August 22, 2017

Letters From Quebec: Remembering Willie Davis…

March 11, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

“There was only one Jackie Robinson and he was fantastic,” Willie Davis said about the Dodger immortal who broke baseball’s colour barrier, first with the old Montreal Royals and then with Brooklyn Dodgers.  Then he added, “There’s only one Willie Davis, and I’m fantastic too.”

Willie Davis, to Montreal Gazette journalist Tim Burke, June 12, 1974

When I read that the mercurial Willie Davis had died at home in Burbank, California at the age of 69, my mind drifted back to his one year in Montreal, 1974, and to one game in particular.

Willie was shipped to the Expos, after 14 seasons with the Dodgers, in exchange for future Cy Young Award winner, Mike Marshall.

He was still finding his way in this new land, and new city, when it all came unexpectedly together – at least for one night – at Jarry Park on a damp and cool June 11.

There, over a span of two innings in front of almost 13,000 fans, Davis managed to destroy Cincinnati relief pitching, reveal the depth of his talent and emerge as fan favourite, if only for the short term.

I was there and remember it well: I still have the scorecard.

Going into the bottom of the seventh, the game had little to recommend it. The Big Red Machine, with elements of the team that would win back-to-back World Series titles in 1975-76 pretty well in place, had banged away at Expos pitchers Dennis Blair and John Montague in the early going, while Cincy’s Roger Nelson, after giving up a first inning lead-off home run to Mike Jorgensen, was on auto-pilot.

By the time we struggled upright to sing Take Me out to the Ball Game, the score was 5-1 for the Reds and the multitudes were getting ready to make an early exit. After all, tomorrow was a school and work day, and nothing exciting was about to happen.

And when Singleton flied out to centre at the bottom of the inning and Bailey hit into a fielder’s choice, the starless night withdrew into an even deeper gloom. There were two out, one on, and the light-hitting Jim Cox was coming to the plate.

But this was baseball. Cox walked and when Catcher Barry Foote drove Bailey in from second and then Ron Wood walked, folks began to take notice.

Jorgensen kept the rally going with another single, bringing home two more runs, and all of a sudden we had a ball game. There were still two out – but the score was now 5-4 – and there were two men on base.

By now the Reds bullpen was approaching cardiac arrest. Nelson had already given way to Tom Hall who gave way to Pedro Bourbon – and Willie Davis was standing in the batter’s box.

From the Reds’ vantage point, that was the good news. In three previous at-bats Davis had grounded out three times, once to the pitcher and twice to first base, unassisted.

But that’s the nice thing about baseball; the past is never prologue, the clock never ticks and only the present counts.

And what a present it was!

Davis hit a three-run homer, a Dave Van Horne “Up! Up! And Away” kind of homer. All of a sudden, a 5-1 deficit had morphed into an 8-5 Expos lead.

And there was still more baseball to play.

The Reds went down meekly in the eighth, and then it was party time again. Ron Fairly led off with a walk and after Bob Bailey popped out, Cox drew a base on balls and Foote singled, sending Fairley home. Pitcher Chuck Taylor then drove Cox in with another single, Jorgensen walked, and after Tim Foli popped out, there was Willie, in the batter’s box yet again.

Taking no chances, Sparky Anderson replaced pitcher Dick Baney with Mike McQueen. But it didn’t matter. Willie was on a roll. Within minutes, he was circling the bases: he had belted another one deep beyond the right field fence, over by the famous Jarry Park swimming pool where many a Willie Stargell four-bagger would come to rest, a Grand Slam worthy of Jacques Doucet’s patented call, en francais. La balle est frappée profondément.elle est loin.et…elle est PARTIE…” (It is deep…it is far…it is GONE !)

The game was over – although the scoring did continue for a bit longer. Before Bailey grounded out to end the inning, Ken Singleton had singled and scored on Fairley’s home run. An eight-run inning! Fifteen runs in the final two innings. Sixteen runs for the home-team, seven of them generated by Willie Davis’ bat.

The Reds managed to score in the ninth making the final score 16-6, but by this time no one was counting.

Davis never had another game quite like this one in 1974. Nevertheless, he finished the year with respectable numbers, .295-12-79 and an OPS of .749. His seven RBIs in a single game stood as the club record until 1982 when Chris Speier hammered home eight in a game against the Phillies.

Willie Davis was a player who marched to his own drummer and in baseball this is not always a good thing. Put another way, as my colleague Danny Gallagher delicately noted, “There were some interesting stories about him when he was with the Expos!”

In any event, by year’s end, Davis had worn out his welcome and was traded to the Texas Rangers for Pete Mackanin and Don Stanhouse. Both proved to be assets to their new club.

Requiescat in Pace, Willie: may solace and comfort be your reward. Most of all, thank you for that memorable evening at Jarry Park back when we were young, and you proved to one and all that no matter whatever else life held in store,  one thing was certain…you were one fantastic baseball player.

Bill, a native of Quebec City, has been a SABR member since 20001 and was a founder of the SABR-Quebec Chapter in 2005.  He collaborated with Danny Gallagher on the best-selling Remembering the Montreal Expos, and has published a number of articles about minor league ball in Quebec, particularly with respect to the Provincial League.

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