"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Monday, April 18, 2016

Tommy Davis was inexplicably a journeyman

The circle of people who can remember seeing the Seattle Pilots in person is shrinking. I saw them play our Minnesota Twins in a doubleheader in 1969. It had to be 1969 since that's the only year the Pilots existed. The Twins dominated on that day.
Really though the Pilots were a decent team. Certainly they could be exciting. Often they had Tommy Davis parked at No. 3 in the batting order. The meat of the order often included Don Mincher, the old Twin. We might forget that the big, powerful Mincher was in our lineup on the very first day of our franchise. Davis and Mincher made a mark with their offensive prowess. Both had a journeyman tag by the time they retired.
Davis got a little down over how he'd get released, only to join another team and keep pounding out hits. The best theory I have come across about this, is that in terms of pure cosmetics he seemed laid back, maybe even lazy. I gather it was pure cosmetics. Davis himself said the air about him helped him play better - a relaxed air. Certainly major league baseball kept the faith in him.
Many fans associate Davis primarily with the L.A. Dodgers. That's where he got established. A career-altering injury early in the 1965 season kept Tommy from playing against our Twins in the World Series that year. It's sad he couldn't be part of that show. He was a likeable player and most certainly a pure hitter. If you needed a player to produce with a minimal .270 average (and probably much higher), he was your guy. He did this wearing quite the variety of uniforms.
His stint with Seattle meant he had a presence in Jim Bouton's revolutionary sports book, "Ball Four." Davis and Bouton both ended up with the Houston Astros before the end of the '69 season. Bouton was sharply analytical, to a fault actually, rendering many of his subjects (victims?) looking shallow or foolish, but Davis comes across looking fine.
Davis' '65 injury had the effect of reducing his power. Such was his innate skill for making good contact, he could still spray hits around. His injured leg bothered him during his time with Seattle. We learn this history along with the history that he stole 19 bases in his five months as a Pilot. His stat of 29 doubles made him a standout on the team. He cruised along with a .271 average and was leading the Pilots in hits and RBIs when he got traded to the Astros.
In 1970 the "journeyman" tag really took hold for this talented ballplayer. There was no evidence he was disruptive in the clubhouse. It's really hard to ascertain why he bounced around. The '70 season saw Tommy pull on uniforms for the Astros, Oakland A's and Chicago Cubs.
Sometimes there are clues for the movements. Houston called up prime outfield prospect Cesar Cedeno, a mere teen. Oakland faded from contention, so owner Charlie Finely sold Davis to the Cubs. Davis made his transitions pretty seamlessly and he batted .284 for his '70 season. I was 15 years old and quite focused on baseball.
Davis had suspicions that Finley pulled strings to engineer a re-signing back to Oakland at a lower salary. Finley was, shall we say, a "colorful" owner.
Baseball players had very limited power to guard their interests in those days. A blessing for the players was that even though they were mistreated in their active years, the time came when they could capitalize on their names, attending memorabilia shows etc., and cash in pretty fine. All they had to do was "hang in there" while they were players. Bite the bullet as it were.
And Tommy Davis most certainly did that, putting in a solid year with Finley's A's in 1971. He was a cog in helping the A's to the playoffs. So, he'd become a fixture with the A's? No! You see, Davis was an apartment-mate of Vida Blue, an amazing young pitcher for the A's, and Davis introduced Blue to attorney Robert Gerst. Whoa Nellie! Gerst guided Blue to demand a new contract that did not include the reserve clause.
Davis was released in spring training with many feeling this was punishment for his role with the Blue episode. At the time, Davis was not perceived as a viable everyday defensive player. He drifted for several months with no affiliation, then he got part-time duty with the Cubs and Orioles in the second half of 1972. Davis was 34 years old, an advanced age by the standards of that time.
My, but he could still hit. The designated hitter rule came along to accommodate him. It was 1973, my senior year in high school and a time when Elton John rocketed to music fame. Let's note that the DH did not work in practice like the theory suggested. The reason is that any player whose physical attributes are such that he really cannot play in the field anymore, probably can't hit well either. Hitting is a very physical task involving the whole body.
The DH was supposed to help some famous players stay in the game longer, but really did not have that effect, not to the extent hoped. But Tommy Davis was an exception. He became Baltimore's full time designated hitter and led the team in hits with 169 and RBIs with 89.
I was happy to see him land on his feet like this. He was third in the American League with his .306 average. And, he kept right on going in '74. Again he led the Orioles in key offensive categories. His batting average was .289.
Remember that Davis' career was during what baseball historians have called "baseball's second dead ball era." A .289 average was to be admired. My brain is still wired in the context of that dead ball time.
Baltimore won the A.L. East, surviving a late charge by the Yankees. Unfortunately, Baltimore got stopped in the ALCS in both '73 and '74. That era belonged to Tommy's former team, the A's.
Davis' last year as a regular was 1975. Never could he be held down in terms of batting average. His .283 average was bested only by Ken Singleton on the Orioles. Davis had a hot September with 25 hits. But Davis always had to watch his back, figuratively speaking. Now there was the specter of Lee May, whose defensive skills were deteriorating which meant he'd likely become the DH. Davis got released.
I don't understand how impulsive teams were in releasing him. I wish like heck he could have been signed by our Minnesota Twins. He would have looked super in a Twins uniform. He caught on with the Yankees but got released in spring training. I'm incredulous. Davis was no clubhouse lawyer. His sin was having a mere surface appearance of being laid back, an air that Tommy said helped him focus and play better.
He finished the '76 season as the Kansas City Royals' DH. But he had signed too late to be eligible for the post-season. Surely he would have helped the Royals in their memorable battle with the Yankees. K.C.'s designated hitters in the series were a dud. Strange how the Royals could not have been better prepared, getting Davis signed sooner. He was a guaranteed-not-to-tarnish .280 hitter (at least). I wonder what Calvin Griffith thought of him.
The Royals released Davis in January. He retired from the game with a career pinch-hitting average of .305 in 203 at-bats.
Davis' story is fundamentally a happy one, journeyman status notwithstanding. He's popular at memorabilia shows, and is a sought speaker. He co-authored "Tommy Davis' Tales from the Dodgers Dugout." He started his own small company.
Maybe he should be in the Hall of Fame, really. And we'll never forget his season as a Seattle Pilot.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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