When thinking about the most complete players of the 1970s, a name that rarely if ever comes up is Willie Davis. Yet there was little Davis could not do on the baseball field. Willie gave himself the nickname 3-Dog because he wore #3 and had a knack for hitting triples- 10 or more of them in 4 separate seasons, tying for the NL lead with 10 in 1962, and leading the majors with 16 in 1970. He finished the decade 5th with 70 3-baggers, and during his 7 seasons in the 70s, Davis was a .291 hitter with 81 home runs, 157 stolen bases, and 543 runs scored. Davis was a gifted defensive player with speed to cover lots of ground in centerfield, combined with a powerful throwing arm, and took 3 consecutive Gold Gloves from 1971-73. With all that talent, why is Davis not mentioned with the best of the ’60s and ’70s, if not all-time?
Former Dodgers general manager Buzzie Bavasi once said of Davis: “There was nothing more exciting than to watch Willie run out a triple. … He could have been a Hall of Famer, but he had million-dollar legs and a 10-cent head.”
John Roseboro thought the problem was with 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, like Vin Scully said “Willie worked as hard as anyone to be a center fielder, and the results were spectacular.” As a Pirate Manny Mota remembered Davis making adjustments like those of Matty Alou, who used a heavier bat, to slash the ball and use his speed to become a better hitter.
Who was right? Likely all of them.
Willie was a three sport star (baseball, basketball, track) at Roosevelt HS in Los Angeles, where he ran a 9.5 100 yard dash and set a city record with a 25’5″ long jump. He was signed after graduating in 1958, made his big league debut in 1960, and by the next season took over for Duke Snider as the Dodgers starting centerfielder. Batting 2nd in the Dodger lineup behind Maury Wills, LA enjoyed great speed at the top of their order. In 1962 Willie Davis set career highs with 171 hits, 21 home runs, and 103 runs scored, as teammate Tommy Davis, with the help of his table-setters, knocked in a Dodgers record 153 RBI. In both 1963 and 1965, LA won World Series championships, and the team returned to the Fall Classic in 1966.
Game 2 of that Series would unfortunately be where Davis the centerfielder is most remembered: he committed 3 errors within two consecutive plays in the 5th inning. With Boog Powell on first Davis lost Paul Blair’s fly in the sun, then mishandled Andy Etchebarren’s drive and overthrew third base trying for Blair, allowing him to score behind Powell. Already down 1 game to none, the Dodgers went on to lose 6-0 in Sandy Koufax’ last game. When asked about it afterwards, Davis could only offer “it’s not my wife and it’s not my life.” The Dodgers were shut out by identical 1-0 scores in the final two games, ending a disappointing 4-game sweep that saw them score only 2 runs the entire Series.
After two down seasons, Davis hit a career high .311 in 1969, which included a 31-game hitting streak that is still a Dodgers’ franchise best. Willie batted .305 with career bests of 16 triples and 93 RBI in 1970 and hit .309 with a career high 33 doubles in 1971. In 1973, after winning his third career Gold Glove and smacking a pinch-hit All-Star game 2-run homer off Nolan Ryan, Davis’ work ethic and attitude were called into question. In December he was traded to Montreal for Mike Marshall, the first of four times Davis would be dealt within two years. Montreal manager Gene Mauch happily labeled Davis ‘the best centerfielder in baseball’, but had him traded away to Texas exactly a year later.
Davis arrived for 1975 Spring Training with the Rangers straight from an LA jail after serving time for non-payment of spousal support to his ex-wife. In Texas Davis did not mesh well with manager Billy Martin, or the other players, who called him ‘Strange Ranger’ for his loud Buddhist chants in the clubhouse before each game. He continually asked for salary advances, and when he was denied one in June, Willie did not accompany the club for a road trip to Baltimore- prompting yet another swap, this time to St Louis. Davis formed a speedy outfield with Lou Brock and Bake McBride, and was hitting over .300 for the Cardinals before he walked out on the team. Finally tracked down, Davis explained that his ex-wife was having his pay garnished. ‘If she’s going to get my money, then let her play centerfield’. The incident was resolved and he returned after 5 days, finishing the year with a solid .291 average.
After the season Davis was moved to San Diego where he hit .268 for the Padres in 1976, then played in Japan for two seasons. He returned to the majors by wrapping up his career for California in 1979, batting just .250 over 43 games, and going 1-2 with a double as a pinch hitter in the ALCS.
Willie struggled with substance abuse problems after his retirement for the better part of 20 years.
In 1996, Davis was arrested for allegedly confronting his parents with a samurai sword and ninja throwing stars, threatening to burn their house down.
He seemed to get his life back on track in the 2000s, and died in 2010 at age 69, leaving behind 2 sons and 2 daughters.
Davis still holds six Los Angeles Dodgers team records. He is the franchise leader in hits (2,091), extra-base hits (585), at-bats (7,495), runs (1,004), triples (110) and total bases (3,094). Davis stole 20 or more bases in 11 straight seasons, 13 overall. Willie led the league twice in outfield assists and racked up 143 in his 18-year career. Only Willie Mays and Tris Speaker have played more games in CF than Davis’ 2,237. Baseball fans will be left to forever wonder if a more focused Willie Davis could have justified mention with such all-time greats of the game.
Joe Gersbeck is a baseball historian and lifetime fan/student of the game who lives in New Jersey with his wife and two sons. His website is http://www.1970sBaseball.com and his book, 1970s Baseball: A History and Analysis of the Decade’s Best Seasons, Teams, and Players is available on Amazon, B&N, and iBooks: