SABR

Bill Davis

This article was written by Dan Levitt.

One of the top two-sport athletes to come out of the Twin Cities, Bill Davis starred at the University of Minnesota in both baseball and basketball in the early 1960s. After graduation Davis began his professional baseball career by signing with the Cleveland Indians.   Davis played parts of three seasons in the majors but could never quite establish himself as a regular. In each of his two best opportunities Davis suffered some bad luck: a season-ending injury in the first instance and a slow start and impatient manager in the second. After seven years of professional baseball, Davis settled back home in Richfield, Minnesota, and built a successful career as a commercial real estate finance executive.

Arthur Willard “Bill” Davis, Jr. was born on June 6, 1942, in Graceville, Minnesota, to Art and Elaine Davis. The Davises lived in Minneapolis where Art worked in the paint business and Elaine was a registered nurse. While expecting Bill, her first child, Elaine traveled to Graceville to be closer to her family. Four years later Bill’s only sibling, sister Dee, was born. In 1951 the Davises moved to Richfield, Minnesota, where Bill spent his adolescent years and grew to 6’6’, 215 pounds.[1] Davis blossomed into one of the city’s top athletes, starring in both basketball and baseball.

During his senior prep season, in the spring of 1960, Davis led Richfield High School to the eight-team single-class Minnesota state basketball tournament. Undefeated Edgerton, from a tiny town with a population of 960 located in southwestern Minnesota, was the darling of the tournament. In the semifinal game Richfield faced Edgerton in front of 18,812 fans at Williams Arena in Minneapolis, the largest crowd ever to watch a semifinal game up to that time.[2] Davis led Richfield with 26 points, but it was not enough; Edgerton triumphed 63-60 in overtime. The next day Richfield prevailed in the third-place game against Granite Falls behind Davis’s 40 points. Edgerton won the championship game against Austin in one of Minnesota’s most memorable state tournaments.

His prep career over, Davis accepted a basketball scholarship from coach John Kundla to his hometown University of Minnesota. His scholarship allowed him to also play baseball for coach Dick Siebert, and in 1963 Davis was the Gophers’ only two-sport letterman.[3] His work ethic combined with his natural ability allowed Davis to excel at both sports. In basketball Davis played only sparingly as a junior, but as a senior he became one of the team’s stars. The basketball team finished third in the Big Ten in 1964, and Davis was named the Gophers’ Most Valuable Player. He finished third on the team (and 26th in the Big Ten) in scoring with 12.5 points per game and second in rebounding. 

Kundla showed a surprising racial enlightenment for the era: the Gophers were not only at the forefront of enrolling African American players, but Kundla actively worked to integrate the team. During his senior season Davis roomed with sophomore African American Archie Clark, who went on to star in the National Basketball Association.[4]

Unlike basketball, Davis moved into the starting baseball lineup almost immediately. He started at first base as a sophomore in 1962, although he hit only .264 with one home run. In 1963 Davis showed limited improvement, hitting .246 with two home runs. Siebert chose to stick with his big first baseman for 1964, possibly because during his summers Davis excelled in the competitive Basin League in South Dakota. Siebert looked prescient in 1964 as Davis exploded, leading the team with a .350 batting average and six home runs; no one else had more than three. In Big Ten play Davis finished fourth with a batting average of .377. Davis’s monster season propelled the Gophers to the Big Ten title as they edged Michigan by one game. 

Minnesota’s 1964 season earned them a trip to College World Series, where pitcher Joe Pollack led the team to the championship with three complete-game victories. Davis played a key role and joined four of his teammates on the All-Tournament team. For his final year at Minnesota, Davis was awarded the Big Ten Medal of Honor, a prestigious award recognizing a player in the graduating class of each school for achievement in both scholarship and athletics. Davis earned a bachelor’s degree in Education.

Davis graduated in 1964, one year before the introduction of the amateur draft. Prior to the draft amateur players were free agents, and some received what were then considered huge signing bonuses. The signing of two-sport star Rick Reichardt from the University of Wisconsin by the Los Angeles Angels for $205,000 finally convinced the magnates they needed a draft to rein in bonuses.[5] On the heels of his stellar College World Series, Davis was a free agent in search of his best opportunity.

