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Mad Met

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Mad Met

Tommy Davis's picture
Tommy Davis
Tommy Davis played Major League Baseball from 1959 to 1976, finishing his career with a .294 batting average and over 2100 hits, as well as a three-time All-Star and two-time National League batting champion.

Mad Met

The phone rang in my kitchen.

“We’re trading you to the New York Mets,” Buzzie Bavasi said on the other end of the line, November 29,1966. My first feeling was shock. I was no longer a Los Angeles Dodgers, the only team I’d ever played in the big leagues, where I won the National League batting title two years in a row. I probably wasn’t going to the World Series again for a few years or even competing for a spot in the post-season. Definitely wouldn’t be appearing on TV shows since most of them were filmed in Hollywood, like this one:

This clip is the TV version of a Joey Bishop Las Vegas act I was a part of with Drysdale, Willie Davis, Frank Howard, Moose Skowron and Ron Perranoski at the Sands Hotel after we won the World Series in 1963. We played twice a night for ten days during the Christmas & New Years’ holiday. It was fun, paid well, but that was three years earlier. I was going to be a New York Met now, hopefully for the rest of my career. If there was any silver lining about the trade, it was this:

I was going home.

* * * * * * * * *

I was born and raised in Brooklyn. Still had most of my family there. The wonderful Dodger fans were great to me, the organization, Vin Scully and the O’Malley family treated me like gold, but I really understood why the Dodgers made the trade. I busted my ankle in May of 1965 sliding into second base against the Giants. The doctors told me it wouldn’t heal completely for at least another two seasons. Only played a handful of games in 1966. Still wasn’t ready. I felt I would be good to go in ’67, and after I returned with the team from our goodwill trip to play in Japan, I got the news I was sent to the Mets. I felt bad in the sense that I loved my teammates, Drysdale, Maury Wills, Sandy Koufax, Johnny Roseboro behind the plate. But I had a lot waiting for me on the east coast. My mother’s home cooking back in Brooklyn, my friends in Queens, and something else very special away from Baseball: the music.

Sure there were jazz clubs all over L.A. and the rest of the country, but there’s no place like New York. The California culture was surfer, was rock and roll, Venice beach, all that stuff. Driving down Park Avenue in 1967, you felt like you were still in an Audrey Hepburn movie. Not much had changed. There wasn’t a whole lot of crime yet in Manhattan – you could still go out until all hours of the night and feel relatively safe. There was always something to do.

That L.A. rock and roll culture was comin’ and comin’ fast, and the fedora and cafe society spirit was on its last legs by 1967. Yet, unlike the clean living and sun-soaking of the West Coast, the smoke still got in your eyes in New York City.

When I played against the Mets as a Dodger, there were times when I would go to well-known hotspots like Toots Shor's Restaurant or 21 Club. Places like Toots were still around, but they weren’t the happening anymore. I spent most of my time at the jazz clubs. I remember walking into a place like Birdland or The Half Note and being greeted by the sultry voice of Dinah Washington. Spent a whole lot of time at the Village Vanguard. It wasn’t because of any racial thing, I mean, I was at the time, a star baseball player. I really could go anywhere, but there were only a few places where you could hear this:

Do you remember Cannonball Adderley? I sure do. He’s playing here with another one of my favorites, Joe Zawinul, this keyboardist from Europe. His brother Nat Adderley is on the record, too. Not too shabby, either. They always played the clubs in New York. Remember this was 1967. There was race-related stuff everywhere, but all walks of life lived in the jazz clubs. White musicians, black musicians. It was a melting pot of melody.

I loved the jazz clubs because you heard ground-breaking music. Thelonious Monk with his innovative off-key beats, stuff you weren’t hearing anywhere else. Relaxed ambience, too. Really laid back. You never had aggressive men in T-shirts starting fights. In its own way, it was sophisticated, it was civilized. I was looking forward to the nights of hearing the finest jazz the world had to offer. Also ready for a chance to show the world of baseball that Tommy Davis could still bat .300 and play every day, and that’s what I was gonna do.

Still had to play the games, though.

* * * * * * * * *

When I got to the Mets’ spring training camp at St. Petersburg in March of 1967, I spoke with the manager at the time Wes Westrum. I knew there were questions about my leg. I had to address them as soon as I got down there.

“I would like to play as much I can without hurting the team,” I said to our manager, “I know I can still hit.”

“What about your ankle,” he asked me, “That was a bad break from what I heard.”

I said, “Skip, you put me in the lineup every day and I’ll be a hitter you can count on.” Wes thought about it for a second, then slowly nodded.

