RIP to Tommy Davis, an All-Star and two-time National League batting champion. He died at his home in Phoenix on April 3 at the age of 83. Davis played for the Los Angeles Dodgers (1959-66), New York Mets (1967), Chicago White Sox (1968), Seattle Pilots (1969), Houston Astros (1969-70), Oakland Athletics (1970, 1971), Chicago Cubs (1970, 1972), Baltimore Orioles (1972-75), California Angels (1976) and Kansas City Royals (1976).
Herman Thomas Davis was born in Brooklyn on March 21, 1939.. He was a basketball star at Boys High School in Brooklyn, which was in the middle of the busy Bedford-Stuyvesant section of town. He was even named to a Brooklyn-Queens All-Star Team by the Daily News. But it was his baseball skills that caught the eye of many professional teams. He was coveted by the Philadelphia Phillies, and scout Joe Labate thought he had the kid signed, sealed and delivered to the Phils. What went wrong? Labate told the story in The Sunday Press (Binghamton, N.Y.) as an example of the cutthroat behavior that goes on in the scouting world.
“Like this kid Tommy Davis. I had his father sold. The kid is a big first baseman from a high school in Brooklyn. He is mine, the father says. I tell the Philadelphia bosses that we have him.
“So what happens? The Dodgers get Jackie Robinson to call up the kid and his mother. He tells them the Phillies are no good. Brooklyn is way better to be with.
“The Dodgers send somebody to the house when the old man isn’t there and they get the mother — the kid is too young — to sign. He is with the Dodgers’ Hornell, N.Y. farm now.”
The Yankees thought that they had him signed as well, and the team even gave Davis a locker in Yankee Stadium that he could use whenever he visited. But it wasn’t nearly the theft that Labate made it out to be. The Dodgers were always the leading candidate to Davis, and scout Al Campanis made sure to play up the local angle with every conversation he had with the family. “I was a Brooklyn boy,” Davis later said. “Besides my mother told me the Dodgers had pioneered for the colored race.” He was heartbroken when he found out that the Dodgers were moving out of Brooklyn before he could ever get to play in Ebbets Field.
There was a reason why so many teams were after Davis. His Boys High baseball coach, Harry Kane, had been coaching in New York City for 40 years, and he’d seen someone with Davis’ talent once before — a lefthanded third baseman at Commerce High School in Manhattan. “He was a big Dutch kid. I made a first baseman out of him. His name was Lou Gehrig and I haven’t seen another like him until this Davis came along.”
As Labate noted, Davis signed with the Dodgers in 1956 and reported to Hornell (N.Y.) of the Pony League. He hit .325 there in 43 games. In fact, wherever the Dodgers sent him in the minor leagues, Davis batted over .300 and showed some decent power, as well. By 1959, Davis had advanced to the Spokane Indians of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. He tore up the league with a .345 batting average, which led the league — aside from the .373 mark set by Willie McCovey, though McCovey did it in just 95 games before being brought to the majors. Davis also led the PCL with 211 hits and added 18 homers. According to Spokane’s Spokesman Review, most of Davis’ homers came off curve balls. One day, he went to manager Bobby Bragan and asked what he needed to do to improve his hitting. “You gotta hit that fast ball hard,” Bragan answered. Soon after, Spokane faced San Diego pitcher Pete Wojey, a fastball specialist. Davis smashed one of Wojey’s pitches over the 411-foot center field wall.
“Like that, Skip?” Davis called out as he trotted around third base.
That Dodgers were impressed enough with Davis that they brought him to Los Angeles at the very end of the ’59 season. He made his major-league debut on September 22 as a pinch-hitter against the Cardinals. He struck out against Marshall Bridges in his only big-league at-bat that year. Going into 1960, Davis was considered one of the top rookies in the National League — if he could get playing time. The Dodgers had Wally Moon, Duke Snider, Don Demeter, Norm Larker, Carl Furillo and Rip Repulski in the outfield. A 21-year-old rookie, no matter how well he hit in the minors, would have had a hard time getting playing time.
