Last week I read three obituaries about Willie Davis, the former Los Angeles Dodgers great center fielder who died March 9 in Burbank, Calif.
Predictably, they focused on his career in L.A. as a young speedster and an integral part of the powerhouse Dodger teams of the early 1960s; those pennant-winning clubs featuring Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Maury Wills, Tommy Davis and the fearless baserunner Willie.
Also mentioned was the fact he later played for Montreal, Texas, St. Louis, San Diego and the Angels, but none of the three articles mentioned his two seasons in Japan. He was here in 1977 with the Chunichi Dragons and 1978 with the Crown Lighter Lions in Fukuoka, and he left behind a few memories.
Those were the days when Central and Pacific League teams were allowed to register only two foreign players each, and there were some well-known and high-profile names hired, including former MLB home run kings, batting champions, All-Stars and World Series players.
The list included Joe Pepitone with the Yakult Atoms; Clete Boyer with the Taiyo Whales; Frank Howard, Matty Alou and Don Buford with the Taiheiyo Club Lions; Jim Lefebvre, George Altman and Leron Lee with the Lotte Orions; and Davey Johnson and “Crazy” Clyde Wright with the Yomiuri Giants.
Davis, then 37, was signed by the Dragons for that ’77 season. Besides the name value, the guy could still hit, run and cover center with wide range, and his most memorable game in the Chunichi uniform occurred one night early in the season against the Shigeo Nagashima-managed Giants at Nagoya Stadium.
Batting with the bases loaded, Davis lofted a fly to deep right, and the Giants outfielder back-peddled until he hit the wall. Davis’ drive hit the fence on the fly and, as the fielder crumpled to the ground, the ball caromed back toward the infield. Davis turned on his jet burners and went tearing around the bases, scoring four on an inside-the-park grand slam homer.
He nearly lapped the runner who had been on first and, by the time the Yomiuri second baseman ran out to retrieve the ball and threw it home, Davis had already crossed the plate and stood in front of the Dragons dugout, fired up and shaking his fist toward Nagashima, as if to say, “Take that, Mr. Giants.”
The Chunichi Sports newspaper the following day devoted its entire front page to the hit, with sequence photos from Davis’ swing to the fist-shaking, and a banner headline read simply, “39 po; 13 byo.” (39 steps; 13 seconds).
Davis was on his way to a spectacular season where he was batting .306 with 25 home runs and 63 RBIs in only 73 games by early July, when he fractured his wrist and had to sit out the remainder of the schedule.
Despite those stats, the Dragons opted not to bring back Davis in 1978, and that decision no doubt had something to do with his conversion to Buddhism and his constant praying and chanting out loud on the team bus.
American teammate Gene Martin said at the time, “The players were really getting irritated, and they complained to the front office.”
However, Davis was given a contract by the Crown Lighter Lions whose owner, Nagayoshi Nakamura, was trying to save the franchise for Fukuoka and thought the acquisition of the flamboyant Willie would help boost ticket sales. Davis ended up playing the full season, hitting .293 with 18 homers and 69 RBIs, but the Lions were still a B-Class team.
Nakamura sold the club to the Seibu Railways, and it was moved to Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, in 1979 and without Willie Davis.
It was in February of ’78, though, when Baseball Magazine asked me to do a preseason interview with Davis during his spring training with Crown Lighter.
A BBM editor, a cameraman and I flew from Tokyo to Nagasaki from where we visited the Lions camp in the Kyushu town of Shimabara.
On the flight, the editor had assured me Davis knew about and had agreed to do the interview and, when we got to the practice field, I greeted Willie and the other Lions foreign player, first baseman Bob Hansen.
I asked Davis when would be a good time to start the interview.
“What interview?” he asked.
“I’m here to interview you and thought you knew about it. We have ¥20,000 for you, and it will only take about 30 minutes,” I said.
“Tell them I’ll do it for ¥50,000,” he responded.
I consulted with the editor who said that was outside the magazine’s budget, and he suggested we interview Hansen instead.
I asked Bob if he would do it for the ¥20,000, and he said, “Sure. I can add it to the ¥30,000 I got yesterday from the TV crew here to interview him.”
Davis had refused that one too, demanding ¥60,000, and Hansen was padding his own bankroll with the dough left on the table by the unpredictable and unforgettable Willie.
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Friends & Fans: The 2010 edition of my Japan Pro Baseball Fan Handbook & Media Guide is now available. It is the complete English-language guide to Japanese baseball and includes league and team directories, team rosters, league schedules, profiles of the foreign manager, coaches and players, statistics from past seasons, directions to the stadiums, ticket prices and much more, packed into 128 pages.
The quickest way to get your copy is to order directly from me. Please send ¥1,000 in cash, Japanese postage stamps or postal check “kawase,” along with your name and address, to: Wayne Graczyk, 1-12-18 Kichijoji Higashi-cho, Musashino-shi, Tokyo-to, 180-0002.
Fans outside Japan can order through the JapanBall.com Web site.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com