June 29, 2010
Remembering Donald Davidson
It is difficult to know where to begin when you are about to write about Donald Davidson, for there never was anyone like him in baseball before he came along, unless you want to make a comparison to Eddie Gaedel, and there hasn’t been anyone like him since.
Let me first introduce you to this giant among men who stood only 4-foot-2, but who some exaggerated down to 3-foot-6, as if it matters. Deformed after a bout with sleeping sickness as a child, Davidson became a baseball legend as traveling secretary of the Boston-Milwaukee-Atlanta Braves. He was the link between Babe Ruth and Henry Aaron, having been a batboy with the Braves when Ruth spent his one season there, the gregarious Bambino taking what was then just a child on his lap and talking with him, and traveling secretary and publicity man for Aaron.
But let us introduce you to Donald Davidson this way. It was Kentucky Derby Day, 1975, a day that in the history of baseball has some meaning for it was the day that Sparky Anderson decided to move Pete Rose to third base, making room in the Reds' outfield for George Foster. At any rate, I was scheduled to be official scorer at the game between the Braves and Reds at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati that night but had plans to attend the Derby in Louisville with Davidson, thinking we could just get back by game time if we left directly after the race. Never having attended the Derby before, I did not know how difficult parking would be.
I had picked Davidson up at the Netherland-Hilton Hotel in Cincinnati, a hotel famous for another Davidson story. That was where, when the Milwaukee Braves checked in once, Davidson got on the elevator with pitchers Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette. Their rooms were on the 18th floor while Davidson's was on the 26th floor. As the two pitchers arrived at their floor, Davidson addressed them:
“Hey, push 26,” he said, being too short to reach the button for the top floor of the hotel.
“Push it yourself, you little SOB,” said Spahn as the Hall of Famer and Burdette exited the elevator, forcing Davidson to ride down to the ground floor and get someone to push the button for him.
The next day, and from then forward, Davidson stayed on the lower floors of the team hotels.
On Derby Day, Davidson came out of the hotel wearing a tailored, powder blue suit from Saville Row, complete with a matching derby hat. If it didn’t take much material to make the suit, it certainly was expensive material. The ride to the Derby was uneventful except for when we arrived and were stopped at the gate of the parking lot, demanding to show a pass. As I tried to talk my way in, Davidson leaned across from the passenger seat and, told the attendant, “Can’t you see, I’m one of the blankety-blank jockeys. We have to get in there.” And they let us in.
Upon the completion of the race, we rushed to the car and began driving back toward Cincinnati. However, despite being in possession of one of the world’s smallest kidneys, Davidson needed to make a pit stop. And so it was we pulled into a gas station a few miles outside Louisville, me waiting in the car with the motor running and Davidson having gone into the station to relieve himself. I was looking out the rearview window as I saw Davidson come out of the restroom and go to the snack machine on the wall while the gas station attendant sat at a desk, eating a sandwich and drinking from a thermos bottle. Davidson put a quarter into the machine and it didn’t give him anything.
Complaining in rather colorful language to the attendant that the machine had eaten his quarter, the man informed him, “Don’t take no quarters.” Unhappy, Davidson dug down into the pockets of that powder blue suit and pulled out two dimes and a nickel, put it in the machine and again was rejected. There was more complaining, some of the words beginning with the letter F. “Don’t take two dimes and nickel, either,” said the attendant. “It’s broken.”
Just then the phone in the back room rang and the attendant left. I’m looking at this scene through the rearview mirror when I see Davidson take one of his little hands and sweep it across the desk, sending the sandwich flying in one direction and the thermos in another. He came running out of that station as fast his little legs would carry him, jumped into the car, and like Bonnie and Clyde, we took off. About five miles down the road, Davidson peered back over the seat, saw we weren’t being chased and said, “I guess I showed that son of a bitch.” That was the kind of stuff you got when you hung with Donald Davidson. He was a legend.
Oh, because of his size, he ran into a lot of the Spahn-and-Burdette treatment, like the day in spring training when they arrived early at the ballpark on a road trip and told the attendant at the gate that a midget had gotten away from circus and was coming to the game saying he was with the Braves and that he had to be stopped. You can imagine Davidson’s reaction that time.
If he had to take it, Davidson could also dish it out. There was a day his team arrived in St. Petersburg during spring training and got to the hotel only to find their rooms were not ready. Davidson called the person working the front desk every name but sir. The picture was priceless as Davidson lashed out at him even though the desk person could not see Donald over the counter. Davidson turned and led the entire Braves team on a walk down the street to another hotel, which got unexpected business.
And then there was another time when Spahn thought it would be funny to put Davidson’s little jacket on, splitting it at the seams. Davidson, who believed in getting mad and getting even, waited for Spahn to take the field, went back into the clubhouse and threw the left-hander's clothes into the shower and turned on the water.
Donald Davidson was a many-faceted person. He had skated as child with the Ice Capades, but was enthralled by baseball in his native Boston and hung around the ballpark when Casey Stengel was managing. Stengel sort of adopted him as a part-mascot and part-clubhouse man.
“I made good money doing errands for the ball players,” Davidson once said. “Ray Mueller, the old catcher, and Charlie “Broadway” Wagner were nice to me. I was the only guy Lefty Grove allowed in the clubhouse after he got knocked out of a game, which wasn't often."
Davidson went to Boston University as a journalism student for a year, worked as a reporter for the long-gone Boston Post, but wound up where he belonged, in baseball. Davidson, whose wife, Patty, was a normal-sized person, was the stepfather to the stage-trained actress Patrika Darbo, who portrayed the comedienne Roseanne Barr in the 1994 unauthorized movie of her life and also was nominated for a Daytime Emmy for her portrayal of Nancy Wesley on NBC’s long-running soap opera “Days of Our Lives.”
Davidson died in 1990 and baseball really hasn’t been the same since.