Willie Davis was before my time. Davis spent 18 seasons in the major leagues, from 1960 through 1976, with a brief comeback in 1979 after a foray to Japan, so unless he made a cameo appearance in an Angels game I was watching in that latter year — he wasn't in this Nolan Ryan near no-hitter, which I fondy recall — I never actually saw him play. I knew of him primarily because of one gruesome inning in the 1966 World Series in which Davis set a record for October futility, making three errors. The moment represented the fall of the Sandy Koufax-era Dodgers' mini-dynasty, as Davis lost one fly ball in the sun, dropped the next ball, and then overthrew third base on the same play, leading to a three-run inning in a 6-0 loss.
Alas, that turned out to be Koufax's final game, as the Dodgers were swept by the Orioles. The legendary pitcher was actually forgiving of Davis' woes, and as the great Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray wrote, "I don't think the shock of Game 2 of the World Series was that Willie Davis dropped two fly balls off Koufax fastballs in center field, I think it was that Koufax fastballs ended up in center field in the first place."
Anyway, Davis was so much more than the goat of one Fall Classic. He patrolled center field for the Dodgers for 14 years, from 1960 through 1973, a span during which they won three pennants and two World Series. The tail end of his career overlapped with the beginnings of the great Longest Running Infield (Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey) which drove the team's next four pennants (1974-1981). He is the Los Angeles era franchise leader in hits (2,091), extra-base hits (585), at-bats (7,495), runs (1,004), triples (110) and total bases (3,094). His legacy looms large.
Davis passed away on March 9, and he was fondly remembered at a ceremony at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday which brought together several generations of Dodgers, from Peter O'Malley to Frank McCourt, from Maury Wills and Tommy Davis to Russell, Cey and Reggie Smith. Both his talent and humanity drew tribute. "Willie treated every player with respect and he made you feel welcomed," said Smith, who watched Davis while growing up in Southern California and played with him in St. Louis in 1975. "Willie had it all and he was probably the fastest man I ever saw in baseball."
Indeed, his speed was remarkable. "He was the only man I've ever seen who, when he hit a ball in the gap, the opposing team watched him run," said Lou Johnson, another Dodger teammate from the Sixties. Recalled Tommy Davis (no relation), who raced against him in a 60-yard dash in spring training, "I realized he was fast," Davis said, "because Johnny Podres and Stan Williams were betting on him — and those guys knew how to bet."
Davis had his critics as well, not to mention his problems. He converted to Buddhism late in his career, and was often ridiculed by closed-minded sportswriters. He had financial woes late in his career, and following it. Playing in the death valley of 1960s Dodger Stadium, the most parched run scoring environment on earth, his numbers looked meager; he hit .275/.306/.385 for his career at Chavez Ravine, .281/.314/.428 everywhere else. While literally working out the math on Davis' career numbers, Bill James noted in the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract:
The Los Angeles Dodgers in 1965 played in a league that averaged 4.03 runs per team per game — a historically low average. They played in the best pitcher's park in that league, the worst park for a hitter; the fences weren't close, the pitcher's mound was about four feet high, and the foul territory was larger than several national forests.
…John Roseboro said, "He has never hit .330 in his career. But he should have." This is completely unfair. Willie Davis was a terrific player. True, he didn't walk and he was not particularly consistent — but his good years, in context, are quite impressive. The Dodgers won the pennant in 1963, in 1965 and in 1966, and one of the key reasons they did was because they had Willie Davis in center field. He should not be regarded as a failure merely because he had to play his prime seasons in such difficult hitting conditions.
Still, Davis was viewed as something of an erratic player and character. As the New York Times obituary notes, Murray "suggested that Davis had tinkered with his batting stance too much. 'Willie, you see, did imitations. The only way you could tell it wasn’t Stan Musial was when he popped up.'" (The entire Murray column from which that was taken is here. It's worth a read.)
