Discussion

Willie Davis was a signature star

Updated: March 10, 2010, 10:45 AM ET
By Buster Olney
A couple of years ago, I was cleaning out some old trunks in the basement and found a familiar small tan box that I had kept in a desk drawer as a kid. Originally, it had housed a fishing reel that my grandfather had given me, but in time, I took out the rarely used reel and replaced it with a keepsake that didn't quite fit in the box, slightly bowing out its top and bottom.

On Sept. 29, 1974, the Expos played host to the Philadelphia Phillies at Jarry Park in Montreal, and among the 23,326 fans that day were the members of the Central Vermont Little League. We boarded a bus that morning, and I carried with me that baseball, and a mission: I wanted to get Willie Davis' autograph.

I was crazy for the Dodgers and Davis had played 13 seasons for Los Angeles, and some of my first baseball cards were of him in a Dodgers uniform. Before the 1974 season, he was traded straight-up to the Expos for reliever Mike Marshall. But to me, he was still a Dodger, and wore the same uniform number that I did -- No. 3 -- and I went to Jarry Park that day devoted to the idea that Davis would sign my baseball.

But as with most things in life, I really had given no thought to the question of how that would happen before we all settled into our seats on the third-base side, about 25 or 30 rows behind the Montreal dugout. Our family was chained to our dairy farm by the twice-daily milking cycle of the cows, and I had been to only one other major league game, at Fenway Park in September 1972, and I never even thought of procuring autographs at the time.

And besides the questions of how to best position yourself for an autograph -- Along the foul lines? Near the outfield wall? -- I was a shy kid, and major league baseball players to me were nothing less than gods; to ask someone like Willie Davis for an autograph, for me, was like the Cowardly Lion approaching the Wizard of Oz for a wish. I was completely overwhelmed, which is why I remained rooted in my seat before the game, and then right on through the first six innings.

I do recall specific moments in that game, such as Ken Singleton launching a first-inning grand slam, something he remembered clearly when I asked him about it many years later. But mostly I sat in my seat and tried to summon the courage to go to the railing behind the Expos' dugout and ask Davis for an autograph.

Now, 36 years later, I know that the notion of going to the edge of the dugout during a game and asking for an autograph is completely absurd, out of the question, a nice way for you to be intercepted by security. But at 10 years old, I had no idea that there was autograph protocol. I figured if a player had a free moment, he would sign a baseball. This is what my expectation of a benevolent god was at the time.

The Phillies batted in the top of the seventh. The records show that Del Unser grounded out to first base to end the inning, and then as the Expos ran off the field, I made my move, bouncing down the aluminum steps of the grandstands and reaching the railing quickly, just as Davis approached the steps in front of me.

I probably said something along the lines of "Mr. Davis, can I have your autograph?" and extended my baseball and a pen.

And Willie Davis reached up and signed my baseball, in a swirl of blue ink.

I turned around and there was a line of kids forming behind me, but Willie Davis was gone, off to do his work; in fact, the play-by-play record from that day shows that he led off the bottom of the seventh.

When I got home, I took the reel out of its case and replaced it with the ball that Davis had signed, where it remains, his signature faded.

I never spoke with Willie Davis again, never met him in person. But on at least one day, he made a dream of a 10-year-old kid come to life, fulfilled hope, and I presume there were many moments and days like that for him. What power he had in his life.

Willie Davis passed away Monday, at the age of 69.

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There were few players more exciting than Davis, writes Jerry Crowe. Davis was the coolest player that Bruce Jenkins ever saw.

Davis was a great player in his own right, writes Steve Dilbeck.

Strasburg

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