Like most kids of my generation, I grew up playing street baseball (and I still have the scars on my knees and elbows to prove it). And because I was born and raised in southern California, my brother and I pretended that we were Dodgers. Having the first name of Ron, I was Ron Fairly and my brother Tom was, of course, two time (consecutive) NL Batting Champ and all-time Dodger RBI leader Tommy Davis. And though I never fared all that well as a baseball player growing up, my brother Tom made it to the community college level and probably could have gone farther had he not opted to play college football instead.
Although my brother was always a pretty good hitter, he was of course nothing like the real Tommy Davis who, just like Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and the rest of the newly arrived Dodgers from Brooklyn, we were blessed to have actually watched him play at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum and at brand new Dodger Stadium – including game-3 of the 1963 World Series (more on that later).
Herman Thomas Davis Jr. was born on March 21, 1939 in Brooklyn, New York where he attended Boys High School. Davis was a very talented athlete playing on both the school’s basketball and baseball teams. In fact, one of Tommy’s basketball teammates was Lenny Wilkens, who is one of only three people in NBA history to be be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player (in 1989) and as a coach (in 1998).
In 1956, Davis was courted by the New York Yankees and offered a contract, but after receiving a convincing phone call from Jackie Robinson, Davis signed with his home town Brooklyn Dodgers instead. During his minor league career, Davis won batting titles in both the Midwest League and the Pacific Coast League and was considered one of the Dodgers best prospects.
Davis made his major league debut with the (now) Los Angeles Dodgers on September 22, 1959 as a pinch hitter but was not included on the World Series roster. During his rookie season in 1960, Davis batted .276 and followed that up by hitting .278 in 1961.
In 1962, Davis had his first breakout season when he batted .346 to edge out Frank Robinson for the National League batting title. That season he also had career highs in home runs (27) runs scored (120) and triples (9). He also set the all-time Dodgers RBI record with 153 – a record which still stands today. Unfortunately, the Dodgers finished the regular season tied for first place with the Giants and lost a three-game playoff series to their hated rivals. Ironically and in spite of winning the NL batting title, Davis finished third in the MVP balloting, with teammate Maury Wills winning the prestigious title and Willie Mays finishing second. While it has been generally accepted that Wills won the MVP title because of his (then) MLB record-setting 104 stolen bases, it was (and still is) somewhat unusual for the player with the best batting average not to win the MVP award. And though you will never hear Tommy complain that he didn’t win the title, it is hard to imagine that it didn’t bother him.
Lo and behold, Davis followed up his 1962 NL batting title with a second consecutive NL batting title in 1963 with his .326 batting average, edging out the great Roberto Clemente by 6 points. This time Davis finished eighth in the MVP voting and with a little better reason. The 1963 NL MVP title went to yet another of Davis’ teammates, this time to Sandy Koufax with his 25-5 record and incredible 1.88 ERA. (In the words of Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra: “I can see how (Sandy Koufax) won twenty-five games. What I don’t understand is how he lost five.”). To date, Davis’ back-to-back batting titles are the only two in L.A. Dodgers history and only two right-handed hitters have won multiple National League batting titles since: Bill Madlock with four, and Roberto Clemente with three. Davis’ feat is all the more remarkable when you consider that he played his home games at Dodger Stadium which, as we all know, is a notorious pitcher’s ballpark.
During the 1963 World Series, Davis hit .400 including two triples in game 2. He also drove in the only run in game-3 with his first-inning single off Jim Bouton driving in Jim Gilliam to give right-hander Don Drysdale the 1-0 win. “That was the greatest World Series game ever played,” Davis told me during spring training in 2010. The Dodgers, of course, went on to sweep the Yankees in four games and I was blessed to have been at that historic game-3 – the first ever World Series win at Dodger Stadium. (Thanks, Dad).
During the 1964 season, Davis’ average dropped to .275 and the Dodgers finished the season out of contention – this in spite of very lofty expectations because of their incredible pitching staff led by Koufax and Drysdale. And though the Dodgers returned to and won the World Series in 1965 over the Minnesota Twins, that year would be the turning point in Tommy Davis’ career – one that he would never fully recover from.
The date was May 1, 1965 and the Dodgers were hosting the hated Giants. Davis led off the bottom of the 4th inning with an infield single off of Gaylord Perry. The next batter, Ron Fairly (go figure) grounded to first base and Davis slid into second base in an attempt to break up the double play. Davis caught a spike and ended up breaking and severely dislocating his ankle, an injury that ended his season. And though Davis rebounded in 1966 batting .313, he hit only three home runs and had only 27 RBIs in 313 at bats. The injury had cost Davis one of his five tools – his speed. Prior to his career-changing injury, Davis had been considered “only a step slower than Maury Wills.”
The Dodgers were swept in the 1966 World Series by the Baltimore Orioles in which Davis started only two of the four games and batted .250. After the World Series, Davis was traded to the New York Mets in what would be the first of ten trades in ten years – a new and dubious MLB record.
Tommy retired after being released by the Kansas City Royals on January 17, 1977, having played for ten different teams in eighteen seasons (he played for the Cubs and Athletics twice). After his retirement from baseball as a player, he returned to the game as coach for the Seattle Mariners for the 1981 season after which and left the game for good. In 2005, Davis published a book entitled Tales From the Dodgers Dugout in which he details his career.
After his retirement Tommy became an instructor at the Dodgers Adult Baseball (fantasy) Camps in Vero Beach, Florida where he was very popular with the campers. He was also invited back into the Dodger family by former owner Frank McCourt (one of the very few things that McCourt did right) and is an assistant hitting instructor at Camelback Ranch each spring. Davis is extremely popular with the current Dodgers players, especially the minor leaguers. Tommy is also a huge fan favorite and is a member of the popular J.D. Legends Promotions staff with many other former Dodgers and other professional athletes who are available for guest appearances, fund raisers, autograph signings and motivational speaking engagements.
With Sandy Koufax, Eric Karros, Shawn Green, Tommy Davis and several other former Dodger greats on hand at spring training to offer one-on-one tutoring for many of the young Dodgers in spring training camp, perhaps the franchise is finally getting back to the long lost “Dodger Way” – something that Tommy Davis knows a great deal about and is willing to share with those willing to listen.