Bill James was onto something, of course. Davis' lifetime True Average (a/k/a Equivalent Average) was .274; a .260 is league average after adjusting for park and league scoring levels, so he was actually a significantly above-average hitter for his time. Translated to a 4.5 runs per game environment (as BP does for every player), his career line comes out to .300/.335/.467, with 2,738 hits, 242 homers and 438 steals — numbers that start to look Hall of Fame caliber — and his defense was 104 runs above average for his career. of course, if you translate other HOF center fielders' numbers as well, you get showings like Willie Mays (.320/.405/.619 with 3,510 hits, 803 homers and 470 steals ) or a closer analogue like Richie Ashburn (.320/.406/.408 with 2,718 hits and 356 steals). Looking at Davis through the lens of JAWS, Davis finished his career with 46.7 WARP (24th among center fielders), with a 34.4 WARP total for his peak (30th), and a 40.6 JAWS score (28th). Of the 18 enshrined center fielders — including Andre Dawson, who accumulated more of his career value there than in right field — that last number would rank 10th:
Player TAv RARP RAP FRAA Career Peak JAWS
Willie Mays .330 1227 872 217 161.3 75.0 118.2
Ty Cobb .330 1207 847 -10 139.1 70.3 104.7
Tris Speaker .320 932 604 114 122.6 61.0 91.8
Mickey Mantle .342 1067 804 -58 112.5 66.3 89.4
Joe DiMaggio .326 705 494 54 87.0 60.1 73.6
Billy Hamilton .305 453 250 56 66.2 46.5 56.4
AVG HOF CF .306 563 308 19 68.3 44.0 56.1
Richie Ashburn .288 399 124 121 61.6 46.9 54.3
Andre Dawson .285 527 190 -11 59.6 40.2 49.9
Duke Snider .307 540 303 -83 53.6 40.4 47.0
Willie Davis .274 310 -5 104 46.7 34.4 40.6
Larry Doby .301 363 185 9 43.8 36.6 40.2
Kirby Puckett .286 386 154 -7 43.4 31.8 37.6
Hugh Duffy .276 198 -31 96 40.5 32.1 36.3
Max Carey .272 246 -82 76 40.3 28.4 34.4
Earl Averill .293 369 167 -66 36.6 30.3 33.5
Hack Wilson .308 369 214 -82 33.8 31.6 32.7
Edd Roush .285 298 53 -45 32.3 26.4 29.4
Earle Combs .289 277 94 -62 26.5 23.3 24.9
Lloyd Waner .263 149 -98 25 22.0 20.7 21.4
Not pictured here are the scores of Ken Griffey Jr (79.7/51.9/65.8) and Jim Edmonds (72.2/51.1/61.7), who top the standard, and Andruw Jones (61.3/47.4/54.4) who may yet get there. Among the non-Hall of Famers above Davis are George Gore and Jimmy Wynn (written about here), Carlos Beltran, Bernie Williams, Brett Butler, Chet Lemon, Lenny Dykstra, and nine others, including perennial candidate Dale Murphy, who at least has two MVPs to his credit to boost his less-than-imposing career-level credentials. While Davis won three Gold Gloves (1971-1973), he made only two All-Star teams, never placed higher than 16th in the MVP voting, and fares poorly on the Jamesian Hall of Fame Monitor (50 points) and Hall of Fame Standards (28 points) metrics. He was sort of the Mike Cameron or Kenny Lofton or Devon of his day — a fine supporting player whose merits for Cooperstown fall short of the mark, but who could certainly play. There's no shame in that.
The best of the Davis tributes online belongs to Bruce Jenkins of the San Francisco Chronicle:
Willie Davis might have been the coolest ballplayer I ever saw. He exuded style, a sense of the pure aesthetic, and he could have excelled at any sport. His choice of baseball was a blessing to the game, and among those of us who watched him up close at Dodger Stadium in the early 1960s, there was no question he was the fastest man alive. In a race from first to third with a running start, I'm not sure even Bob Hayes could have caught him.
Davis was found dead Tuesday at the age of 69 (authorities believe there was no foul play), leaving behind a legacy of unique, unforgettable talent. He made two All-Star teams, racked up 2,561 hits, had a 31-game hitting streak, won three consecutive Gold Glove awards, but he wasn't an elite outfielder in the National League. With the likes of Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Frank Robinson and Roberto Clemente in the mix, that just wasn't possible.
What none of those players had — few that I can recall in any era — was Davis' combination of urban cool and blazing speed. He addressed the world at a slow, measured pace, never in a rush. He basically let life come to him. Even as he approached home plate with a bat in his hands, he struck the impression of a man wearing shades at the far corner table of a jazz club.
There was lightning inside him. He turned it loose at the crack of the bat. Like so many good left-handed hitters, he crushed the low fastball, drilling it up the alleys on a laser path. That's when Willie Davis struck fear in the hearts of every opponent, because that would be a triple.
As Tommy Lasorda inevitably lamented, Davis has gone to visit the big Dodger in the sky. So long, Willie.