Tommy Davis, batting star with the ’60s Dodgers, dies at 83
By Glenn Rifkin
Tommy Davis, a former New York-born baseball prodigy who became a two-time All-Star, won two consecutive National League batting titles and led the star-studded Los Angeles Dodgers to a World Series championship in 1963, died Sunday in Phoenix. He was 83.
The Dodgers announced his death.
Davis, an outfielder, had seemed destined for the Hall of Fame until his career was derailed when he suffered a broken ankle in 1965. He then became a journeyman, playing for 11 different teams in an 18-year career while helping to pioneer the designated hitter rule in the American League in the 1970s.
He had impressive career batting statistics, including more than 2,000 hits and more than 1,000 runs batted in, but he fell short of Hall of Fame status and never lived up to the comparisons to his boyhood Brooklyn Dodger hero, Jackie Robinson.
In the 1950s, before the inception of the baseball draft, players could sign with any team, and Davis, who had just graduated from Boys High School in the New York City borough of Brooklyn in 1956, was heavily courted by the Dodgers’ hated crosstown rival, the Yankees. After Davis declared his intention to sign with the Yankees, Brooklyn’s general manager, Al Campanis, intervened at the last minute, visiting the 17-year-old Davis at his home to change his mind.
“A Brooklyn boy should play in Brooklyn,” Campanis reportedly told Davis. “You know how the fans here react. You’ll be a bigger hero someday than Jackie Robinson.”
To seal the deal, Campanis got Robinson, who had broken baseball’s color barrier, to call Davis, who was also Black. A star-struck Davis immediately signed with the Dodgers for $4,000 (the equivalent of about $38,000 today).
“Jackie didn’t have to say anything,” Davis said in his 2005 book, “Tommy Davis: Tales From the Dodgers’ Dugout. “Just the sound of his voice sold me.”
Davis, a superb all-around athlete who had made the all-city basketball team, dreamed of playing in Ebbets Field for his beloved Dodgers but never got that chance; the team had moved to Los Angeles by the time he reached the major leagues, in September 1959.
“It broke my heart,” Davis told sports columnist Arthur Daley of The New York Times in 1962. “I don’t mean I don’t like it in Los Angeles. I do. But …”
Davis was considered one of the Dodgers’ brightest young stars when the team moved into its gleaming new stadium in Chavez Ravine in 1962. He had had a solid rookie season in 1960, batting .276 and finishing fifth in the Rookie of the Year voting.
He joined such marquee names as Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Willie Davis (no relation) and Maury Wills on a team that won the World Series in 1959. With its dominant pitching and young, talented lineup, the Dodgers became a pennant-winning juggernaut in the 1960s that annually battled the equally star-laden San Francisco Giants for National League supremacy.
At 23, Davis, a right-handed hitter, had his breakout season in 1962, batting a league-leading .346 with 230 hits, 27 home runs and 153 RBIs — a Dodgers team RBI record that still stands. He finished third in the MVP voting and joined Koufax, another Brooklyn product who had emerged as one of the era’s dominant pitchers, to lead the team on a run at the pennant.
In June, Davis clubbed a home run in the ninth inning to give Koufax and the Dodgers a 1-0 victory over ace Bob Gibson and his St. Louis Cardinals. According to Jane Leavy’s biography “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy,” Davis and Koufax “celebrated by dancing around the clubhouse crowing, ‘Us Brooklyn boys got to stick together!’”
Recalling his 1962 season in a 2013 video interview, Davis said: “I didn’t try to hit home runs. I tried to hit line drives, make good contact and have less strikeouts.” In 556 plate appearances that season, he struck out just 59 times.
The Dodgers and Giants finished the regular season with identical 101-61 records, but the Giants, led by Willie Mays, won the pennant in a three-game playoff. Davis, an All-Star that year, won the National League batting title on the regular season’s final day by getting two hits to reach .346.
The playoff disappointment fueled a Dodger run to the pennant in 1963 as Davis, again selected as an All-Star, followed up with another batting title — the last Dodger to win one — hitting .326. The Dodgers swept the Yankees in the World Series behind the overpowering pitching of Koufax and Drysdale. Davis led the Dodgers with a .400 batting average for the Series.
Davis had an injury-plagued 1964 season in which his batting average dropped by more than 50 points and his salary was cut. It was a harbinger of tough times to come.
In May 1965, Davis broke his right ankle sliding into second base in a game against the Giants in Los Angeles. He missed the remainder of the season. He returned to the Dodgers in 1966 and batted .313, but he had only 313 plate appearances and a mere three home runs and 27 RBIs. After being swept in the World Series by the Baltimore Orioles, the Dodgers traded Davis to the lowly New York Mets.
Herman Thomas Davis Jr. was born on March 21, 1939, the only child of Herman Sr. and Grace Lenore Davis. He grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. His father went by Herman, so his mother called him Tommy. At Boys High, he starred in the long jump and became an all-city basketball star alongside Lenny Wilkens, a future NBA Hall of Famer, but baseball was Davis’ first love. He learned how to hit by playing fast-pitch softball when he was 9.
After minor league stops in Hornell, New York; Kokomo, Indiana; Victoria, Texas; Montreal; and Spokane, Washington, Davis got called up to the parent club for the proverbial cup of coffee and had a single at-bat in September. He made the Dodgers in 1960 and quickly proved his All-Star potential.
After his injury and his departure from the Dodgers, Davis embarked on a long, multi-stop tour of the majors. Though his speed and power were diminished, his batting eye remained as potent as ever. He batted .302 for the 1967 Mets, but was traded the following season to the Chicago White Sox, who left him exposed to the 1969 expansion draft. He was eventually snapped up by the Seattle Pilots, where he lasted five months before being traded again, this time to the Houston Astros.
Davis went on in 1970 to hit a combined .284 for three clubs, including the Chicago Cubs, before the Oakland A’s released him, leaving Davis bitter. “Nobody gets released after hitting .284; you ever hear of that?” he asked at the time. And his salary was cut in half in the same year, from $80,000 at its peak with the Cubs.
But fate intervened when the American League adopted the designated hitter rule in 1973, replacing the pitcher in a batting lineup. With the Orioles, his 10th team in 15 seasons, Davis flourished as the full-time DH, batting .306, the top average in the league at that position. In 1974, he was once again the leading designated hitter, finishing with 181 hits and a .289 average.
When he failed to make the Yankees in 1976, Davis finished that season as the DH for the Kansas City Royals. In his final game, the 1,999th of his career, in October, he had two singles and finished with a lifetime .294 batting average, 153 home runs, 1,052 RBIs, and 2,121 hits.
After retiring at age 36, Davis stayed close to baseball, working with the Dodgers community relations department until moving to Arizona about a year ago.
He is survived by his second wife, Carol A. Davis; four daughters, Morgana, Lauren, Carlyn and Leslie; a son, Herman; and a number of grandchildren.