March 10, 2010, 7:50 p.m. Forgive the misty-eyed entry, if you can. A ballplayer has passed, a favorite son and a favorite, so we must pause.
I'm confident I'm not alone in sharing the sentiment. Playing word association with the term, "the Sixties," I go immediately to "baseball" and to "the Dodgers." The grade school experience and baseball.
Not Vietnam, not the assassinations, or a tragedy prominent in my life story. I think about those things, but I go to the Dodgers first.
While I was on the planet for the entire decade, much of my early-to-mid 1960s memories are hazy, so let me put that disclaimer up front. And sorry for starting more of the paragraphs below with "I remember" than are probably appropriate textbook-wise, but that's how it occurred to me as I sat down to write.
The Dodgers accomplishments of 1963 and 1965 (and even 1966) are dream-like at best in the personal hard drive, unfortunately. I'm extremely proud of the two World Championships, and I wish I could summon the memories, but I can't. Which is why I turn to a few of my older old friends (sorry for the "old" label, guys) for their thoughts, and first and foremost, to my brother, Don, who wrote in an email Tuesday:
"I seem to recall [Willie Davis] hitting a home run off Nolan Ryan in an All-Star game. I also recall in the 1966 Series – despite that disastrous three-error inning, he later on made a spectacular catch to rob someone of a home run. I remember him late in his career talking in gentle, fatherly fashion about "those kids" on the team. Then, there was the deep bass voice (no Willie Crawford he)."
The Crawford comment is a reference to the rather high-pitched way in which Willie C. used to talk. We've joked about the disparity between the two Willies' voices from time to time. I'd also like to point out that Don recalled the great World Series catch some 12 hours before the Los Angeles Times ran a photo of the play in today's printed edition.
At last check the photo has not appeared in the online version, so you might want to run out and grab a copy.
The "someone," as pointed out by the Times, was Baltimore's Boog Powell.
From old friend Ron Yukelson, whom I had the great pleasure of working with and for, in press operations at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics: "I have two very specific memories of Willie Davis. I remember a home game when I was very young where Davis walked, went from first to third on a single and then scored on a sacrifice fly. My father, who was always skeptical of the Dodgers ability to score runs, said “That’s the Dodger way to play baseball.”
And, tragically, I was actually sitting in the left-center field bleachers for the second game of the 1966 World Series (which sadly turned out to be Koufax’s last; we just didn’t know it at the time) when he dropped those fly balls literally right in front of me."
Another old friend, Jon Rochmis, to whom I lost a 1977 bet, in which Jon predicted that Rick Rhoden would hit more home runs than would the aforementioned and one-year Dodger, Powell (and he did, 3-0) writes:
"I always loved Willie Davis even though I felt he always underperformed through the mid 1960s. I thought with his skills he should have had better numbers. Then he seemed to get his hitting stroke down. Maybe early on his swing was too big, but then in the late 60s, with that 31-game hitting streak, he seemed to put everything together.
From my friend Brian Wittig, of Rockaway, New Jersey: "Y’know, the only time I could watch him is when we played the Mets, or Dodgers made the World Series. But here’s what stands out: There was a highlight reel ('67, '68, '69?) that NBC showed before the Game of the Week, that showed Willie running back to the center field fence, catching a ball that was OVER the fence, then running back to the field about as fast as he ran for the ball.
Fastest player – before or since – going first to third. Don’t even think he’d look back at second base. 'Try to throw me out…good luck.' Just was a hell of an exciting player. Yeah, could have been more. But couldn’t we all?"
I remember 3-Dog as a great player, as the Dodgers closest-thing-to-a-star over a five-year period, from 1969 to 1973. In the era before Steve Garvey replaced him as the most valuable Dodger, the guy you always wanted up there in an important spot, Willie Davis was that guy.
I remember him as an all-around player; a great hitter, a Gold Glove center fielder, and an exciting runner. I loved watching Davis' helmet fly off as he'd fly around the bases, and Vin Scully exclaiming, "In comes [so and so], in comes [so and so], in comes [so and so] on a triple by the 3-Dog!" He was by far and away the team's best player.
I'm not going to bore with you with all the statistics, which you could easily look up yourself, but peruse this page at Baseball-Reference.com, and notice that Davis remains the lifetime L.A. leader in at bats (7495), plate appearances (8035), hits (2091), runs (1004), triples (110), extra base hits (585) and total bases (3094). Second in doubles (321), third in RBIs (849) and third in stolen bases (335). Significant numbers all.
And while I always thought my brother did a better rendition, and do to this day, I remember the Danny Kaye song. YouTube is a wonderful thing, isn't it?
I remember enjoying the 31-game hitting streak immensely in 1969, and it's always been one of my favorite things. I'm glad Davis still holds that record, which, by the way, is the franchise mark, for Brooklyn and Los Angeles.
I remember one preseason – it might have been 1973 – when Willie had a thing for the number 51. Perhaps half-joking, Davis announced goals for himself which included a 51 for several of the key stats, with a prediction which called for a .351 average, 51 homers, 151 RBIs and 51 stolen bases.
Even with an LAT file room at my disposal and a boatload of Microfiche, neither of which I have at the moment, this would be a tough one to confirm with research. Maybe a reader can help out with a recollection.
And finally, I remember a great quote. I believe he was a St Louis Cardinal at the time, when, in complaining about his recent divorce decree, Davis said that since his ex-wife was getting so much of his salary, that "she oughta go play center field."
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