“Okay, Tommy. We gave up a bunch of talent to get you here. I’ll give you a chance to prove you’re healthy.” I got through spring training with no problems and then it was time to say goodbye to the palms trees of Florida, the memories of Hollywood Boulevard and say hello to Madison Avenue and New York City.

This is a clip what of New York in 1963 looked and sounded like. Could’ve easily been 1967. The Verrazano was only starting to become a gateway for Brooklynites to buy a home in Staten Island. It was still just a bridge.

That photo says it all. The team was building toward something. They had great young pitching – this was Tom Seaver’s rookie season. A smart, young catcher in Jerry Grote, some veterans like Ken Boyer and myself. Young hitters like Ronny Swoboda, Eddie Kranepool – rookies like Amos Otis. We had a really tough start to the season – I was hitting over .300 but not a whole lot of power – but you could see something was happening with this team. Moments of talent in every young player that made us believe, it wouldn’t always be this bad. Cleon Jones was hitting under .200 into May but watching him at the plate, you knew talent was there. When Tug McGraw came up in September, he got knocked around real hard, but still struck out 18 guys in 17 innings. You’d see someone like Amos Otis come up at the end of the season and think, “This kid’s gonna be a star.” You knew talent was there. You knew when Tommy would pitch, ooooh, Tom Seaver, the California kid, when Tommy would pitch, we knew we’d have a chance to win. Against anybody. He beat the 2nd-place Giants twice, he beat the Cubs and when he didn’t, he kept us close. When I saw Seaver in 1967, I said to myself, this team might have the best ace in the National League. Won’t be long before we’re not the doormats of baseball anymore.

Even the little things – seeing Grote throw out a speedy runner at second, watching Seaver work through a lineup and come out the other side with a handful of strikeouts; Buddy Harrelson run down a groundball behind second base and nail the batter at first by a step. The sweet swing by my partner in the outfield and closest friend on the team, Cleon Jones.

Did we lose 101 games? We sure did. But when you put good, young players on the field every day, they’re either goin’ to the bank or they’re goin’ to school. There was a lot of learning at Shea in 1967, but the difference between the early years and ‘67, the good players stopped making the same mistakes. That’s when you know it’s working. Some nights I would drive home from the game to my mother’s house in Brooklyn where I lived that season and the most delicious fish dinner was waiting for me on the kitchen counter. Some nights we’d be in midtown at the fancier hotel bars meeting an opposing player from out of town, bartenders at steakhouses in beige dinner jackets, old-school. Then there’d be Monday nights after a game - I would get changed in the clubhouse, give the beat guys like Jack Lang and Dick Young a quote or two to help keep them fed, and then this would be waiting for me at The Vanguard downtown:

When you hear these songs, they remind you of soundtracks to old TV shows and movies a bit, right? That’s what it was like to hear experimental jazz. After a couple years, the methods and sounds of these great performers would filter out into the mainstream of music, TV and film. And you were there in its infancy, just like I was there as the core of the future Miracle Mets of 1969 first learned how to win.

Through all the losing, there was more than a glimpse of good things to come. We were 14-11 during the month of July until we hit a six-game losing streak. The best day of my season was July 19th, 1967. Went 5-for-8 with a grand slam in the doubleheader. Ralph Kiner brought me on his show. Found out later that the day before, tragedy struck the jazz world.

John Coltrane died.

40 years old. I was in ‘Trane’s company a couple times at the clubs that year. Never had the chance to sit down and talk music, though. Sad that it takes more than two hands to count how many great jazzmen we lost way too soon. Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Bill Evans, Cannonball, Dinah Washington, Albert Ayler, Bud Powell. Some I heard when I was just getting into the music, like Clifford Brown in the 1950’s. Some I knew – hung out with Miles Davis a few times during my year with the Mets – and some I just admired from afar for their music. Terrible shame that so many talented men and women died so young.

Our record on August 1st was 40-65, last place, 23 games out of first. Then we pulled off two straight wins, not a small accomplishment for us then. After suffering a 3-0 shutout at the hands of Tommie Sisk and the Pitsburgh Pirates. Then something happened:

We started a young kid, Danny Frisella, and he pulled out a 3-2 win. The Cal Koonce went all the way, beating the Pirates, 6-1. I hit TWO homers that night. Then swept a double header, as young Seaver carried us again, tossing a 3-0 shutout, then came a 6-2 with five runs in the eighth to pull out an 11-9 victory. Man, we didn’t win four games in a row all year. Went home to ma’s house that Sunday night after the doubleheader, going to sleep feeling like maybe, just maybe, the Mets could possibly make it all the way back to .500 for the first time.

