Willie Davis dies at 69; former Dodger center fielder

Willie Davis loses his helmet as he begins a slide into base in 1970. He was blessed with blistering speed but had a "difficult time as a lot of athletes do living life away from the game," said a former Dodger executive.
(Los Angeles Times)

Willie Davis, a brilliant but sometimes erratic center fielder who became one of the Dodgers’ stars soon after the franchise moved to Los Angeles from Brooklyn, has died. He was 69.

Davis was found dead Tuesday morning in his Burbank home, police said.

Authorities said a neighbor, who usually brought breakfast to Davis at his home on Victory Boulevard, discovered his body.

The case is being handled by the Los Angeles County coroner’s office, but authorities said it appears that Davis died of natural causes.


Blessed with blistering speed, Davis played with the Dodgers from 1960 to 1973 before being traded to the Montreal Expos.

He played in two All-Star games, won three Gold Gloves and set a Dodger record with a 31-game hitting streak in 1969.

Davis also played for the Texas Rangers, St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Padres. His last season in the majors was 1979 with the Angels.

“He was so talented,” former Dodger shortstop Maury Wills said in an interview Tuesday with The Times. “God really blessed him with some great tools -- for any sport, really -- speed, strength, agility -- everything an athlete needs in order to make the big time.”

Davis, known as “3-Dog” for his uniform number and his speed on the bases, was a key member of outstanding Dodger teams during the 1960s that won World Series titles in 1963 and ’65 and the National League pennant in ’66. He batted .305 or higher for three consecutive seasons beginning in 1969.

And he still has more hits, extra-base hits, triples, runs scored, at-bats and total bases than any Dodger during their years in Los Angeles starting in 1958.

“He will always be my roommate,” former Dodger Tommy Davis, who played alongside him in left field early in their careers, said Tuesday. “We were very close, we were just like brothers. It was tough to hear the news. We had some great times together.”

But Willie Davis’ baseball career included frequent discussions about his unrealized potential, and his life after baseball was troubled, with drug problems and brushes with the law.

“There was nothing more exciting than to watch Willie run out a triple,” Buzzie Bavasi, the Dodgers’ general manager during their early years in Los Angeles, told The Times in 1996. “He could have been a Hall of Famer, but he had million-dollar legs and a 10-cent head.”

Tommy Hawkins, a retired Dodger executive who worked with Davis during his troubled later years, said he was “gregarious, competitive and fast as lightning and probably had a very difficult time as a lot of athletes do living life away from the game.

“When I think about him, I think about the incredible elevator ride all athletes take, especially the old athletes,” Hawkins told The Times on Tuesday. “There is nothing in ordinary life that can give you the same rewards or feelings or highs that being a successful athlete can.”

William Henry Davis was born April 15, 1940, in Mineral Springs, Ark. He was a star athlete in baseball, basketball and track at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights in the late 1950s, and signed with the Dodgers in 1958. He spent only two seasons in the minor leagues before joining the Dodgers briefly in 1960.

“The thing about Willie Davis that left the greatest impression on you was the sight of him running,” said Dodger coach and former teammate Manny Mota. “Once in spring training, I saw him score from second base on a fly ball to center field. He was the only person I ever saw do that.”

Davis hit .279 over his career, with 398 stolen bases, including a career-high 42 in 1964.

In the Dodgers’ 1965 World Series victory against the Minnesota Twins, Davis stole three bases in one game, including one in which he crawled into second base after stumbling and falling.

A low point in his Dodger career came in the 1966 World Series against the Baltimore Orioles. He committed three errors in one inning in a day game at Dodger Stadium by dropping two fly balls and making an errant throw.

Times columnist Jim Murray wrote that Davis that day “played center field as if it owned him.”

Davis approached Sandy Koufax in the Dodgers’ dugout and, according to the account in The Times, told the star pitcher: “I’m sorry. I just lost them in the sun.”

Jane Leavy, in the 2002 book “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy,” described what happened next.

“When the third out was recorded, Davis headed for the end of the bench and so did Koufax. Teammates, misconstruing his purpose, stepped in his path. They should have known better. Koufax draped an arm over Davis’ shoulder and said, ‘Don’t let them get you down.’ ”

During his years with the Dodgers, Davis at times addressed the high expectations placed on him.

“I can’t really explain it. Over the years, I’ve been told over and over that I should be making big money,” he told The Times in 1968. “I would say to myself, ‘This is the year,’ then every time I would go back to my old way of doing things.”

Davis made headlines in 1996 when he was arrested at his parents’ home near Gardena for allegedly threatening to kill them and burn down the house unless they gave him $5,000. Davis was armed with a set of throwing knives and a samurai sword.

“Willie for a period of time was a troubled person,” said Hawkins, whose role with the Dodgers included working with former players. “He’d come to Dodger Stadium in various states of disarray. . . . Eventually he did get his act together and worked his way back to the Dodger fold.”

A complete list of survivors was unavailable.

Times staff writer Dylan Hernandez contributed to this report from Phoenix.