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Willie ‘Three Dog’ Davis Dead at 69

March 9th, 2010 · 1 Comment · Abu Dhabi, Baseball, Dodgers

Willie Davis was found dead in his home in Burbank today. “Three Dog,” as he was known by teammates and fans because he hit so many triples and because he wore No. 3.

He was 69.

Thinking back about him … he is one of those guys who gives you pause.

Starting center fielder for the Dodgers for more than a decade. Part of the 1963 and 1965 championship teams. But …

But …

Before we go any farther, I have managed to find a column I wrote about Willie Davis back in 2005. Not long after he had been taken back into the Dodgers family after a lost decade (or two), during which he was smoking crack cocaine. Uh, yeah. It was grim, and the time I spent talking to him … well, he wasn’t all there. Some damage had been done.

Maybe he was doomed to be a substance-abuser. He came from a rough neighborhood, and Tommy Hawkins of the Dodgers suggested that’s where he went back to when his baseball career was over. But maybe some of that was about dulling the pain of a career that “everyone said” wasn’t as brilliant as it could have been.

Any way you cut it, what we come back to, when considering Willie Davis is this sense of … missed opportunities.

It comes down to variations on a theme: He could have/should have been better.

It was the background music to his career. “He should do more.” Inescapable as Muzak. “Why doesn’t he bunt?” Like the sun rising in the east and Sandy Koufax throwing a shutout. “With that speed, how come his average is in the .240s?”

We have two answers to those questions. First the negative, and then the positive.

1. Willie Davis was a bit of an underachiever. A bit. There were times when he didn’t seem quite into the game. He rarely could be bothered to take a walk. And yes, he did refuse to bunt, and that drove crazy two famous Dodgers — Vin Scully and Maury Wills. Both of them saw Three Dog run — and he ran like no one else of that time, with impossibly long, loping strides. He seemed to be jogging, but he covered so much ground that he could be standing on third in about 10 seconds. Wills, who made a career out of marginal talent, believed Davis could bunt for dozens of hits every year. Just put the ball on the ground, make somebody make a good play. But Willie Davis almost never did that. It seemed to be below his dignity. When it would have made great sense.

2.  Willie Davis happened to play at the worst time for offense since the Dead Ball Era of a century ago. Every low in the history of “modern baseball” (say, 1920 forward) came in the middle 1960s, and most of them came in 1968, when pitchers just took over the game and only one man, Carl Yastrzemski, hit .300 in all of the American League. Thus, in the context of his era, when runs were dear, “average” offensive numbers suddenly aren’t average. They’re good. Perhaps very good.

Consider 1966, when he hit .284 with 74 runs,  61 RBI and 48 extra-base hits. Two decades before or after,  that’s mediocrity personified.

In 1966, that was a serious contributor to the offense, a guy who got some support in the MVP voting.

Add in his great range in center field, and the fact that he won a Gold Glove (though he is remembered, defensively, it at all, as the guy who made three errors in one inning in a 1966 World Series game) … and you have yourself a very nice player. Which is why the Dodgers started him every day he was healthy for 12 years running.

Here are his career statistics.

No Barry Bonds numbers there. But Three Dog didn’t have PEDs. What he had was a dead baseball, pitching mounds about three feet high, cavernous ballparks (including Dodger Stadium, which he had to endure 81 times a year) and not many productive hitters around him.

As I mentioned in the 2005 column, baseball analyst Bill James has suggested that Willie Davis may have been hurt more by accidents of history than any player since World War I. Playing in an era with about 35 percent of the offense sucked out of the game. His career almost perfectly overlaying the time when offense was in a trough.

When he played, he never was someone you pitied. He had too many gifts. People with gifts aren’t pitied.

But perhaps he should have been pitied. Maybe he didn’t bunt or walk, but for that time and that place … he was far better than we realized.

At the end, those missed opportunities? Maybe most of them were ours. We missed a chance to appreciate one of the better players in the National League. Eventually, we figured it out, but by then it was almost too late for Three Dog to know we had changed our minds about him.


1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Mark H.Bouman // Mar 15, 2010 at 4:36 PM

    Saw 3-dog play in the late 60’s/early 70’s against Mays and also once against Aaron (2 of my favs of all time)… WD was the best CF the Dogs ever had! (Even his records he still holds, proves the point…) A lot of memories for me, as a kid (I even found out in your column that I have something in common with him: I made 3 fly-ball errors in one inning once, too!) Davis may have been a triples man, but he’s home now…

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