For a while, it looked like Davis wasn’t ready for the majors. He picked up his first hit on April 14 against Cardinals pitcher Ron Kline. He was the starting center fielder in that game, and he also played right and left field, as well as a few games at third base. But just as frequently, he was left on the bench or used as a pinch-hitter, and the lack of regular play hurt. As late as the end of June, he was hitting .226 without a home run. Davis hit his first homer on July 11, went on a 20-game hitting streak in the first half of August and raised his batting average up to .276 by the end of the season. It was a streaky, mixed-blessings year — he homered 11 times but drew only 13 walks and stole 6 bases — but he still finished in fifth place for the Rookie of the Year voting.
Davis gained more playing time in 1961 and had a similar season — good but not great. The Dodgers decided to make him a regular third baseman, and he fielded very much like an outfielder trying to play third base. His fielding percentage was just over .900. Davis later blamed the pedestrian season on a bad back, not the position change. Then 1962 came, and Davis vaulted from a good ballplayer to one of the best in baseball.
The Dodgers won 101 games in 1962 and just missed out on the NL pennant after losing a three-game playoff series to the San Francisco Giants, which also had 101 wins. The Dodgers had numerous offensive leaders. Maury Wills led all of baseball with 104 stolen bases. Frank Howard clobbered 31 home runs. But nobody had a year like Tommy Davis. He slashed .346/.374/.535 and led all of baseball in batting average, hits (230) and runs batted in (153). He hit 27 home runs, which was one more than he’d managed in his first two full seasons combined. Davis also stole 18 bases and scored 120 runs. He was named to both NL All-Star Teams and finished in third place in the MVP vote — behind Wills and Willie Mays.
Davis could win a ballgame in many different ways. He was dangerous in clutch situations, as he hit .325 with 31 RBIs when there were two outs and runners in scoring position. He was particularly rough on Giant pitching, batting .361 against the Dodgers’ biggest rivals. Though stolen bases were never a huge part of his game, he could win a game with his legs, too. Davis helped beat the Cubs 6-4 by being the lead runner in a ninth-inning, two-out triple steal Glen Hobbie threw a wild pitch, allowing two runs to score on the play.
Davis won a second straight batting title with a .326 batting average in 1963 — in fact, he was the best hitter in either league for the second straight year. His offensive numbers declined, but after the season he had in ’62, there was almost nowhere to go but down. Besides, 181 hits with 16 home runs and 88 RBIs is still a great season. Davis was selected to the All-Star Game again and finished 8th for the MVP Award, but the pinnacle of his season came in the World Series. The Dodgers finally finished in first place and swept the Yankees. Davis hit .400 in the Series and tied a postseason record with two triples in Game Two. He drove in the last run of the game and for a 4-1 Los Angeles victory.
“He’s the best hitter in baseball,” enthused Dodgers manager Walt Alston after that performance. “But even more important, Tommy’s one of the finest young men I’ve ever managed.”
Davis was a very quiet and soft-spoken ballplayer, and he downplayed the feat. “It wasn’t a real good triple,” he said of his first one. “It bounced around out there and Roger [Maris] banged himself up on the wall, and I made it to third. It probably would have been a double, otherwise.” And the second one? “Well, that one was hit. That was legitimate,” he admitted.
Davis was quite possibly the least visible superstar in baseball at that point. He was frequently overshadowed by his own teammates, including the speedy Wills, powerful Howard and pitching aces Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax. Still, the baseball world began to take notice of Davis as he prepared for the 1964 season. Could he lead all of baseball in hitting for the third straight season, making him the first to accomplish it since Ty Cobb?
Unfortunately, he dropped to a .275 average, 14 home runs and 86 RBIs — numbers closer to his first two seasons and not his two otherworldly ones. He played in 152 games and never begged out of a game, even though he probably should have to rest a sore shoulder. He was pressed into service as the cleanup hitter when sluggers like Howard and Ron Fairly struggled, but he wasn’t suited to the role. The Dodgers sank into the second division, thanks to the poor team offense. “I won’t say that waited for me to lead them, that they wanted for me to get started,” Davis said. “I’m not going to say it. But I batted fourth all season long. You can see it by yourself. The man who bats fourth is supposed to drive in runs.”