During Davis’s senior season, Billy Martin, then a Minnesota Twins scout, followed him closely. Davis also recalls being scouted by the New York Yankees, Kansas City Athletics, Los Angeles Angels, and Cleveland Indians. Yankee scout Tom Greenwade recommended Davis to that club, but he never received an offer. All other things being equal, Davis hoped to play for his hometown Twins.   He eagerly accepted an invitation from assistant farm director George Brophy to meet with the Twins front-office staff regarding a possible contract.[6] 

At the meeting in the Metropolitan Stadium offices, Davis appeared alone—this was well before player agents. The Twins sat Davis at one end of a table; Sherry Robertson, the club’s farm director and the brother of majority-owner Calvin Griffith, sat at the other. Robertson was joined by Brophy and scouts Billy Martin and Angelo Giuliani. The Twins wanted Davis but insisted that he start his professional career in a rookie league, the lowest of the minor leagues. Davis, who had just turned 22 that summer, showed a remarkable understanding of the time frame within which a prospect has to prove himself (players generally begin to lose their prospect status in their mid-20s) and insisted that he start at Class AA, just two levels below the majors. Robertson balked, told Davis “good luck,” and left the room. Davis remembers the other three simply looking at him and shaking their heads.[7]

Davis turned to the other teams that had scouted him seriously. The Angels backed off once they signed Reichardt. When Cleveland scout Walter Shannon called to say he was in Minneapolis, Davis met with him, accompanied by both his father and high-school coach. Shannon agreed to start Davis in Class AA and allow him to play every day. With his conditions accepted, Davis signed for a $12,000 bonus, a decent but not large bonus for the era.

The Indians kept to their word and sent Davis to Charleston in the Eastern League. Davis liked playing for manager Bob Nieman and, despite jumping straight from college to the high minors, played extremely well in his first partial professional season. In 271 at-bats he solidified his prospect status by hitting .292 with nine home runs. Had he qualified for the batting title, he would have finished sixth, and the league leader in home runs smacked only 15.

The Indians at this time were a financially struggling franchise with a brilliant general manager in Gabe Paul. Limited by budget constraints, Paul nevertheless maneuvered his talent in an attempt to return the Indians to contention. In 1964 two left-handed-hitting first basemen, Bob Chance and Fred Whitfield, split time at the position. After the season Paul swapped Chance and utility player Woodie Held to Washington for outfielder Chuck Hinton. Whitfield was still only 26 years old and, although he had not yet started for a full season, appeared the heir-apparent at first base. Over the winter, however, Cleveland manager Birdie Tebbetts touted Davis: “Don’t forget about Davis. He may be ready. Our scouting reports on him are awfully good.”[8] Tebbetts may have been simply trying to keep a fire under Whitfield, but, in any case, it was clear Davis was considered a key prospect.

In 1965 the Indians invited Davis to their major-league spring training in Tucson, Arizona. Davis had a great spring, but not surprisingly, with just a half-season of professional baseball under his belt, he could not unseat Whitfield. Tebbetts extolled Davis’s abilities publicly, but the Indians’ scouting reports suggested he might not yet be ready, and that Davis “needed to quicken his swing, to pull better, and learn to handle the high and tight pitch.” [9]

The Indians farmed Davis out to the Portland Beavers in the Class AAA Pacific Coast League, one step below the majors. Davis became an instant hit in Portland and after the season was named the team’s most popular player. Nicknamed the “Jolly Green Giant” (a reference to the large green mascot for the Minnesota-based Green Giant food company) because he now stood 6’-6½” and weighed upwards of 215 pounds, Davis lived up to his prospect status. His .311 batting average brought him in eighth in the batting race, and he finished fifth in home runs with 33. Davis shared the league’s Rookie of the Year honor with Lee May.

In September, when the rosters expanded, the Indians promoted Davis to the majors. He appeared in his first game on September 16, 1965. Two days later, pinch-hitting against Eddie Fisher of the Chicago White Sox, Davis banged out his first major-league hit. Davis did not start any games—in his 10 pinch-hitting appearances he rapped three hits. For additional seasoning over the winter the Indians sent Davis to the Puerto Rican League.

In 1965 Fred Whitfield turned in the finest season of his career, effectively blocking a promotion for Davis. Nevertheless, the Indians expected Davis to eventually win the position, partly because they were dissatisfied with Whitfield’s defense. Despite missing a significant portion of spring training with tonsillitis, Davis was promoted to the major-league club in 1966, and started on April 15.   But over the next several weeks he played only sparingly—seven more at-bats and no hits—and in mid-May the Indians farmed him back to Portland where he could play every day.

