SABR

Otis Davis

This article was written by Jim Sargent.

Otis Allen Davis, a slim six-footer who could run well when he came to the big leagues in 1946, only got one chance to show his stuff. On April 22, 1946, with the Brooklyn Dodgers trailing the Boston Braves in the bottom of the ninth inning, 4-2, acting manager Chuck Dressen used Davis as a pinch-runner.

With starter James "Lefty" Wallace still on the mound, Dressen called on sparkplug infielder Eddie Stanky, a right-handed hitter, to bat for Dodger pitcher Hank Behrman. Behrman had relieved starter Ralph Branca, a right-hander who went 21-12 for the Dodgers in 1947.

Stanky promptly drew a base on balls. Since Otis Davis could run faster than Stanky, Dressen made the switch.

The Dodger manager then used another reserve, Bob Ramazzotti, a right-handed batting infielder, to pinch-hit for Dick Whitman, a southpaw swinger who filled the leadoff spot that afternoon. Ramazzotti walked, moving Davis to second.

With runners on first and second, Billy Herman, tried twice to bunt, but the ball rolled foul both times. On each Herman attempt, Davis got a good lead, took off with the bunt, and slid into third base. Despite wearing a knee wrap, Otis wrenched his knee on the second slide--aggravating an injury he first suffered while running track in high school.

With two strikes, Herman popped up for the first out. Pete Reiser, an all-star outfielder who was playing third base, clouted a long double into left center field. Davis and Ramazzotti both came home, knotting the score at 4-all.

Summoned from the bullpen, Boston reliever Don Hendrickson stopped the rally, retiring veteran right fielder Dixie Walker and center fielder Carl Furrillo, an outstanding rookie in 1946.

When the Braves failed to score in the top of the tenth, the Dodgers rallied to win, thrilling almost 25,000 fans that crowded into Ebbets Field. But Brooklyn started slowly, as Hendrickson retired the first two batters, first baseman Ed Stevens and catcher Ferrell Anderson.

Batting third, shortstop Pee Wee Reese picked up his only single of the day. Goody Rosen, who played center field in place of Carl Furillo, followed suit with another base hit. Herman, who couldn't do the job in the ninth, ripped a single to drive in Reese with the winning run.

The Dodgers won, 5-4, newspaper stories featured Herman as the hero, and Davis got into the Baseball Encyclopedia.

But the fleet flychaser had reinjured his knee. Overnight the knee stiffened, and he did not get to play the remainder of the Boston series. He sat out the rest of the road trip as the Dodgers played the Philadelphia Phillies at Shibe Park and the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds.

The next day manager Leo Durocher, who had been away from the ballpark because of a court case the previous afternoon, called Otis into his office and asked if he could run.

"I told him, 'No, I can't,'" Davis said in a 2002 interview.

Davis knew what it meant. Brooklyn sent him back to Montreal to rehab the knee.

"The Dodgers had some good players at Montreal that year," Otis recalled. "They had Jackie Robinson, who was a year away from the big leagues. He was the 'big news' at Montreal. They also had Chuck Connors, who later played 'The Rifleman' on TV.

"I played a couple of games, but I hurt my knee again. They sent me to Fort Worth, Texas, I suppose figuring that the warm weather would help. But it didn't."

At Fort Worth Otis played briefly, picked up one hit, and again hurt his knee. Giving up on baseball in July, he went home to Rochester, New York. He had no way of knowing that he would never get another shot at the big leagues.

Born on September 24, 1920, on the family's farm near Charleston, Arkansas, Otis was the third of five children of Cleveland and Emma Davis. His siblings were Hazel, the oldest, Zelta Mae, himself, Richard, and Beatrice, the youngest. Their mother died in 1929, and two years later Cleve was remarried to Onnie Haney, who had migrated to Arkansas from her family's home in Canton, North Carolina. The couple had one son, Stanley.