There’s no telling if Davis could have recovered his batting champion form. Sixteen games into 1965, Davis took off from first base to try and break up a double play. Torn between trying to slide to the bag or take out shortstop Jose Pagan, he slid awkwardly, breaking his ankle and tearing ligaments. He was batting .254 at the time and missed practically the entire season, making one pinch-hit appearance in the last game of the year. The Dodgers rallied around their fallen outfielder, and GM Buzzy Bavasi brought in reinforcements with Lou Johnson and Darrell Griffith. The team won the NL pennant and then defeated the Minnesota Twins in seven games to win the World Series once again. Davis returned to left field in 1966, but not in a full-time role. He batted .313 in 100 games, but his power was absent (3 home runs) as was his productivity (27 RBIs). He played sparingly in the World Series, which the Dodgers lost to Baltimore. That November, the Dodgers traded him to the New York Mets, along with Griffith, for Jim Hickman and Ron Hunt.
This begins the nomadic second half of Davis’ career. He played the first eight seasons of his career with the same team and the final ten seasons with nine teams.
Davis logged 154 games with the 1967 Mets, despite the fact that the constant play caused his surgically repaired ankle to throb at times. He still slashed .302/.342/.440 with 32 doubles, 16 home runs and 73 RBIs. After the season, the Mets traded him, along with Buddy Booker, Jack Fisher and Billy Wynne, to the Chicago White Sox for Tommie Agee and Al Weiss. Bothered by nagging arm and hamstring injuries, Davis failed to supplant Pete Ward at third base in ’68 and spent most of the season as a below-average left fielder. He batted .268 and slugged just .344. The White Sox left him unprotected in the expansion draft, and he was claimed by the Seattle Pilots.
Davis played in 123 games for the Pilotsin 1969 but drove in 80 runs, making him the Pilots’ all-time RBI leader. He hit .271 with 6 homers for a team that was going nowhere, and the highlight of his year was probably when he found out that one of his old high school buddies, Lennie Wilkins, was named player-coach of the NBA’s Seattle Supersonics. That, and being traded to Houston at the end of August for Sandy Valdespino and Danny Walton.
Davis spent parts of two seasons with the Astros, totaling 81 games. He hit .241 for the remainder of the 1969 season but got off to a much better start in 1970. In 57 games, Davis hit .282, albeit with little power. He was placed on waivers in June so that the Astros could bring Cesar Cedeno to the major leagues. Davis was claimed by Oakland and batted .290 in 66 games. Once the A’s fell out of the pennant race, he became expendable there and was placed on waivers again. This time, he was claimed by the Cubs and finished off the season with 11 games in Chicago, where he hit a couple of home runs. All total, Davis played in 132 games and slashed .284/.308/.387, with 23 doubles and 6 home runs.
After consistency with the Dodgers, the rapid changes of scenery took their toll on Davis. “I lost a lot of feeling for the business end of baseball the last few years,” Davis said. “I couldn’t find a home. Nobody wanted to give me a chance. I’ve gone through two years of hurtin’ It really gets your goat. It makes you wonder maybe what [players’ rights advocate and MLB pariah] Curt Flood is saying is true.”
Following his release from the Cubs in December of 1970, Davis returned to the Athletics as a utility infielder/outfielder/pinch-hitter. Though he didn’t have a set position and saw limited playing time, Davis hit .324 in 79 games, with 42 RBIs. As a pinch-hitter, he had 13 hits and 13 RBIs in 28 at-bats for a scorching .464 average. Davis hit well enough to work himself into a platoon position with Mike Epstein. He also hit .375 in the AL Championship Series against the victorious Orioles.
“He’s had a ton of clutch hits for us so far,” manager Dick Williams said in mid-June. “He’s still one of the premier hitters in baseball, and he’s especially tough in the clutch.”
Oakland promptly released their best clutch hitter in spring training in 1972, for reasons that had nothing to do with baseball. Davis’ roommate in 1971 was rookie sensation Vida Blue. Blue was not used to the business of baseball, so when endorsement deals and public appearances began to come his way, Davis introduced Blue to his own attorney, Robert J. Gerst. The following spring, Gerst and Blue decided that the A’s contract offer was too low and held out for more money, missing the start of the season. A’s owner Charles Finley was incensed and needed someone to blame. That person was Davis.
