This Week in 1960s Baseball
Career Year: Tommy Davis (1962)
In his 1962 break-out season, outfielder Tommy Davis did everything he needed to do to claim the National League’s Most Valuable Player award.
Everything, that is, except to actually win it.
Here’s how it happened.That season’s MVP went to teammate Maury Wills. Looking back a half-century, and looking at the numbers for both players, it’s hard to justify how Davis got passed over.
Tommy Davis was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1956. He never batted below .300 in 4 minor league seasons. In 1959, with Spokane in the Pacific Coast League, Davis batted .345 with 18 home runs and 78 RBIs. He made his major league debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers at the end of the 1959 season, striking out in his only plate appearance.
Davis opened the 1960 season on the Dodgers’ roster, and gradually took over full-time duties in center field from Duke Snider and Don Demeter. He finished the 1960 season batting .276 with 11 home runs and 44 runs batted in. In 1961, Davis batted .278 with 15 home runs and 58 RBIs. He played 86 games in the outfield, at all three positions, and played 59 games at third base. He was, essentially, a utility player for the Dodgers.
That would change in 1962. He opened the season as the team’s everyday left fielder, and was hitting .316 at the end of April. In May he batted .336 with five home runs and 25 RBIs, and in June Davis batted .354 with three home runs and 32 RBIs. By the All-Star break, Davis was batting .353 with 15 doubles, 15 home runs and 90 RBIs. He made his first All-Star appearance that season.
While Davis was leading the National League in hits, runs batted in and batting average, he wasn’t getting national media attention for his monster season. During the first half of the season, the media reserved their Dodger focus on a pair of pitchers – Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax – who were having outstanding seasons in leading the Dodgers to the top of the National League standings. At the All-Star break in 1962, Drysdale was 15-4 with a 2.88 ERA. Koufax, an 18-game winner in 1961, was 13-4 with a 2.15 ERA and led the major leagues with 202 strikeouts. Drysdale would go on to win the Cy Young award with a 25-9 record, while an arm injury would limit Koufax to only one more victory over the rest of the 1962 campaign.
The other media “distraction” from Davis’ season was a record-breaking performance by Dodger shortstop Maury Wills. By late July, it became obvious that Wills was on his way to breaking the single season record for stolen bases held by Ty Cobb. It would be the second consecutive year when a hallowed baseball record was under assault, as only a year before there was a media frenzy following Roger Maris’ (and Mickey Mantle’s) chase of Babe Ruth’s record for home runs in a single season.
Wills eventually caught Cobb’s record of 96 stolen bases and finished the season with 104, a season which the Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants finished in a dead heat, requiring a three-game playoff which the Giants won. It was an exciting season on many fronts.
And Tommy Davis? Lost in the shuffle of a heated pennant race and outstanding individual performances, Davis led the National League with 230 hits (32 ahead of Wills and Frank Robinson), 153 RBIs (12 ahead of Willie Mays) and a .346 batting average. He also finished fourth in the league in doubles and total bases, fifth in triples and slugging (.535 percentage), and seventh in stolen bases.
In the MVP voting, Davis finished third behind Wills and Mays. Stolen bases and triples were the only offensive categories in which Wills was the league leader.
It would be the best season of Tommy Davis’ career. He would lead the National League in hitting again in 1963 with a .326 average, but his power numbers would drop to 16 home runs (compared to 27 in 1962) and 88 RBIs, down 65 from the previous season. He would suffer a broken ankle during the 1965 season that would compromise his speed for the rest of his career, though Davis would remain a steady hitter throughout his 18-year career, retiring after the 1976 season with a .294 career batting average.
Career Year: Maury Wills – 1962
What kind of Most Valuable Player takes that award based on a season where he hits only six home runs and drives in a total of 48 runs … with a batting average under .300?
What kind of player wins the MVP while leading the league in only two offensive categories, and leading the league in only one hitting category (triples)?
Only one player has done that, and that was the Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills, the National League’s 1962 Most Valuable Player. In addition to being an excellent shortstop (a two-time Gold Glove winner), Wills did one thing exceptionally well: steal bases.
Wills was so good at stealing bases that he caused the second “unbreakable record” to fall during the 1960s. First, in 1961, Roger Maris toppled Babe Ruth’s sacred record of 60 home runs in a season. Then only a season later, Wills shattered the single-season stolen base record time at the expense of the game’s greatest all-time hitter and base runner.
When Ty Cobb stole 96 bases in 1915, the stolen base was still a primary offensive weapon, right along with the bunt and sacrifice fly. Cobb’s brand of baseball prided itself on an economy of runs, backed by pitching and defense. The popularity of that kind of baseball – both within the game and among fans –did not survive Babe Ruth and the more “lively” baseball of the 1920s and beyond.
Fast-forward to 1962. Ty Cobb’s stolen base record survived his passing in 1961, and surely looked like a record that might never be broken – especially with all the attention on the power game that Cobb despised. After putting the country through the emotionally exhausting circus that surrounded Roger Maris’s 1961 bid to break Babe Ruth’s home run record, the fans probably wouldn’t care all that much about a shortstop trying to break Cobb’s 47-year-old stolen base record.
Or would they?
They did. While excitement about the chase for Cobb’s record never quite reached the fervor that hounded Maris, Wills’ assault on Cobb’s record definitely engaged the country, and again extended baseball’s impact beyond the everyday fan, much the same as the quest for Ruth’s home run record had done the year before.
As the 1962 pennant race entered September, Wills had 73 stolen bases. He needed 23 more to catch Cobb, and had 27 games left to do it (19 games if he wanted to match Cobb in 154 games and avoid the expanded schedule controversy that had haunted Maris). Wills stole four bases in one Friday night game against Pittsburgh, bringing his total to 82. In the next week he stole nine more, giving him 91 after 148 games.
Number 92 came the next day, and he got his 93rd in Milwaukee three days later (off Braves catcher Joe Torre). Stolen base 95 came against the Cardinals in Game #154. Wills tied and passed Cobb’s mark with two stolen bases in Game #156.
He ended the season with 104 stolen bases, accomplished in 165 games, thanks to the addition of three games needed to break the regular season dead heat between the Dodgers and Giants.
Wills never bested that total. The closest he came was with 94 stolen bases in 1965. During his 14-season career, Wills averaged 49 steals per season, leading the league five different times. When he retired, he was ninth all-time in career steals with 586. He ranks 18th on the all-time list today.