Otis came of age during the Great Depression when times were tough, especially in the rural South. His father supported the family by doing farm work in the summer and by working as a coal miner, when jobs were available. Otis did his share of chores on the farm and played sandlot sports, especially baseball. In 1935 the family moved to nearby Charleston, a town of maybe 1,000. Otis went to school in Charleston, learning his lessons in class and playing sports, notably football and track.

Charleston High fielded a baseball team in his senior year. "We had a team for one year," Otis remembered in 2007. "We didn't even have uniforms. We played about a dozen games. We had three schools around us, and we played each other four times. I also played a couple of seasons of semipro ball.

"They had a good semipro league around Charleston, and they had some notable players at one time. Preacher Roe, who later pitched for the Dodgers, was a little before me, but Preacher pitched in that league one year. Ike Pearson played a year or so, and he later pitched several seasons for the Phillies.

"We didn't go to school that much when I was a kid. I graduated in 1941, but I took an extra year to do it, so I was 20 when I got out of high school.

"In the summer of '41 I went up to Kansas and played outfield in the Ban Johnson League. I played for Marysville, and we played teams from Manhattan, Junction City, Beloit, Concordia, and Fairbury, Nebraska. It was a well-organized league for kids that were no older than 20.

"My manager was Clarence Mitchell. Clarence used to be a spitball pitcher in the major leagues. I played all of 1941. I didn't have time to work, because we played an 80-game schedule, starting in late May.

"A few scouts came and saw us play, and that's how I got a chance. I signed with the Cardinals at the end of the season."

In 1942 St. Louis moved the left-handed batter around to three different minor league teams: "The Cardinals sent me to New Iberia, Louisiana, in the class D Evangeline League, but the league broke up in '42. That's when World War II was starting to go strong.

"Then they sent me to Williamson, West Virginia, in the class C Mountain State League. They only had six teams in that league, and I mean we were up in the mountains!

"I met Del Rice in Williamson. He was the catcher there, and we got to be friends. A couple of years later I played with Del in Rochester, New York, of the International League. Del went on to play a lot of big league ball with the Cardinals and the Braves.

"They had too many players at Williamson, so they sent me to Hamilton, Ontario, of the PONY (an acronym for Pennsylvania, Ontario, and New York) League. I played about a month before I got drafted for the service."

Davis got off to a good professional start in Hamilton, hitting .281 in 26 games. But on August 8, 1942, he volunteered for the Navy. He was sent to San Diego to train, but his knee would swell up doing exercises. He was discharged in November.

In 1943 the Cardinals sent Davis to Jamestown, and he hit .328. In fact, he led the PONY League in several categories, including at-bats with 475, runs scored with 116, and stolen bases with 32. He also connected for three home runs and collected 38 RBI.

The following year the slender outfielder moved up to Rochester where he averaged .241 in 118 games. Never a home run hitter, Otis slugged four round-trippers while driving in 41 runs and stealing 21 bases.

In 1945, the last year of the war, Otis hit only .195 in 52 games for Rochester. Partly as a result, the Cardinals sent him to Allentown of the class B Interstate League to convert him to shortstop. But with all the throwing required of an infielder, his arm got sore. After asking the manager to switch him back to the outfield, Otis caught fire at the plate and averaged .350 with two homers and 27 RBI.

His performance won him a shot in spring training with St. Louis in 1946. At that time the Cardinals trained in St. Petersburg at Al Lang Field.

"Going north on the train, we rode on the Cardinals' Pullman," Otis recollected about that spring. "We stopped at a lot of cities and played exhibitions. I remember playing in one game against the Yankees.

"After leaving St. Pete, we played in Pensacola, in Mobile, Alabama, in New Orleans, in Houston, Dallas, and Fort Worth, and then Oklahoma City. We played at Tulsa, at Kansas City, and finally we played in St. Louis. We played a two-game series on Saturday and Sunday, before the season opened, with the Browns."

