Monday, July 9, 2012

#396 - Tommy Davis

Tommy Davis brings us back to the AL with a beautiful follow-through in Baltimore. Tommy deserved an action shot in this set after all he put up with the last couple seasons. After refusing to lambast Jim Bouton for his “Ball Four” book, Tommy was basically blacklisted by the owners and was released by the Cubs following the ’70 season, when the book came out. He then signed as a free agent back with the A’s but because nobody claimed him off waivers had to start fresh and saw his ’70 salary of around $70,000 cut in half. Then, after putting up excellent numbers in half a season split between first and the outfield, he introduced wunderkind Vida Blue to an effective agent. Blue did not sign for the following season, Tommy was blamed, and the same thing happened again: he got cut, nobody would take a flier, and he again saw his salary reduced, this time by a third, when he finally did sign with someone, ironically the Cubs. But Chicago barely used him in ’72 and neither did Baltimore after they picked him up in a trade for Elrod Hendricks. Tommy finished the season on the bench in Triple A and nobody would take him still off the waiver wire. The O’s were ready to release him when – voila! – the DH rule passed and Mr. Davis had a job up top again. All he did was hit .307 in the new position with his highest RBI total since his big ’62 season. Lots of regrets by the colluding baseball powers after that one. Karma’s a bitch.

Tommy Davis grew up in the tough Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn where he played baseball – primarily catcher – and hoops with future NBA Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens. Tommy could jack the ball back then and his hometown Dodgers eventually won a hard-fought battle with the Yankees to sign him out of high school in ’56. He had very little trouble on the field his first two seasons in D ball, hitting .325 and .356 respectively with a bunch of RBI’s. In ’58 he won over a hostile Texas crowd in Double A by hitting .305 before getting some time in Triple A Montreal, his hero Jackie Robinson’s last stop before joining Brooklyn. By then he was exclusively an outfielder and after a .345 at the higher level in ’59 he was ready for The Show.

The 1960 LA team Davis joined was a mix of older holdovers from Brooklyn and a bunch of new kids who were primarily outfielders – Frank Howard, Willie Davis, and Ron Fairly to name a few. Tommy would settle into that group, eventually become the team’s primary center fielder, and put together good enough numbers to finish fifth in NL ROY voting – Howard won – and earn a spot on the Topps Rookie team. In ’61 his offensive numbers got a bit better but Tommy was distracted a bunch because Walt Alston wanted to take advantage of his athleticism and turn him into a third baseman. That experiment didn’t work too well: Tommy could cover ground but he never mastered the throw to first and had lots of throwing errors when even poor Gil Hodges couldn’t reach the missiles that went over his head. What did work, though, was Tommy’s hitting as in ’62 he put up a monster season, winning the NL batting title with a .346 and knocking in 153 runs, more than anyone else would or did from 1949 to 1998. All that without ‘roids and not even too many homers as the Dodgers that year were an aggressive running club. Tommy came in third in MVP voting behind his teammate Maury Wills and his 100 steals and Willie Mays, who was on a pennant winner after beating LA in a three-game playoff. In ’63 he won another hitting title as his RBI totals came down to earth and that year he got his first taste of “legit” post-season action as his Dodgers beat old nemesis NY in the Series. In ’64 the top of the Dodger order stopped hitting and Tommy got less selective pitches to hit and his average dove 50 points as LA fell from title contention. They roared all the way back in ’65 though, but without Tommy as he broke his ankle taking an awkward step at first and missed pretty much the entire season. It would be a slow comeback in ’66 as he led LA in hitting but couldn’t really turn on that heel any more so his power was pretty much gone. He would return to the post-season but the loss to Baltimore would be his last time as a Dodger player. After the season he was traded to the Mets for Jim Hickman and Ron Hunt.

In NY Davis put up a pretty good season, leading the team offensively and putting up his last double-digit homer season. His RBI totals would certainly have been among his best if anyone could get on base ahead of him. But NY wanted a speedster out there with its other young outfielders and after the season Tommy and a couple other guys went to the White Sox for former ROY Tommie Agee and infielder Al Weis. Chicago was a tough place to hit and ’68 was a tough year to hit anywhere but Tommy put up pretty good numbers and when he was left unprotected that winter was snagged by the new Seattle Pilots in the expansion draft.

Davis would room with Jim Bouton during some of the ’69 season and so would get a lot of mention in “Ball Four.” He comes across as a classy fair-minded guy who didn’t leverage his star status into bad behavior. He also wasn’t afraid to quietly call guys out. So even though he was the leading hitter on the team he was traded to the Astros that August for Sandy Valdespino and Danny Walton, a few weeks after Bouton was. Then in ’70, before the mess occurred, he would spend time with three teams: Houston, Oakland, and the Cubs. He hit pretty well at all three stops. Then the O’s eventually got smart and after his fine ’73 Tommy put up a nearly equal ’74 - .289 with ’84 RBI’s – and then hit .283 in ’75. But by then he was running out of gas and with Lee May putting in more time at DH, he was released. He tried to hook up with the Yankees and then did so with California before finishing out the year and his career with Kansas City. Tommy had a .294 average with 153 homers, 2,121 hits, and 1,052 RBI’s. In the post-season he hit .313 in 20 games.

Davis stayed in baseball after playing, returning to LA and doing some minor league and spring training coaching for the Dodgers and for the ’81 season as the hitting coach for the Mariners. He then returned to LA where he had a less formal relationship with the Dodgers, doing lots of community work and some sales stuff. He also sold insurance and ran hitting clinics. He is now mostly retired though he does do some promotional work for LA and himself, through a small company.

No room for star bullets so we just get the cartoon. Tommy’s dad’s name was Herman also so Tommy adopted his middle name at an early age.

Two action shots of two guys who played together:

1. Davis and Doug Rader ’69 to ’70 Astros.

Tommy's card gets us through 60% of the set. I'll do a re-cap on the next post.

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