers, Davis managed to make my all-Cardinal-Ranger team. The following players spent time with both ballclubs, some having an impact on one of the franchises, some having an impact on neither.
Catcher: Darrell Porter
First base: Will Clark
Second base:Mark DeRosa
Shortstop: Royce Clayton
Third base: Todd Zeile
Left field: Brian Jordan
Center field: Willie Davis
Right field: Bobby Bonds
DH: Andres Galarraga
Utility: Fernando Tatis
Pitcher: Jim Bibby
Left-handed reliever: Arthur Rhodes
Closer: Tom Henke
In their primes, these were all pretty good players. Of this group, only the ageless Arthur Lee Rhodes is still active. He’s currently on the Cardinals’ postseason roster, making his first appearance in World Series play, after having spent most of the regular season with the Rangers. Just like Willie Davis, he knows what it’s like to be dumped by one club and picked up by another in the middle of the season. Unlike Davis, he’ll be earning a World Series shar—not to mention a ring from either the Cards or Rangers—for his troubles.
References and Resources
The Sporting News; Seasons in Hell, by Mike Shropshire
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.