Upon Davis’s return to Portland general manager Jerry Krause—later to gain fame and success as the general manager of the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls—hosted a “Welcome Home Jolly Green Giant” extravaganza. Despite lousy weather the game drew 2,707 fans, a big crowd given the weather. To celebrate the occasion the Beavers gave away 50 cases of Green Giant Products, 500 rag dolls, and 1,000 records of the company song.[10]

At Portland Davis had another fine year, although not quite up to the standard he had set the previous season. In September the Indians again recalled Davis to the big club. On Friday night, September 9th in Cleveland, the Indians and Angels remained tied at 6-6 at the end of nine innings. The Angels scored a run in the top of the 10th to take a 7-6 lead. With two out and one on in the bottom of the inning, Davis was called on to pinch-hit against Jack Sanford. In front of what was left of the 5,693 fans, Davis hit a game-winning home run—his first and only homer in the major leagues. As Davis recalled, “I was just trying to get a hit, and the ball carried to right-center for a home run.”

Over the last two weeks of the season Davis started six games, testifying to Cleveland’s interest in his development. Whitfield had struggled though an injury-filled season, and the Indians now looked to Davis to win the first-base job for 1967. Davis had filled out to 230 pounds, and that winter Hank Peters, Cleveland’s director of player personnel, labeled him “a fine prospect.”[11] In early January Paul called to tell him that he would be the starting first baseman.[12]

Unfortunately, while playing a pick-up basketball game on January 21, 1967, Davis severed his Achilles tendon.  This ill-fated incident wrecked Davis’s best shot to earn a starting position in the major leagues. The season-long rehabilitation forced the Indians to reevaluate their first-base options, and furthermore, the long-term effects of the injury, compounded by missing a full season of play, stunted Davis’s development. In June the team traded hurler Gary Bell to the Boston Red Sox for 22-year-old first-baseman Tony Horton. Viewed as a long-term solution, the Horton acquisition testified to the Indians’ concern over Davis’s eventual return to his pre-injury form.

After missing the entire season, in October Davis was still struggling to regain his pre-injury skills. “I can run about half speed without a limp . . . my lateral movement is good for two or three steps either way. . . . I don’t have real good leverage off my left leg when I’m batting,” Davis reported, “but I’m coming along.”[13] To test Davis’s recovery and help him regain his timing, Cleveland sent him to the Dominican Republic to play winter ball. There was even some discussion of experimenting with Davis in the outfield now that Horton appeared entrenched at first. After a hot start Davis struggled, and in January his Dominican team sent him home. Not surprisingly, given the decrease in mobility from the Achilles injury, nothing ever came of the outfield talk.

Now 25 and recovering from a serious injury, Davis had fallen from the forefront of Cleveland’s plans. It was not surprising when the club assigned Davis to Portland in the early days of 1968 spring training. Back in the minors Davis could not recapture his previous success: he hit only .265 and, more importantly, slugged just 12 home runs (although he did smack two grand slams). In late June when Horton went down with a knee injury there was some speculation that Davis might be recalled. In fact, Davis was called up for emergency back-up duty on June 29 but was never formally placed on the roster and quickly returned to Portland. Cleveland’s failure to bring Davis up in September testifies to how far he had fallen on the team’s depth chart.

The major leagues expanded for the 1969 session, adding four new teams. One of the new franchises, the San Diego Padres, targeted Davis; to secure him they sent shortstop Zoilo Versalles, whom they had acquired in the expansion draft, to Cleveland. Padres president Buzzie Bavasi discussed the team’s perspective on Davis: “We’re looking for Davis to make a comeback with us. He’s only 26 years old, and our scouts tell us that he came on strong the last of the ‘68 PCL season with Portland.”[14] Manager Preston Gomez planned to platoon the left-handed-hitting Davis with Nate Colbert, a right-handed-hitting first baseman who had also spent the majority of 1968 in the minors. As the left-handed half of the platoon, Davis seemingly had another opportunity for a significant role on a major-league roster.

Davis was hot during spring training and appeared to solidify his half of the platoon. To start the season the Padres faced a disproportionate number of right-handers; accordingly, Davis started 11 games in the first two weeks, Colbert only three. Davis started slowly, however—batting .229 with no home runs and only one extra base hit—and Gomez showed little patience with his big slugger. On April 23 Gomez abandoned his platoon and inserted Colbert into the lineup against a right-hander. For a two-game series at the Astrodome on the fast turf, Gomez also claimed he wanted the quicker Colbert to play first base.[15] In the second of the two games Colbert had two hits, including a home run, and three runs batted in. Gomez stayed with Colbert as his starter, and over the next week he smacked another four home runs and drove in nine. 

