Rest in Peace, ‘Three Dog’ by the Sports Philosopher

March 14, 2010
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     Willie Davis was found dead last week. image0013

      Natural causes, they said.   Natural causes….hell, he was only 69.  (Of course 69 is a lot older for some people than others.)

      Many of you know who Willie Davis is; as long as you are over 50.   Many of you don’t know who he is, and that’s okay too.   You will now.   Because sports is important, important in this case because a man who was a major piece of positive pop culture in this town during a decade otherwise marked by great madness has died, and as such his passing needs to be paid appropriate attention.   So read this column.   Then you’ll know.

      Davis played major league baseball for 20 years, 14 of them with the Los Angeles Dodgers.   He was the Dodgers’ center-fielder all through the 1960s, a vital cog on some great Dodger teams, including the World Championship teams of 1963 and 1965.   He made two all-star teams, won three “gold gloves” for defense, batted over .300 four times, and still holds Dodger franchise records for hits (2091), extra-base hits (585), at-bats (7,495), runs (1004), triples (110), and total bases (3,094).   The man was a ballplayer.

      The lightning-fast Davis was affectionately known as “Three-Dog”, for the #3 on his uniform, the fact he batted 3rd in the order, and for how he annually led the team in triples.   And yes, he was fast.   When you are a kid growing up in the 60s and you love and follow baseball the way we all did, one of the first things you learn is that Willie Davis is the fastest man in the game.   Ex-teammate Manny Mota likes to tell of the time that Davis once tagged up and scored from second base on a fly ball out, the only man he ever saw do that.   Former Giants’ outfielder Felipe Alou loves telling the story of the time he thought he’d finally thrown out Davis trying to stretch a single into a double, for the first and only time, only to find out later that Davis had in fact notched a double on the play but was tagged out after he’d reached second, having flown into the second-base bag so fast that his momentum had caused him to overrun it.   So when I say Davis was fast, I mean legendary fast….  

      Davis’s career was earmarked by both the great and the awful.   The greatest of the great was in 1969, when he went on a sick batting tear which thoroughly captivated this town, ultimately registering a 31-game hitting streak.   That’s still a Dodger record.   The awful-est of the awful was in 1966, in the World Series against the Orioles, Game Two, when he managed to commit three errors in one inning; losing one fly ball in the sun, dropping another, and then over-throwing third base.   That’s also a record.  (That was also the last pitched game in the storied career of the greatest Dodger of them all, Sandy Koufax.   Quite a ballgame, huh?)

   image0021   Davis’s death affected me.   Not because I had, or have, any particular affection for Davis the player or Davis the man.   I didn’t and I don’t.   I mean he played for the Dodgers for godsake, and me being a Giants fan that makes the Dodgers the arch-rival Dodgers.   So when I heard the news of his death it wasn’t the feeling of suicidal dread I expect to suffer when, say, Willie Mays dies.

      But I wonder if all of you out there who grew up in the 60s go through what I go through, every time an athlete from that era passes on.

      Maybe it’s just because I’m getting old.   My girlfriend Roxanne gets hopping mad at me when I say stuff like that, but at times like this I just can’t help it.   Or maybe it’s because when something like this happens it compels a compulsively nostalgic man like me to reflect upon baseball in the 60s.   How much better it was!   Better because we had to follow it chiefly on the radio and retroactively through the next-day’s box scores, and not via the instant salve of TV.   ‘Made it mysterious, made it magical, remote, rare, and dependent upon the individual fan’s imagination.   ESPN has ruined that for all of us.   And finally, maybe it reminds us that it was also better because teams stayed together back then.   Davis is part of the proof.   Put it this way: Willie roamed tirelessly over the demanding, verdant pastures of center field in Dodgertown for 14 years—can you even imagine, in the world of 21st-century baseball, a center-fielder playing for the same team for 14 years?   No sir, no ma’am.    A sad reminder that while free agency has helped the individual ballplayer (i.e. money) it has hurt baseball.

      Yes, baseball itself parallels Davis’s baseball resume.   It is indeed great.   Yet it is sometimes awful.

      There was great and awful regarding Davis the man as well.   The great is that apparently he was genuinely beloved by his baseball colleagues.   The testimonials to his friendliness and humility came pouring in after his demise, from rival players, managers, and teammates alike.   Not to mention the armies of Dodger fans.   You can’t fake that.

      I myself got a taste of the awful a few years ago.  

      No, he didn’t grab me and scare the crap out of me the way Wilt Chamberlain once did. (See last week’s column: ).   Rather, Davis managed to disappoint an entire village.   My son was little and playing Little League baseball over in Sierra Madre back then, and one Opening Day we heard that Willie Davis was scheduled to speak at our opening-day ceremonies.   Wow, Willie Davis I thought.   Cool.   Can’t wait to meet him.   Maybe I’ll ask him a quick question or two about Mays, or Koufax, or the Dodger/Giant rivalry in the 60s, something.   I was stoked.

      He never showed up.

      Didn’t show, didn’t call.   ‘Left hundreds of kids and (more importantly) hundreds of ex-kids in their 40s and 50s waiting around for a relic of their youth to transport them, briefly, back to that youth, if only for a day.   I never did find out what his excuse was, or if he even had one, or even if the powers that be ever found out what the heck happened.

      I have a little better idea now as to why Davis stood up our entire town that day.   Turns out he had his demons.   The minute his death became public so too did the stories.   Like the time in 1996 when Davis threatened his parents with a samurai sword and ninja-style throwing stars, saying he’d burn their house down if they didn’t give him $5,000 dollars.   Three-Dog spent five nights in the can for that one.   He was also, apparently, a knife-wielding Buddhist who carried his dagger in a holster.   Yes, he was unstable to say the least.   And of course there was the predictable rehashing of the inevitable, an ex-athlete’s drug and alcohol abuse.   The man had lots of demons.

      Perhaps he had good reason.   I mean have you ever heard of anybody whose wife died by falling off a cliff?   Davis’s did.

      Sometimes the bad and the good all came within the same sentence.   Former Dodgers general manager Buzzie Bavasi once said admiringly of Davis that, “There was nothing more exciting than to watch Willie run out a triple….“, but then ended the thought with, “—he could have been a Hall-of-Famer, but he had million-dollar legs and a 10-cent head.   Ouch.

      Perhaps that’s the end-game significance of the life and times of Willie Davis.   He’s just like we are.   Part bad, part good.   Part joy, part sorrow.   Maybe he did die a bit of a broken man, in the end.  But in the end, aren’t we all just a little bit broken?   Just a little bit?   At least he got to be—and for quite a long time—what many millions of American boys, boys like me, would all want to be for just a few moments if we could.   A baseball hero.

      Anyway, rest in peace Three-Dog.   It’s finally over now.   You’ve touched home.

meet….The Sports Philosopher!

Brad Eastland is an author, historian, film buff, baseball zealot, and sports nut, in no particular order.   Brad’s other recent columns for LaVerneOnline can be found in Sports under ‘The Sports Philosopher’ and also in Viewpoint under ‘Brad Eastland’s View’.    Brad has also written four novels and over 20 short-stories.    Samples of his best fiction work can be discovered within the links below :






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