Get a look at Shea Stadium in these clips. Man, I know a lot of people didn’t like the ballpark, but this was before all those cookie-cutter fields in Philly, St. Louis and Cincinnati were built. People loved Shea back then. In spite of all the stadium's faults, the Mets fans loved it because it wasn't the Dodgers' Ebbets Field, because it wasn't the Giants' Polo Grounds. They loved it because it was something that was finally theirs and theirs alone.

We went on to split a four-game series in Philadelphia, but then the bottom fell out on the ballclub, going 13-33 the rest of the way. Wes Westrum resigned with 11 games left in the season when he wasn’t given a contract for 1968 and one of the coaches, Salty Parker, replaced him. From that point on, you saw less of the older players and more of Tug, more Amos Otis, more Jerry Koosman. Grote gained the respect of the pitching staff – he threw out 49% of the runners who tried to steal a base against him. That’s an all-star player in the making, among a group of young guys you just knew would be great.

By the time the season ended, you could see the culture was changing. A couple of jazz clubs closed, in the wake of Birdland shutting its doors in ’65. Dean Martin’s Vegas TV act started to seem dated. Less acts like Mitch Miller sing alongs or the Kraft Music Hall and more performers like the Jefferson Airplane or The Doors were broadcast.

Things were beginning to change out on the street, too. Less people wearing jackets and ties out to clubs. It’s a bad joke, but by this time, fedoras really were becoming old hat. By the time I returned to New York in the spring of 1968 it seemed like everything had changed.

* * * * * * * * *

I feel like 1967 was one of my greatest seasons considering the road back I traveled and the young hitters I had around me in the lineup. Probably the most doubles I ever hit in a season, thanks to the Shea Stadium power alleys. Most Intentional Walks I ever had. Probably the most home runs I ever hit other than 1963. Hit .300 again.

See that’s the thing. I had one of my best years in New York and I think a lot had to do with my mindset. You look at the back of the baseball card and notice a season that sticks out from the others and you wonder why the guy played so well that one particular year. I was very happy in New York. My wife and children were back in L.A. and I missed them terribly, but the ambient, rolling sounds of the subway trains as I fell asleep at my mother’s house after home games, the common harmonies of my youth, soothed my loneliness, like some sweet, nightly lullaby. I woke up and arrived at Shea Stadium every day with a smile and got to take witness to an extraordinary jazz scene after hours.

Here’s another one I loved. Miles, man. He was playing all over the world in ’67, but I caught him a couple times in town that year. Amazes me now that men I used to know and even sometimes sit with are legends today. And they were sittin’ right in front of me, talking about everyday things, enjoying a drink, smoking a cigarette. It was a lifestyle I loved. Nothing too crazy, not a lot of drinking or anything, but the ability to enjoy this life, to hang out with these talented people, I had to make sure I could still hit .300 to keep this lifestyle going. Wes Westrum and the Mets gave me this second chance.

* * * * * * * * *

When the ballclub finally named Gil Hodges manager in December of ’67 after a long negotiation to get him out of his Washington Senators contract, I started to think real changes were gonna be made to support the potential of the young guys like Seaver, Harrelson & Grote. I felt I gave them a good season, but all I kept hearing from back east was about Gil wanting a center fielder, the Mets never had a center fielder. I had a feeling they weren’t getting rid of young Cleon Jones. About ten days after Hodges became manager, something happened back in my house in L.A., a sound that would haunt every one of my winter breaks for the next five years.

The phone rang in my kitchen.

“We’re trading you to the Chicago White Sox,” said Johnny Murphy, the newly-minted general manager. Same story as last year with the Dodgers conversation. “Team’s making a change. Gil desperately wanted a center fielder, etc, you know how these things go.” Can’t say I blame him. The team needed a fleet-footed center fielder to support that young pitching staff. Tommie Agee played sandlot ball with Cleon. They were old, old friends and would perform together seamlessly. In baseball thinking, it was the smart play.

* * * * * *

My glorious year in New York had come to an end. I would return to the Big Apple the following spring, but only as a weekend guest in a White Sox uniform. I'll always cherish those dinners that summer I spent with Ma, the nights I came home and watched Ed Sullivan on TV with her, laughing and talking about my day at the ballpark. Will never forget the subway train that served as both my ambient noise and wakeup call. Never forget the amazing fans at Shea Stadium, who treated me like Baseball royalty every day I wore the uniform. I had some glorious moments at Dodger Stadium. A few good ones at Memorial in Baltimore, too. But, one year in New York City, I got to enjoy the end of a way of dazzling nightlife, of crooners, sax players and jazz men, of classy bartenders and Rat Pack-style lounging.

Now how’s that for a farewell tour?

****To learn more about Tommy Davis, check out his personal website, www.tommydavis12.com, part of the pastpros.com network.

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Blog image: 
Tommy Davis (with Dave Jordan) on the last days of the cocktail culture in 1967 New York.

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