Tuesday, May 24, 2011

#165 - Willie Davis

This is Willie Davis' third year in a row with an action card. And this one is much better than the '73 one when it looks like he was nearly beaned. Here Willie looks like he's stroking one to left field in what appears to be the same park as on Joe Ferguson's card which would make it Philadelphia. If it fell in there's a good shot that Willie would be at second base by the time the photographer was ready for another shot. Willie's final season in LA maintained his path through the early Seventies with another All-Star nod and his third Gold Glove season in a row. His trade here would be a very big deal and is represented by a Traded card that falls under the not-too-bad designation as there is only a bit of the cap that needed to be air-brushed. He seems bemusedly happy at his future home at Jack Murphy Stadium.

Willie Davis was born in Arkansas and grew up in LA where he was a star in football, basketball, track, and baseball at Theodore Roosevelt High and probably pre-ordained to join the Dodgers with whom he signed upon graduating in '58. He went to C ball in '59 and tore it up so much that in '60 he jumped all the way to Triple A which he demolished also (in his two seasons he got over 400 hits, 83 doubles, 42 triples, scored 266 runs and hit .349). In '60 he was named The Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year. The downside of this is that when Willie came up he thought he was a power hitter and recognized that that was where the - relatively - big money lay. As a result, despite an occasional decent homer tally it took a very long time for Willie to establish himself as a hitter and his averages tended to be all over the place.
 
Davis got a call-up in late '60 and hit pretty well. In '61 the phase-out of Duke Snider and the phase-in of Willie as the LA center fielder began and in '62, his first season as a full-time starter, he led the league in triples and showed good further power with 21 homers and 85 RBI's. He also stole 32 bases, topped out in runs scored with 103, and was solidifying himself as a premier defensive guy. The following four seasons he would waffle back and forth between bad and good averages and three of those four years he would get to the Series, winning two of them. His even years tended to be better stats-wise - in the Sixties he averaged 86 runs in even years against 59 runs in odd years - and in '64 he stole a personal best 42 bases. In '67 and '68 Willie's average got stuck around .250 and his power declined to the point where he was down to single digits in homers. He also was creeping up in strikeouts to near the century mark. This caused the big re-evaluation.

1969 would be a significant season for Davis. He broke his arm in spring training and then missed more time after he got hit in the face and broke his cheekbone. While he was sitting out he decided that his game wasn't hitting homers, but getting on base. That process was cemented after a June game at Forbes field in which he hit three towering blasts that all ended up as putouts. He switched to a heavier bat used by Ken Boyer, choked up and cut down on his swing, and hit .353 the rest of the season, which included a club-record 31-game hitting streak. He also knocked 50 strikeouts off his total. In '70 he led the league in triples and in '71 he made his first All-Star game and won his first Gold Glove. That year he put together the second-longest Dodger hitting streak of 25 games. During that three-year stretch he was the only NL guy outside of Pete Rose to hit .300 each season. '72 and '73 were both Gold Glove seasons and in the latter one he was an All-Star again.

In '74 the Big Trade (Part I) sent Davis to Montreal where he had an excellent season, with a line of .295/12/89 with 86 runs scored. But the Expos had a lot of young outfield talent coming up and early in '75 they sent Willie to the Rangers for Pete Mackanin and Don Stanhouse. For Texas he started most games in center as his average fell to .249. His stay in the AL was short, though, and in June he went to the Cards for Ed Brinkman. He experienced a pretty good revival in St. Louis, adding 42 points to his average and upping his RBI totals pretty well.  After that season he was on the road again, going to San Diego for Dick Sharon. After a year with the Padres he went to play ball in Japan for two seasons. There he hit well enough - .306 with 25 homers; .293 with 18 homers - but he managed to piss off his teammates with his Buddhist chantings. In '79 Willie returned to the States for a year of pinch-hitting with the Angels. That was his last season in the majors and he finished with a .279 average, over 2,500 hits, 138 triples, 182 homers, and almost 400 stolen bases. He also scored over 1,200 runs and knocked in over 1,000 and in the post-season hit .179 in his 17 games. He still holds lots of career LA Dodgers records.

Willie had some interesting post-season experiences. In '65 against the Twins he stole three bases in one game. In '66 he famously had three errors in one inning. In '79 he went one for two as a pinch hitter. After he finished playing Willie was a player-manager for a couple seasons in Mexico. He was an avid golfer and after his baseball career ended he spent a bunch of time doing that. By the mid-Nineties he was living back with his parents and in '96 he was arrested for threatening them with a sword when they wouldn't lend him $5,000. There is very little information on him between that time and his death in 2010 at age 69.

Willie gets the star treatment in his cartoon. He was one of a few Dodgers in the '60s who would see TV and movie time. Willie was in "Mr. Ed" and "The Flying Nun", two '60s sitcoms, as well as the movie "Which Way to the Front?"


I like the "...has been known..." comment here. Topps also should have let us know a couple more times how fast Willie was. This was a huge trade as LA desperately wanted a premier reliever and gave up their only established non-pitching star to get him. The next day the Dodgers would pick up Jimmy Wynn to replace Willie.

This is a longer road than I thought it would be:

1. Davis and Willie Crawford '69 to '73 Dodgers;
2. Crawford and Marty Perez '77 A's;
3. Perez and Tom House '71 to '75 Braves.

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