Tommy Davis, one of the best hitters in the early years after the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, died in his home in Phoenix, Arizona on Sunday night, the team announced Monday. Davis was 83 years old.
When the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn, and nine years before the MLB Draft was instituted, Davis was well sought after as a star catcher at Boys High School in New York, as well as teammates with Lenny Wilkens on the school’s basketball team. Davis explained in a 2019 interview that he was set to sign with the Yankees before getting a call at home from Jackie Robinson, before the latter’s final major league season in 1956.
“My mother wondered who was calling,” Davis recalled. “I pointed to the receiver and mouthed the words, ‘It’s Jackie Robinson!’ I couldn’t believe I was speaking to one of my heroes, although I don’t remember doing much talking.”
Davis signed with the Dodgers for a $4,000 bonus.
He won batting titles in the Midwest League in 1957 (hitting .357/.401/.523 for Kokomo) and in the Pacific Coast League in 1959, the latter as a 20-year-old in Triple-A Spokane, hitting .345/.384/.515 with 18 home runs and 59 extra-base hits. Davis got to the majors at the end of that year, playing one game in the Dodgers’ first year in Los Angeles.
Davis was a major leaguer for good in 1960, and moved around in the outfield and at third base in his first two seasons. In 1962, he moved to left field and became a star in the first year of Dodger Stadium.
Dodger Stadium of the 1960s is well-known as a pitcher’s park, and that was true in its first season with a park factor of 92. But this was also an expansion year with the Mets and
Astros Colt 45s helping add feastable pitchers to the league. The 1962 Dodgers scored 842 runs, a total that has only been surpassed by the Dodgers once since (in 2019, with 886 runs scored).
The Dodgers leading the National League in runs scored the last four seasons has skewed our perspective, but for the bulk of Dodger Stadium history they very rarely finish that relatively high in league scoring. In the first 56 years of the ballpark, the Dodgers finished first or second only five times, and after 1962 it took another dozen years to do so.
The 23-year-old Davis had a breakout season, hitting .346/.374/.535 with 27 home runs. Batting third behind 104-steal league MVP Maury Wills and 93-walk Jim Gilliam, Davis often had runners on base. And he excelled at getting them in. His 153 runs batted in led the majors, a total that wasn’t reached in the majors until 36 years later.
Davis in 1962 set a Dodgers franchise record for RBI. Since moving to Los Angeles, no other Dodger has driven in more than 126 runs. The 230 hits for Davis are the second-most in Dodgers history, behind only Babe Herman’s 241 hits for Brooklyn in 1930. But among Los Angeles Dodgers, Davis has 20 more hits than anyone has ever had in a season.
Davis won the National League batting title that year, just like he did twice in the minors, then in 1963 he did so again, hitting .326/.359/.457. That’s two batting titles for Davis by the time he turned 24. Again, given Dodger Stadium’s pitching-friendly history this is rare. So rare that when Trea Turner, who was traded to the Dodgers last July 30, won the NL batting title in 2021, he was the first Dodgers player to do so since Davis (there was another Dodger who — well, you know the story by now).
In 1962 and 1963, Davis made the All-Star team, playing in two games in 1962, the last of four years in which MLB held two midsummer classics.
In 1965, things took a turn for the worse for Davis, who broke and dislocated his right ankle on a slide into second base on May 1, in just the 16th game of the season.
“I thought there would be a play on me and I tried a new kind of slide,” Davis said. “The next thing I knew, my ankle was out in right field.”
That essentially knocked Davis out for the rest of the season, though he did pinch hit in the final regular season game. Davis did not play in the World Series that year, but his surprise left field replacement, 30-year-old Lou Johnson, hit the championship-winning home run in Game 7.
The ankle injury was a turning point for Davis, whose 129 wRC+ from 1962-65 was 25th-best in the majors. For the rest of his career, which lasted through 1976, Davis was a roughly league-average hitter at .288/.324/.379, a 101 wRC+. His power waned, after hitting 83 home runs in his first five seasons hit only 70 homers over his final 11 years.
Davis only played one more season with the Dodgers, in 1966, when the team made their third World Series in four years. He was traded to the Mets that offseason in a four-player deal.
Moving was the norm for Davis in the rest of his career, traded three more times. He played for nine teams after leaving the Dodgers. His most extended post-LA run was in Baltimore, where he played parts of four seasons, and was helped by the introduction of the designated hitter to the American League in 1973.
“When I was traded to Baltimore, Tommy helped to welcome me to the ball club,” Ken Singleton tweeted on Monday. “Gave me his personal scouting reports on opposing pitchers. Solid teammate and excellent hitter.”
Davis was a part of three Dodgers championship teams (1959, 1963, 1965), and was 8-for-23 (.348) with two home runs in the two World Series in which he played. Davis also made the playoffs in 1971 with the A’s and twice with the Orioles (1973-74).
After his playing days, Davis was briefly a minor league instructor with the Dodgers and was the Mariners hitting coach in 1981 under manager Maury Wills, his former teammate. Davis also worked in the Dodgers community relations department.
Tommy Davis is survived by his wife Carol, children Lauren, Carlyn, Leslie, Herman Thomas III and Morgana Davis, and 17 grandchildren.