"The season opened with the Cardinals at home in Sportsman's Park against Pittsburgh. At that time I was sold, along with George Dockens, to Brooklyn. I had only gotten into a few games, so I figure when they sold me to the Dodgers for the waiver price of $7,500, the Cardinals thought they got their money's worth out of me."

Within a few days, Davis was used as a pinch runner. But the story of his 1946 season was that he injured and reinjured his knee. When he returned to Rochester, Otis found a job working for Bausch and Lomb. He worked in records and production control.

Also, he met his future wife Ann, who was born in Rochester. She had worked for Bausch and Lomb for several years. Otis and Ann got married on August 31, 1946. The couple has one son, Otis, Jr., and they celebrated their 60th anniversary in 2006.

"When early 1947 rolled around," Otis said, "I got the 'baseball bug' again. I contacted the Dodgers, and they agreed to send me to Greenville, South Carolina, in the Sally League. I played a few games there, and they moved me to Nashua, New Hampshire, of the New England League, where they needed an outfielder."

Otis produced a good season for Nashua. Playing the outfield and wrapping his weak knee (as he had since high school), he hit .302 in 115 games with two homers and 72 RBI. He also made a number of new friends, including Bob Milliken, a 6'1" right-hander who later pitched two good seasons for Brooklyn.

"Otis came to Nashua in 1947, and he could really run," Milliken recalled. "I remember him scoring from third on a pop foul hit close to third base. He was a good hitter and a good fielder."

In 1948 Davis played at Pueblo in the Western League for half the season, hitting .274. Sent to Abilene of the West Texas-New Mexico League as a player-manager, he batted .344 in what turned out to be his final professional fling with the game he loved.

"After the 1948 season, I decided I needed to settle down and get a job. I had a request to be a player/manager from Waterbury of the Colonial League. But my son Otis, Junior, was born in March 1949, so I turned them down. I worked for a Buick dealership for a few months. Then I went to Rochester Institute of Technology and learned to be a machinist. In early 1950 I went to work for Pfaudler, now the Sybron Corporation. I worked for them as a machinist. In 1969 I went to work for Eastman Kodak, and I stayed there until I retired in 1983."

However, starting in 1949, the retired outfielder played five seasons of semipro ball for a league in Newark, New York. After that, he concentrated on his family and his job.

While he lived the baseball dream of playing in the major leagues only for part of one season, Otis did enjoy several good minor league seasons--hitting over .300 with four different ball clubs. A personable and down-to-earth fellow, he is too quick to discount his major league achievement. But except for the knee injury and the timing of his opportunities, his career could have turned out differently.

As a young athlete growing up in Arkansas, Davis signed with the Cardinals because they were the team in his region. The Redbirds just happened to sell him to Brooklyn. But the irony of his "cup of coffee" in the National League is that St. Louis and Brooklyn had two of the strongest farm systems in baseball. As a result, the lineups of the Cardinals and the Dodgers were probably as tough to crack as those of any team in the big leagues.

More than sixty years later, Otis Davis still dreamed about playing major league baseball. Reflecting on his dream in 2002, he laughed and said, "But I always wake up before I get up to bat, I know it sounds silly, but I dream about it.

"What baseball did for me was give me something to talk about. It gave me another identity. 'Moonlight' Graham played the field, but he never got to bat. I'd like to have batted. But I could have gone 1-for-1, or I could have struck out, like Walter Alston did.

"Think about this," Otis added. "What if Eddie Stanky had struck out? If he doesn't get on base, what happens to my shot at the big leagues?"


Sources

This essay about Otis Davis' baseball career is based on statistics from the Baseball Encyclopedia (Macmillan, 8th edition, 1990); minor league stats from complete statistical profile furnished by Pat Doyle, creator of the Professional Baseball Player Database (version 6); clippings from the Davis file in the Baseball Hall of Fame's Library; interviews with Davis in February and March 2002, July 2004, January 2007, and March 2007.

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