Baseball lost an original on Tuesday. Former Dodger standout Willie Davis, who also played for the Expos, Rangers, Cardinals, Padres and Angels, was found dead at his Burbank home. He was 69.
Some of Davis’ eccentricities were good. Some were unpleasant. Yet, he was always memorable. And he was a pretty good ballplayer who combined dynamic speed with occasional power and an unusual level of aggressiveness both at the plate and in center field. Davis didn’t like to walk much; he liked to swing the bat and take off running.
I was especially saddened to hear about Davis’ passing because he appeared to be winning the toughest of the battles with his demons. About 15 years ago, a drug-addicted Davis became involved in a disturbing incident when he threatened his parents with a samurai sword, leading to his arrest and a period of public humiliation. 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 same mistakes he had endured with drugs and alcohol. In many ways, he reminded me of Dock Ellis, another abuser of drugs who had found redemption during his final years. Essentially good men at heart, they demonstrated that people can change for the better, even later in life.
During his playing days, Willie Davis did it all. He appeared as himself on an episode of “Mr. Ed” and played a manager on “The Flying Nun.“ He became a practitioner of yoga at a time when people in baseball frowned upon such activities. A devout Buddhist, he regularly chanted prior to games. (That always brought an interesting reaction from teammates.) After his divorce, he shared a room with a Doberman pinscher. He once brawled with Billy Martin, his manager in Texas. And then Davis brought all of his weirdness and wonder to Japan, where he finished out his days as a player while embracing the Asian culture.
Davis used to call himself “Three Dog,” a reference to his uniform No. 3 and his proclivity for hitting triples. For fans old enough to have seen him play, watching Davis run out a triple was one of the game’s great pleasures of the 1960s and seventies. He was one of the fastest players I’ve ever seen, perhaps just a tick slower than the likes of Willie Wilson, Mickey Rivers, and Joey Gathright.
I plan to write more extensively about Davis in the next “Cooperstown Confidential,” but his passing merited some immediate remembrance. Like many Dodger fans, I’m saddened to have to bid such an early farewell to the colorful man known as Three Dog.