RIP to Bill Davis, a Hall of Fame baseball player at the University of Minnesota who also played in the major leagues in the 1960s. He died on January 13 in Edina, Minn., at the age of 80. Davis played for the Cleveland Indians (1965-66) and San Diego Padres (1969).
Arthur Willard Davis was born in Graceville, Minn., on June 6, 1942. His family — parents Arthur and Elaine Davis and a younger sister — moved to Richfield in 1951. Elaine Davis was a school nurse in Richfield public schools. Arthur, after he got out of the Army after World War II, worked first at a Ford plant in St. Paul and then in the paint and wallpaper business. (Biographical information courtesy of an interview with the Minnesota Historical Society.) Bill Davis played baseball in the area parks — Richfield didn’t get Little League and Babe Ruth teams until after Davis had aged out of the programs — but he joined the Richfield VFW team when he was 13 years old. Most of the other kids on the team were several years older than he was.
Davis went to Richfield High School. He stood over 6 feet tall as a freshmen — topping out at 6’7″ — and was a center on the basketball team. He also played baseball, and Richfield went deep into the state championship playoffs in the three years he was on the varsity team. The best team was the 1960 squad, which lost in the tournament because of a big left-handed pitcher who couldn’t find the strike zone in their final game. When asked for details, Davis admitted with a chuckle, “I was the six foot six guy on the mound who couldn’t get the ball over the plate.” That episode aside, Davis was a very good high school pitcher, with a reported record of 25-1.
After graduating from Richfield High, Davis attended the University of Minnesota and started a baseball career that got him inducted into the M Club Hall of Fame in 2002. Davis played baseball (1962-64) and basketball (1961-64) for the Golden Gophers and won a Big Ten Conference Medal of Honor in 1963 for his athletic and scholastic achievements. Davis was a starting first baseman for the Gophers for three years. Minnesota won the NCAA College World Series in 1964, and Davis was named to the All-American second team and the CWS all-tournament team that year. Prior to that season, Davis struggled to hit in college. His coach, Dick Siebert, sent him to play in the Basin League, a summer semi-pro league in the Dakotas, and he ended up as the league’s MVP in 1962 and runner-up in ’63. He batted .360 for the Gophers in 1964, and the scouts took notice of the big first baseman. After he graduated, Davis signed with the Cleveland Indians. He hit well in his first year of pro ball, batting .292 with 9 homers for the Double-A Charleston (W.V.) Indians of the Eastern League. But he wasn’t above the occasional bad game. One Charleston game featured baseball clown prince Max Patkin as the entertainment. Davis, normally a sure-handed first baseman, went 0-for-4 in that game and committed 4 errors. After the game, a fan came up to him and said that Patkin was great, “but it’s the first time I’ve seen someone else steal the show from him,” Davis recalled.
See Bill Davis at Baseball Almanac
Davis exploded for 33 home runs, 106 RBIs and a .311 batting average with the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League in 1965. The Beavers ended a 20-year pennant drought with an 81-67 record but lost to Oklahoma City in the league championship series. Davis and San Diego’s Lee May tied for the league’s Rookie of the Year Award, and Davis was given his first trip to the majors after the PCL’s season concluded. However, he didn’t get any starts at first base and made a total of 10 pinch-hit at-bats. Davis’ first major-league hit came on September 18 against Chicago White Sox pitcher Eddie Fisher. He had 3 hits, including a double, before Cleveland’s season ended.
Davis, who earned the nickname of “Jolly Green Giant” for his height, impressed at the Cleveland training camp in 1966. He regularly worked with coach Al Rosen to improve his hitting, but he could not unseat starting first baseman Fred Whitfield, who hit 26 homers for Cleveland in ’65. “I’ve heard Mr. [Cleveland manager Birdie] Tebbetts say Whitfield is his first baseman. You can hardly argue there. Fred had a great year and deserves to be considered No. 1,” Davis said, adding that he didn’t want to be a benchwarmer. “I won’t concede anything, and I’m going to do everything I can to win the job… But if I don’t make it, then I hope Mr. Tebbetts will send me back to Portland where I can play everyday.”
Davis started the season with Cleveland and made his first major-league start on April 15, 1966. He was 1-for-3 with a sacrifice fly and a single. It was the only hit he had before the rosters were reduced in mid-May, and Davis was sent back to Portland. He had a decent offensive year (.274 average, 17 home runs) and came back to Cleveland in September. On September 9, he belted a walk-off 2-run pinch-homer against Jack Sanford to give Cleveland an 8-7 win over the California Angels in 10 innings.
Over the offseason, Davis tore his Achilles tendon in a pickup basketball game and was lost for a year. He returned to the Portland Beavers in 1968 and hit .265 with 12 home runs, including a couple of grand slams. That October, Cleveland sent Davis to the San Diego Padres and eventually got back shortstop Zoilo Versalles, who had come to the Padres via the expansion draft. Davis was the first first baseman in Padres history, as he started the Opening Day game on April 8, 1969, against the Houston Astros. He was 0-for-3 before being relieved at first base by another power-hitting Padre rookie named Nate Colbert. Davis started regularly for the Padres over the first couple weeks of the season and had a batting average in the .240s, with little power. Colbert started getting a few starts of his own, started mashing home runs, and ended up with the starting first base job. Davis was reduced to a pinch-hitter and struggled in the role. He was given one last chance to start at first base during a series in Chicago against the Cubs — where he had to face Fergie Jenkins, Bill Hands and Dick Selma. “Can you believe it, I struck out six straight times,” Davis said with a moan. “I knew then I was going some place.”
On May 22, with Davis batting .175, he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals along with infielder Jerry DaVanon for catcher Sonny Ruberto and second baseman John Sipin. Davis began to heat up at the plate with the Tulsa Oilers of the American Association, but, per Davis’ SABR biography, he clashed with manager Warren Spahn about some questionable decisions and was traded to the Minnesota Twins. He continued to hit well in the minors, but when the season was over, Davis retired at the age of 27.
In parts of 3 seasons in the majors, Davis appeared in 64 games, with 19 hits in 105 at-bats. He had a .181/.281/.238 slash line, with 3 doubles and 1 home run. He drove in 5 runs, scored 3 times, and had 14 walks and 28 strikeouts. In the field, he played 167 innings at first base and had a .988 fielding percentage. Davis also had 71 home runs in 5 minor-league seasons, with a .286 batting average.
Davis returned to Minnesota with his family after his playing career was over. He entered into the mortgage business and eventually ended up back in his home town of Graceville, after retiring from Associated Bank. In his life, Davis had turned down offers to play in Japan and serve as an assistant coach to Siebert at the University of Minnesota, but he had many fond memories from his time in baseball. He was interviewed by the Star-Tribune in 2014 for an article about the great Gopher baseball teams of the 1960s, led by Siebert.
“We started every day working on game situations and making the right play. Even in an unpredictable game like baseball, there wasn’t much we faced that we weren’t prepared to handle,” Davis recalled. As for the 1964 championship season, he remembered that Minnesota made its annual trip to Texas shortly after he finished basketball season, and they lost 7 of 9 games against the University of Texas and Texas A&M. “That’s what I remember about the season: How terrible we were on the Texas trip, and we wound up winning the national championship.”
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