William Henry (Willie) Davis (1940–2010)
William Henry (Willie) Davis was a professional baseball player who spent eighteen years in the major leagues before retiring at the end of the 1979 season. Spending most of his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Davis played a key role on the franchise’s 1963 and 1965 World Series championship teams, and, while he finished his career with the California Angels, Davis held a number of Los Angeles Dodgers batting records at the time of his retirement.
Willie Davis was born on April 15, 1940, in Mineral Springs (Howard County), but he grew up in Los Angeles, California. A multi-sport athletic star at Theodore Roosevelt High School, Davis was a world-class performer in track and field, specializing in the 100-yard dash and the long jump, in which he set a city record.
Signed by the Dodgers after graduation from high school in 1958, the left-handed Davis began his professional career in 1959 and rocketed through the minor leagues, winning the Pacific Coast League’s Most Valuable Player Award in 1960, while also being named Minor League Player of the Year by the Sporting News. Brought up to the Dodgers at the end of the season, he made his major league debut on September 8, 1960, at the age of twenty. He spent the 1961 season with the Dodgers and, by 1962, was their full-time centerfielder, beginning a twelve-year run as the anchor of the Dodgers outfield. Indeed, on the Dodgers teams of the mid-1960s, which won three National League pennants and two World Series, no one was faster or more central to the defense than Davis, who earned Gold Glove Awards in 1971, 1972, and 1973.
Davis was named to the All-Star team in 1971 and 1973, and his efforts in fourteen seasons left him the holder of Los Angeles Dodgers records for at-bats, hits, extra base hits, runs, triples, and total bases. Davis stole twenty or more bases in eleven straight seasons from 1962 to 1972, with a high of forty-two in 1964.
An unfortunate, but enduring, memory of Davis for Dodgers fans was his record three errors in game two of the 1966 World Series, errors that were critical to the team’s loss. For all his accomplishments, the affable Davis was dogged by skeptics who thought that, given his natural athletic abilities, his baseball career should have been more impressive. “Enigmatic” was a word often used to describe the talented but mercurial Davis, and longtime Dodgers general manager Buzzie Bavasi summed up the view of many when he declared that Davis “could have been a Hall of Famer, but he had million dollar legs and a ten cent head.”
Following the 1973 season in which Davis hit .285, won his third Gold Glove Award, and was selected for the All-Star team, the Dodgers traded him to the Montreal Expos in the first of a series of moves that saw Davis later splitting the 1975 season between the Texas Rangers and the St. Louis Cardinals, before spending the 1976 season with the San Diego Padres. Released by the Padres, Davis spent the next two seasons in Japan before returning to the major leagues with the California Angels in 1979. Relegated to a reserve role, Davis saw limited action, finishing his major league career with a pair of pinch hitting at-bats in the American League championship series. He finished his career with a lifetime batting average of .279 with 398 stolen bases.
Davis’s baseball fame provided for opportunities in television, including the hit shows Mr. Ed and The Flying Nun. In fact, before he was fully established as a major leaguer, he was featured in an early documentary, Biography of a Rookie: Willie Davis, which was narrated by CBS News/60 Minutes legend Mike Wallace.
Davis’s post-baseball career was marked by a series of struggles. While he pursued golf, ultimately lowering his handicap to three, he also developed drug problems; saw his marriage to Jeanna Limyou, with whom he had three children, end in divorce; and was arrested in 1996 outside the home of his parents, being armed with a set of throwing knives and a samurai sword, having reportedly threatened them and demanded money.
Although he had drifted away from the Dodgers during his troubled times, at the time of his sudden death on March 9, 2010, Davis had rejoined the Dodgers family, serving as a member of the team’s Speakers Bureau counseling kids about the dangers of drugs. Davis was cremated and his ashes shared among family and friends.
For additional information:
Booth, Steven. “Willie Davis: Disappointment or Misunderstood?” The Hardball Times (May 26, 2011). Online at https://tht.fangraphs.com/willie-davis-disappointment-or-misunderstood/ (accessed October 26, 2021).
“Willie Davis.” Baseball-Reference.com. http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/d/daviswi02.shtml (accessed October 26, 2021).
William H. Pruden III
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