Davis knew retaliation was coming, and he was released by Oakland on March 24. “He could no longer do the job defensively,” Williams cited as the official reason for the move. Author Jason Turbow described the circumstances of the release on Twitter — one of the pettiest moves of Finley’s career in baseball. He instructed Williams to release Davis AFTER the A’s had completed a 3-hour bus ride from the A’s training camp in Mesa to play the Padres in Yuma. He had to borrow the traveling secretary’s car and drive three hours back to Mesa to collect his things.
After the release… there was nothing. The 33-year-old Davis, who had just hit well over .300, couldn’t find a job. He didn’t play a game until the Cubs re-signed him in late June. In 15 games, Davis demonstrated he wasn’t washed up, and the Orioles acquired him in August for catcher Elrod Hendricks. The move didn’t vault Baltimore into the playoffs, but the Orioles decided to hold onto Davis for the next three seasons. The advent of the designated hitter gave Davis a chance to play everyday without having to spent a lot of time on the field, and he excelled in that role.
“I’d be carrying a lunch pail somewhere if it wasn’t for the designated hitter rule,” Davis said. The role was tailor-made for him, as a sharp-eyed hitter who had been slowed in the field by too many injuries. He had an 18-game hitting streak for the Orioles with a .306 average and 89 RBIs in 1973. In 1974, he played in 158 games without spending a single inning on defense, and the 36-year-old Davis batted .283 with 11 home runs — the first time he’d reached double digits since 1967. Furthermore, he was a solid contributor in the playoffs for the Orioles in both seasons, though they lost twice to the Oakland A’s. Davis also picked up MVP votes in both years.
Though he still batted .283, Davis appeared in just 116 games in 1975. His power tailed off, and he was released at the end of the season. The Yankees signed him in 1976 but released him before the start of the 1977 season. The Angels signed him in June, and he delivered a 2-run, pinch-hit single in his first at-bat with the team. He continued to hit but was placed on waivers by the Angels in September, claimed by the Royals and finished the season there. He was released by Kansas City in January of 1977, and this time, there was no last chance.
Davis played in the majors for parts of 18 seasons and had a career slash line of .294/.329/.405. He had 2,121 hits that included 272 doubles, 35 triples and 153 home runs. He drove in 1,052 runs and scored 811 times. Davis stole 136 bases — 62 of which were before his broken ankle. Baseball Reference credits him with 20.5 Wins Above Replacement, and he has a career OPS+ of 108.
The frequent trades and releases left David bitter by the end of his career — by his own admission. And he was left with the reputation of being somewhat of a clubhouse problem, although the worst thing he ever did, apparently, was recommend a lawyer to a teammate. I didn’t find a single teammate or manager with a bad word to say about him, in fact, Dusty Baker told reporters following Davis’ death that he wears #12 because of Tommy Davis, who served as a mentor while Davis was with the Orioles and Baker was an up-and-coming major leaguer.
“Sometimes when you meet your hero, you’re disappointed, but not with him. He was even a greater guy as a hero than he was as a player,” Baker said, per the Los Angeles Times.
Davis spent a final season in uniform in the majors, serving as the Mariners hitting coach in 1981. He also worked as a roving batting instructor for the Dodgers and held baseball clinics in California. Up until the last year, he was a part of the team’s community relations department, before he moved to Arizona. Davis is survived by his wife, Carol and five children.
There is one more story that’s worth mentioning, from a 2002 edition of the Los Angeles Times. Journalist Mary Ann Hudson Harvey used to schedule the Dodgers’ speakers’ bureau for ex-ballplayers making public appearances. She got to know Tommy Davis through that role. One year, Davis saw her just before Christmas and asked if she was going to spend the holidays with her father. She told him that her father, Jack, had just been diagnosed with terminal lymphatic cancer and had just months to live. “Why don’t I stop by on Christmas Eve?” Davis said, and she agreed but didn’t really expect it. On Christmas Eve, there was a phone call — from Tommy Davis. He had gone to the wrong house and met the wrong family, but they knew who he was and invited him inside. “So when I finish talking with these nice people, I’ll be right down,” he said. Soon after, Jack Hudson spent his last Christmas Eve with one of his favorite ballplayers.
“Standing in front of him, Tommy Davis was holding court, laughing, talking, moving his hands around, swinging a bat,” she wrote. “Many times I have tried to remember what Tommy talked about that night, but the sound of his voice is but a mood, like fog.”
For more information: Los Angeles Times