Unable or unwilling to manage his personal finances, outfielder Willie Davis left the Cardinals during a pennant drive in an effort to protect his wages from being claimed by his ex-wife.
Though the Cardinals helped Davis reach a settlement that expedited his return to the club, he didn’t endear himself to management by demanding a long-term contract for nearly double his yearly salary.
On Aug. 15, 1975, Davis, the Cardinals’ right fielder, was placed on the club’s disqualified list after informing management he was quitting because of financial problems.
The incident added another twist to a bizarre year in which Davis served a stint in jail, got into a shouting match with a manager, staged a protest during a game and got traded twice.
Trouble in Texas
Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, Davis had been the Dodgers’ center fielder. He appeared in three World Series for them, twice was named an all-star and twice led the National League in triples.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills said of Davis: “He was so talented. God really blessed him with some great tools _ for any sport, really _ speed, strength, agility _ everything an athlete needs in order to make the big time.”
The Dodgers traded Davis to the Expos in December 1973. Twelve months later, he was dealt to the Rangers.
Davis got into trouble before playing a game for Texas.
On Feb. 13, 1975, Davis was released from the Los Angeles County jail after serving two days of a five-day sentence for failure to make child support payments, The Sporting News reported. Davis’ attorney arranged for the release by promising that the Rangers would withhold some of Davis’ salary for alimony and child support payments. Davis agreed to pay about $12,000 in back payments, according to the Associated Press.
Calm before storm
At spring training, Davis told columnist Melvin Durslag he was at peace because he had become a member of Nicherin Shoshu, a Buddhist religious order based on the teachings of a 13th-century Japanese monk. Davis said he spent one to four hours a day chanting. Believers say chanting enables a person to change bad karma and achieve enlightenment, according to Wikipedia.org.
“I consider myself better adjusted than anyone else in this game,” Davis told Durslag. “That’s because nothing can make me unhappy.”
Two months later, on May 7, 1975, Davis and Rangers manager Billy Martin got into a shouting match after Davis interrupted Martin while the manager was berating the team during a locked-door clubhouse meeting.
Three weeks later, Davis staged a protest by petulantly squatting in center field throughout an inning because teammate Steve Hargan didn’t hit a batter with a pitch after a Red Sox pitcher threw at Davis.
Fed up, the Rangers looked to trade Davis.
Cardinals roll dice
The 1975 Cardinals had handed their first base job to rookie Keith Hernandez, but he was overmatched. Cardinals general manager Bing Devine was seeking to make a move to wake up a club that was scuffling at 21-25.
On June 4, 1975, the Cardinals traded shortstop Ed Brinkman and pitcher Tommy Moore to the Rangers for Davis. Hernandez, batting .203, was sent to the minors. The Cardinals switched Reggie Smith from right field to first base and Davis, 35, joined an outfield with Lou Brock in left and Bake McBride in center.
Wrote columnist Dick Young: “The Cards took a good gamble with Willie Davis, only if they can get him to stop spending money faster than he runs.”
Devine and Davis said they believed Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst would be key to making the deal successful.
“We take chances on players other teams might not want because of Red Schoendienst’s philosophy,” Devine said. “All Red looks for is a guy’s ability and how he can fit into our picture. Then, when we get a guy, Red leaves him alone.”
Said Davis of Schoendienst: “He’s a lot like Walter Alston when I was with the Dodgers. Both of them leave you alone and let you enjoy playing this game.”
A left-handed batter, Davis hit .256 in June for the Cardinals, then .382 in July. The Cardinals entered August at 52-52 _ 11 games out of first place.
In early August, Schoendienst was asked why he didn’t fine Davis after the outfielder made a blunder against the Padres. Replied Schoendienst: “How can I? He doesn’t have any money.”
Davis again had fallen behind in alimony and child support payments. His ex-wife indicated she would seek a court order to have the Cardinals withhold his pay and send the money to her.
Davis said he was quitting. The Cardinals placed him on the disqualified list and provided attorneys to help Davis resolve the issue, the Associated Press reported.
“My ex-wife is trying to claim all my wages, which would in effect have me playing for nothing,” Davis said. “I don’t know when I’ll be able to go back (to playing). The only way is if my ex-wife and I sit down and agree there will be no pressure put on me.”
Davis’ yearly salary was $110,000. He was due about $30,000 for the remainder of the season, according to United Press International.
After missing five games, Davis and his ex-wife reached an agreement to split the remaining salary that season. Davis said she would receive $17,000.
“She’s satisfied and I’m satisfied,” Davis said.
The Cardinals were within 4.5 games of the first-place Pirates when Davis left the club. He was hitting .308.
When he returned, Davis told reporters that Buddhism had helped him deal with his financial problem. He delivered a few sample chants; then, a bombshell. “I want a contract for five years and a million dollars,” Davis said. “St. Louis will have the first shot at me, but I won’t care where I go.”
In his first game back from the disqualified list, Davis started in right field, received an ovation from the fans at Busch Stadium and went 4-for-4 with a triple, double and two singles against the Reds’ Gary Nolan. Boxscore
“I felt like I was reborn,” Davis said.
Davis hit .368 in August. His Cardinals batting average entering September was .335. The Cardinals were 20-11 in August and were 72-63 overall, four games out of first place.
Said Reggie Smith of Davis: “He’s the difference between winning and losing.”
In September, Davis swooned and so did the Cardinals. He hit .141 in September. The Cardinals were 10-17 that month and finished at 82-80 _ 10.5 games behind first-place Pittsburgh.
Davis hit .291 with the 1975 Cardinals. He had 102 hits in 98 games, with 50 RBI, 19 doubles and 10 stolen bases. His batting average versus right-handed pitching was .329.
The Cardinals sought to trade him and found little interest until Padres president Buzzie Bavasi, who had been Dodgers general manager when Davis played for Los Angeles, made an offer.
On Oct. 20, 1975, the Cardinals dealt Davis to the Padres for outfielder Dick Sharon.
After his playing career, Davis “had a very difficult time … living life away from the game,” said Tommy Hawkins, a Dodgers executive.
In 1996, Davis was arrested and charged with threatening to kill his parents and burn down their house unless they gave him $5,000, the Los Angeles Times reported. He was armed with a set of throwing knives and a samurai sword.
Said Bavasi: “There was nothing more exciting than to watch Willie run out a triple. He could have been a Hall of Famer, but he had million-dollar legs and a 10-cent head.”
His short, strange stay with the Cardinals largely forgotten, Davis, 69, died on March 9, 2010, in Burbank, Calif.
Previously: Ken Boyer aided Willie Davis’ hitting streak