Colbert’s hot bat relegated Davis to little more than a pinch-hitting role.   Now that he was no longer in the mix at first base, on May 22 the Padres traded Davis (along with Jerry DaVanon) to the St. Louis Cardinals for young second-baseman John Sipin and catcher Sonny Ruberto. The Cardinals farmed Davis to Tulsa, their Class AAA club in the American Association, where Davis played for manager Warren Spahn, the former star pitcher, and worked with Hall of Fame outfielder Joe Medwick as his batting instructor. Davis liked Spahn personally, but Spahn was not a particularly skilled manager. 

Davis remembered one doubleheader in particular. In the first game with bases loaded, fewer than two out, and a right-handed pitcher on the mound, Spahn pinch-hit for Davis. This was a curious decision given that Davis was one of his better hitters, and he had the platoon advantage. A similar situation occurred in the second game, and Spahn pinch-hit for him again. A frustrated and angry Davis confronted Spahn, and the two got into a shouting match.[16] 

Spahn and the Cardinals unloaded Davis shortly after the confrontation. They shipped Davis (along with pitcher Mel Nelson) to Denver, the Minnesota Twins affiliate in the American Association, for hurler Bill Whitby. Davis hit well after his move to Denver, and he finished the 1969 American Association season with a batting average of .290 and 13 home runs in 300 at bats. Despite his respectable season, Davis realized that at 27 he was not in the plans of any organization. Accordingly, at the end of the season he told manager Don Heffner that he intended to retire and followed up with a more formal letter. Overall, in his major-league career Davis made 121 plate appearances—all but one against right-handed pitchers—and hit .181 with one home run.

After the season outfielder Andy Kosco was offered the opportunity to play in Japan. He proposed Davis accompany him. For a two-year obligation, Davis was offered a salary of $25,000 per year. His first son, Drew, however, was born in 1969, and with a young family Davis elected to remain stateside and begin his post-baseball career.[17] 

Davis moved home to Richfield, where he joined Eberhardt Company, a real estate firm in Minneapolis, as a consultant. In 1971 when an assistant coaching position opened on the Minnesota Gophers baseball staff, coach Dick Siebert offered the position to Davis. Now in his late 20s, however, and earning an acceptable living at Eberhardt, Davis decided to concentrate on his real estate career and declined the offer.[18] Shortly thereafter, in 1973, Davis’s second son, Ryan, was born. Davis eventually gravitated to commercial real estate finance, where he carved out a well-respected career. Davis recently retired from Associated Bank where he last worked as Vice President/District Manager for the Commercial Real Estate Division.

Note

A version of this biography appeared in the book Minnesotans in Baseball, edited by Stew Thornley (Nodin, 2009).

Sources

Many of the stories and background came from several conversations with Davis, the most comprehensive of which occurred on October 30, 2007. Davis also generously responded to my follow-up questions. Davis’s recollections of specific events and statistics proved quite accurate when compared to the objective record. The Sporting News, available at http://www.paperofrecord.com, was extremely useful for following Davis’s professional baseball career. For the statistics and game records I principally used two indispensable websites: http://www.retrosheet.org and http://www.baseball-reference.com.  There are a number of excellent baseball encyclopedias; I relied mainly on The ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia edited by Gary Gillette and Pete Palmer. Additional information was available in Davis’s file at the A. Bartlett Giamatti Research Center at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

The University of Minnesota athletic department provided information on his years at the school. They maintain a clipping file that contains a couple of newspaper articles. Furthermore, they made available the basketball media publications for the 1962-63 and 1963-64 seasons and the baseball media publications for 1962, 1963, and 1964. Information on the 1960 Minnesota state basketball tournament principally came from the Minneapolis Tribune.


Photo Credit

The Topps Company






[1]  E-mail correspondence with Davis, January 22, 2008.


[2] Minneapolis Tribune, March 26, 1960.


[3] Minneapolis Star, January 24, 1963.


[4] Interview with Davis, October 30, 2007.


[5] W.C. Madden, Baseballs First-Year Player Draft: Team by Team through 1999, Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2001.


[6] Interview with Davis, October 30, 2007.


[7] Interview with Davis, October 30, 2007.


[8] The Sporting News, January 9, 1965.


[9] The Sporting News, April 3, 1965.


[10] The Sporting News, May 28, 1966.


[11] The Sporting News, January 14, 1967.


[12] Interview with Davis, October 30, 2007.


[13] The Sporting News, October 7, 1967.


[14] The Sporting News, November 9, 1968.


[15] The Sporting News, May 17, 1969.


[16] Interview with Davis, October 30, 2007.


[17] Interview with Davis, October 30, 2007.


[18] E-mail correspondence with Davis, January 22, 2008.
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