Davis, who passed away in 2010, was as enigmatic as any player in Dodger history. He played fourteen of his eighteen seasons (twenty, if you count two seasons in Japan) with the Dodgers, and he still has more hits, extra-base hits, triples, runs scored, at-bats and total bases than any other Dodger during their years in Los Angeles starting in 1958.
He has a decent-sized group of of baseball people who call him an under-performer, and a pretty good group of defenders. There is also a sizable group of people who do both. Davis tantalized with his raw skills and his flashes of baseball brilliance, but also alienated due to his inconsistency, his supposed character flaws and work ethic. There are plenty of anecdotes to fuel both sides’ fire.
Davis was born in 1940, and was a star in three sports for Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Boyle Heights area of LA. He was best known there for running a 9.5 second 100-yard dash, and he set a city record for long jump at 25 feet, five inches.
His skills caught the attention of Dodgers scout Kenny Myers, who signed him after graduation in 1958. Davis is best known in minor league circles for scoring from first nine times on singles when he played with Reno. After tearing up Triple-A with Spokane in 1960 (30 stolen bases, 12 home runs, .346/.377/.566/.933), he came up to the Dodgers in 1960.
Between 1961 and 1977, Davis averaged 147 games played . He led the league in triples twice, in 1962 and 1970, and finished with 138 overall, which is the fourth-most by any major leaguer since 1945. He also stole at least twenty bases in eleven straight seasons between 1962 and 1972.
Davis was also a fine fielder, winning Gold Gloves in 1971, 1972 and 1973, was regularly top five in Range Factor per game in CF, and was often in the top five for defensive WAR. His statistical liabilities were a poor on-base percentage (career .311 OBP), mostly due to his unwillingness to take walks, and while his career .279 BA is respectable, it’s far from overwhelming.
Davis had a roller coaster ride in the 1960s, where he had years in which he hit .294, .285 and .284, then follow it up with years where he hit .245, .238 and .250. He did find consistency in the 1970s, which probably brought his career mark to a decent level. His two biggest memories were his 31-game hitting streak in 1969 and his three-error inning in the ill-fated 1966 World Series against the Orioles.
His statistically best seasons were between 1969 and 1971. In ‘69 he hit .311, got his OBP up to .356, and had 24 SB. In 1970, he hit .305, had a decent .331 OBP, led the league with 16 triples and had 38 SB and 93 RBI. In 1971, he had a solid .309/.330/.438/.769 campaign with 33 doubles, 10 triples and 20 SB.
Davis was actually quite a consistent player in the 1970s. His batting average hung around .280, he’d get 20-25 steals and hit double figures in homers and still get his share of doubles and triples. Not the perennial All-Star many pegged him to be, but still very solid for a pre-steroid thirtysomething.
His true inconsistencies were in the 1960s. In 1962, he hit 21 HR with 10 triples, 32 SB and .285/.334/.453/.787. Davis then followed that in 1963 with .245/.281/.346/.646 with serious declines in all counting categories, too. He had a strong 1964 season, but followed it with a weak one in 1965. It wasn’t until 1969 that he gained consistency.
Not a bad career. The fact that he was a regular starter for the Dodgers and other teams for sixteen years speaks for itself as far as his team’s confidence in him as a player. The question is that many people saw a Hall of Fame talent in Davis, but also saw his inability or unwillingness to do what he had to in order to make himself into that player.
People he played with would rave about his talent. “He was so talented,” former teammate Maury Wills once said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “God really blessed him with some great tools—for any sport, really—speed, strength, agility—everything an athlete needs in order to make the big time.”
In Tom Adelman’s Black and Blue, centered around the 1966 season and World Series, teammates recalled a play where he beat out a rundown between second and third, turned the corner, got caught in another rundown between third and home, and beat that. Another recalled him scoring from second on a bunt hit down the third base line, scoring before fielder Bob Aspromonte even picked up the ball.
Buzzie Bavasi summed up the ambivalence about Davis when he said. “There was nothing more exciting than to watch Willie run out a triple,” Bavasi, who was the Dodgers GM early in Davis’s career, once, told the Los Angeles Times. “He could have been a Hall of Famer, but he had million-dollar legs and a 10-cent head.”
John Roseboro was less than ambivalent when he derided Davis’s work ethic. “He was egotistical….One time I asked to help him with his bunting, and he told me he didn’t need any help. ‘How many (bleeping) bunts did you beat out this year?’ he asked me. I never tried to help him after that. Willie wasn’t willing to work.”
Others defended his work ethic. Steven Travers, in Dodgers Past and Present, paraphrased Vin Scully when he said “Willie had worked as hard as anyone to be a center fielder, as any player he had ever observed, and the results were spectacular.” Manny Mota, then a Pirate, remembered Davis studying Matty Alou and making adjustments which greatly increased his consistency at the plate.
“Matty wasn’t even hitting balls out of the infield, and he was getting hits,” said Mota, now a special instructor for the Dodgers.” He used a really heavy bat and swung down on the ball. After seeing that, Willie starting using a heavier bat and doing the same thing, just to use his speed. The next year, Willie had a 31-game hitting streak.”
One of Davis’ staunchest defenders is Bill James, who called Davis the 27th-best center fielder of all time when he released The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract in 2001. He said that many of Davis’s ups and downs in the 1960s can be attributed to the deadball era, and using James’s adjustments, his equivalent career batting average would’ve been .302, as opposed to .279. While James said that’s not what he would’ve necessarily hit in a “normal” era, his numbers, with adjustments, were vastly higher than his actual 1960s stats.
His opinion of Davis was this. “He should not be regarded as a failure, merely because he played his prime seasons in such difficult hitting conditions.”
An enigma he was and probably always will be, but Davis’s biggest crime is having what was perceived as Hall-of-Fame skills and not following it up with his performance. That being said, it’s hard to look back on a career where he played eighteen seasons—almost all as a starter and a top-of-the-order hitter, where he helped the Dodgers win two World Series and play in a third—as a very successful major league career, Hall of Fame or not.