By Sue Manning
LOS ANGELES – Willie Davis, a speedy center fielder who collected two World Series rings, three Gold Gloves and was a two-time All-Star during his 14 seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, has died. He was 69.
“He was beloved by generations of Dodger fans and remains one of the most talented players ever to wear the Dodger uniform. Having spent time with him over the past six years, I know how proud he was to have been a Dodger. He will surely be missed and our sincere thoughts are with his children during this difficult time,” Dodgers owner Frank McCourt said in a statement.
Davis was found dead last Tuesday in his Burbank home, police said, adding that they did not believe foul play was involved.
Davis’ teammates included Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Johnny Roseboro, Junior Gilliam and Maury Wills. He won his World Series rings in 1963 and 1965.
“He was the only person I’ve ever seen score on a fly ball from second base when he did it in Vero Beach. Willie running the bases was one of the best. He was exciting. He was a very proud man and a good man. He was a good ballplayer,” Dodgers coach Manny Mota said at spring training in Glendale, Ariz.
The Dodgers lost the 1966 World Series 4-0 to the Baltimore Orioles. In Game 2, in the last game of Koufax’s pitching career, Davis committed a Fall Classic-record three errors in one inning when he lost one fly ball in the sun, dropped the next one, then overthrew third base.
During the 1965 World Series, Davis stole three bases in one inning, including one where he had to crawl into second base after stumbling and falling.
Davis left the Dodgers in 1973 and went on to play for the Montreal Expos, Texas Rangers, St. Louis Cardinals, San Diego Padres and California Angels.
He retired after the 1979 season with a career .279 average and 398 stolen bases.
“Willie was always such a young man in my eyes because of how he was able to move so easily. Time gets away from you quickly. You hope you take advantage of it and you hope you appreciate every day you’re here. You just hope he’s in a better place,” Dodgers manager Joe Torre said.
“When that guy came into the league, he put fear in everybody — outfielders, pitchers, infielders, everybody. With all the fights we had and problems we had with the Dodgers, he was always a guy you’d have a word or two with: ‘How you doing? How you hitting?'” former San Francisco Giants right fielder Felipe Alou said in Scottsdale, Ariz., where the Giants were playing the White Sox in a spring training game.
“I’m surprised,” Alou said. “Wow. He was a great player. He was one of those exciting players with many triples and doubles. I had friends on the Dodgers, which was unusual. He was one of them.”
Alou recalls a game at Dodger Stadium when Davis hit a hard single over first base that Alou chased down and threw to second and threw him out.
“I saw the umpire call him out and I said, ‘I finally got that guy trying to stretch a single into a double.’ The next day I saw the newspaper and it said Willie Davis had a double. I said, ‘I threw him out.’ My teammate said: ‘We tagged him out. He had passed second.’ He was that fast.”
In 1996, Davis was arrested for allegedly threatening his parents with a samurai sword and ninja-style throwing stars, saying he would burn their house down if they didn’t give him $5,000. Prosecutors eventually decided not to file charges.
His mother said it wasn’t the first time he wanted money and she had given it to him in the past. Davis had become a Buddhist more than 30 years earlier, and in the six months before the attack, had started carrying the sword and a dagger that he wore in a holster, his mother said.
The Dodgers wanted to help Davis, former Dodger pitcher Don Newcombe said in 1996, and got permission from then-owner Peter O’Malley to do everything they could.
“But if you perceive that a person has some kind of problem, you can’t give him money to enhance the problem,” Newcombe said. “The Dodgers are too smart for that. We wish it was that easy, but it doesn’t work that way. We would not give him money if we thought that he was going to use it for something other than a good use.”
“If we could define the problem, Willie would go to a doctor of our choosing,” Newcombe said. “Then we could have a medical diagnosis and a medical opinion about what his needs are. Then if that diagnosis was that he had a substance abuse problem, we’d put him in the hospital and we’d treat him for as long as he needed to be treated. The ball is in his court now. Willie’s going to have to make a decision about what he’s going to have to do with the rest of his life.”
Former Dodgers general manager Buzzie Bavasi once said of Davis: “There was nothing more exciting than to watch Willie run out a triple. … He could have been a Hall of Famer, but he had million-dollar legs and a 10-cent head.”
Hall of Famer Willie McCovey of the Giants said last Tuesday: “There was a time he kind of went off and I’m not sure what (he did). He was living a weird existence for a while. But he had straightened himself out. This is shocking. A lot of guys from my era are passing on, let’s face it.”
Mota said the trouble Davis had toward the end of his life “was kind of sad to see it happen. But he was a great man. I have a great deal of respect and admiration for Willie.”
Davis was born in Mineral Springs, Ark., in 1940 and moved to Los Angeles with his family when he was still a boy. He attended Roosevelt High School where he was a world class sprinter.
He was recruited by the Dodgers and signed with them when he graduated in 1958, McCourt said. Two years later, he was in the majors. In 1961, he replaced Duke Snider in center field.
Davis still holds six team records. He is the franchise leader in hits (2,091), extra-base hits (585), at-bats (7,495), runs (1,004), triples (110) and total bases (3,094).
He set a team record in 1969 with a 31-game hitting streak. He had more than 20 stolen bases in 11 consecutive seasons.
He appeared in a few television shows, including “The Flying Nun” and “Mister Ed,” usually as himself.