October 23, 2014

The Enigmatic Willie Davis

March 10, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

Signed as an 18-year-old in 1958, Willie Davis was a ballplayer of many talents and many quirks. A multiple threat in high school, Willie was a basketball star, as well as a right hand hitting lefty pitcher and first baseman with blazing speed. After a makeover courtesy of Dodger scout Kenny Myers, Davis became a left-handed batter and outfielder. It was as an outfielder that Willie Davis made his debut in 1960.

The intermingling of baseball and acting began almost immediately for the young star. After he tore up the minor leagues in Spokane, a California producer thought the diary of a novice major league baseball player would make for a good documentary. “Biography of a Rookie…Willie Davis,” was broadcast in May of 1961 on both coasts. Filmed in equal parts at the Davis home and Dodgers Spring Training Camp in Vero Beach, FL, the feature was narrated by news legend Mike Wallace. Said Wallace of Davis the thespian, “I found Willie to be a nice modest kid – and a pretty good actor. He went back to his high school classes smoothly for the camera.” 1 Wallace also made mention that a Davis error was caught on film. In the future, errors would taint the legacy of Willie Davis.

1962 was his coming out as the full-time Dodger centerfielder, where he would be a fixture through the 1973 season. He would lead the league in triples that year and hit 21 home runs, when that number meant something. As a result, Davis got a great deal of press and there was much interest in his personal life. It turned out, that in addition to his promising acting skills, Willie had a strong musical bent. A “twister at home and a listener on the road,” Davis was consumed by music. 2 Having outgrown his youthful affinity for rock and roll, Willie Davis was now into Miles Davis, his roommate Tommy Davis always toting a portable record player and jazz LPs on the road. In addition to his acting and dancing, Davis could really sing. His “basso profundo” voice led to some professional singing, though limited to Vin Scully’s program. 3

Davis starred for the 1963 Champs, and began to get the serious attention of Hollywood. He cut a song for “The Sound of the Dodgers” LP, and appeared with teammates on stage. He also lent his talents to the classic Mr. Ed episode “Leo Durocher Meets Mr. Ed.,” when Ed, a rabid Dodger fan, tries out for the club, bringing his batting and sliding talents to the diamond.

Another Dodger championship came in 1965, with the seven-game series against the Minnesota Twins resulting in the return to the baseball pinnacle for the LA team. Davis hit weakly that series, continuing a season long batting slump. In 1966, Davis returned to form, but in the World Series of that year, an ignominious four-game sweep at the hands of the Baltimore Orioles, Davis made three errors in the Orioles fifth inning, contributing in the negative to a three-run outburst, and providing the baseball world their most lingering image of Davis, albeit an unfair one.

Willie shrugged it off and continued his fine career. He hit a career best .311 in 1969. Also in 1969, leading off the third season of The Flying Nun, in the premiere “The Big Game,” Davis is the manager (with Don Drysdale as Umpire) in a game that has Sister Bertille’s (Sally Field) convent team taking a shellacking, but the orphan Armando hits an accidental home run for a moral victory. Around the corner was Davis’ biggest role, 1970’s Which Way to the Front? with star and director Jerry Lewis.

On the heels of his great 1969 campaign, Davis landed a featured role, playing Lincoln, a member of Lewis’ private army. Filming began in January 1970, and several photos show a smiling Davis, dressed in army togs and an anachronistic peace symbol pin. Lewis combined his movie-making and love of baseball by having a catch with the Dodger star during breaks. Like Mike Wallace nine years before, Lewis was impressed by Davis’ acting ability. One veteran screen star commented that Davis “makes Perry Como look nervous. He’s a pro before the camera. You would think he’s been in the business 20 years.” 4

But Willie’s main business was baseball, and in 1971 he began a string of success that every Dodger fan had been waiting for since his debut in 1960. Finally, Davis was selected as a National League All-Star in 1971, as well as becoming a Gold Glove Award winner for fielding excellence.  He also had a role that year in The Love Machine, based on the steamy Jacqueline Susann novel about the scheming world, in business and in bed, of network television. There was talk that Davis and teammate Maury Wills would have featured roles in a film entitled Spirit in the Dark to be shot after the 1972 season ended.

Two more Gold Gloves followed in 1972 and 1973 (when he made the All-Star team for the second time). Yet the Dodgers traded their best player to the Montreal Expos for relief ace Mike Marshall. Why? Although Davis had turned to Buddhism towards the end of 1971, chants of Nam-myohorenge-kyo ringing through the clubhouse, he was a troubled soul. He had been jailed for failure to pay alimony to his ex-wife, who in their divorce cited him for mental cruelty. This seeming instability made Davis an unwelcome guest, and he would play for five teams from 1974-79. He had problems with Billy Martin in Texas, and he emerged shirtless for no apparent reason in the Cardinals dugout in St. Louis. After 1979, when he appeared sporadically for the California Angels and played in their postseason series against the Orioles, again those Orioles!, in a losing effort, Davis was finished.

The career of Willie Davis was a frustrating one. Although he achieved some real success, he never reached the heights expected of him. His inner demons seemed to sidetrack him from fulfilling his promise. As late as 1996, Davis was in the news for threatening his mother with a samurai sword and ninja stars, both of which he was still clutching when the deputies arrived. It would be nice to think he was rehearsing for a comeback in action movies.

Sadly, this wasn’t the case and yesterday, Willie Davis was found dead in his Burbank home.

Notes
1. Robinson, Murray. “TV Gambles on Willie,” New York Journal American, 4/22/61 HOF File.

2. Oates, Bob. “Talking with Willie Davis. Los Angeles Herald Examiner. 5/16/62, p. B-12.

3. Ibid.

4. Hunter, Bob. “Dodgers’ Davis Heading for Front- On Screen and in Spikes.” TSN 1/31/1970. HOF File.

Bibliography
Hunter, Bob. “Dodgers’ Davis Heading for Front- On Screen and in Spikes.” TSN 1/31/1970. HOF File.

Oates, Bob. “Talking with Willie Davis. Los Angeles Herald Examiner. 5/16/62, p. B-12.

Robinson, Murray. “TV Gambles on Willie,” New York Journal American, 4/22/61 HOF File.

AP. “No Charges for ex-Dodger” New York Daily News, 3/20/96, p. 59.

Dodger Dope, TSN, 10/28/72, p. 17.

“In LA Dugout, the Word is Nam-myohorenge-kyo” Virginian-Pilot, 8/27/72, p. E8. HOF File

Comments

3 Responses to “The Enigmatic Willie Davis”
  1. An excellent piece that tells it like it was. Willie and Dick Allen were also credited for “ruining” Bobby Valentine early on.

    Tony

  2. Juan says:

    Entertaining story but terrible job with the ending. You make it sound as if the episode with this parents was yesterday. 1996 was 14 years ago, Mr. Katz. That’s plenty of time for someone to straighten themselves out and Willie Davis did just that.

  3. Metal Reality says:

    Your right the truth hurts but you cant hurt Willie Davis so since your about truth the truth is willie Davis was the most exciting ball player i have ever seen play the game sure he had his ups and downs we all do and remember in his day players didnt make the bread they make today the love of the game was heartfelt and willie davis had heart. only willie could know the pain he covered up.willie rest in peace you were my dodger hero at my first dodger game in 1965 and even when you sat like a tired greyhound in the dugout of anahiem stadium in 1979 it couldnt have been easy!willie you are safe sliding into heaven ,see you soon Willie Davis!!!!!

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