Willie Davis

October 19, 2009

Willie Davis 76

In college I lived for a year in a house on a steep dirt road a couple miles from campus. In the morning, I walked down the dirt road toward the town, and as I walked I chanted “om mane padme hum,” which I think means “jewel in the heart of the lotus.” That was the year I stopped taking LSD, because my experiences with the substance kept getting narrower and narrower, but I wanted to find a way to hold on to a sense of elevated reality that the hallucinogens had offered. After about twenty minutes of walking and chanting, I reached the place where the dirt road turned to asphalt, by a lumber yard at the edge of town. I stopped chanting. Often, a morning mist was still hanging over the stacks of wood and parked forklifts. I felt high and awake and had no thoughts in my head for a little while.

After I passed through the small town I climbed another hill for a while and arrived among the complex of brick buildings. Often I got to the library just as it was opening. I’d been a bad student through high school, but in college I was interested in everything. I read and wrote in the library until it was time to go to my first class, and then during free periods I went back to the library, or else went to the gym to play pickup basketball. One evening after classes were done for the day I was walking back up the steep dirt road toward home and I looked up at the stars and prayed silently to Jack Kerouac. I don’t remember what I said or what exactly I was thinking. We had been reading the Dharma Bums in one of my classes, and at one point I’d blown up at the teacher (the poet Neil Shepard, one of the great teachers of my life) for allowing a few criticisms of Kerouac to seep into his lecture on the book. But the prayer wasn’t about that. It was more like an imitation of the yearning plea for meaning woven through that book.

Jack Kerouac: What am I supposed to do with myself in this life here on earth?

And then a comet streaked across the sky, going almost from one horizon to the other, the longest shooting star I’ve ever seen.

I thought of that dirt road this morning, twenty years after those mornings and evenings, as I read that Willie Davis, underrated centerfield standout of the pitching-dominated 1960s, took up Buddhist chanting in the early 1970s. He didn’t use the chant I used but used the one that I’ve been encouraged by strangers to use on a couple of occasions, long ago, when I was young and walked around with the open, searching look of the pilgrim or rube on my face: Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. This chant is supposed to enable you to get whatever it is you want. In a 1975 article in Ebony, Willie Davis implies that the chant was going to allow his team at the time, the Texas Rangers, to “win it all.”

They didn’t, of course, and neither did any of his subsequent teams as he finished up his long pro career, but this didn’t stop him from chanting. In Japan, where he went to play after a year with the team he is beatifically depicted as a member of in the 1976 card above, he expected that his chanting would be welcomed and celebrated, but instead his teammates hated it, thinking that it made the clubhouse resemble the rite most likely in Japan to include Buddhist chanting: a funeral. (To put yourself in the cleats of those Japanese teammates of Davis, imagine if Ichiro hung around the Seattle clubhouse in a black suit and dark sunglasses singing “Amazing Grace” and weeping all the time. It’d kind of sap your will to go out and crisply hit the cutoff man.)

I live in the city now, and so I can’t walk around chanting like I did on that empty dirt road unless I want to attract the kind of attention crazy people attract. And I feel sort of stupid just sitting around in my apartment chanting, plus when I’m in my apartment I am more often than not shoving food in my mouth and staring at the television. I don’t know if that’s what the Kerouackian shooting star had in mind for me. But Keroauc died fatly watching TV, so who knows? [Correction: He died in a hospital; I may have been thinking of Kerouac’s poem about Charlie Parker, in which Bird is described as dying laughing while watching a juggler on TV.] Anyway, there’s a jewel in the heart of the lotus. No matter what. There’s a gleaming answer in the sky. There’s a stillness below everything, and morning mist everywhere. There’s a big shining smile on the face of Willie Davis.


  1. According to an article in the LA Times that ran during spring training of 1979, Willie Davis’ wife slipped and fell to her death from a cliff in Hawai’i in October of 1978.

  2. I’m not familiar with the Kerouac poem, but I believe that Charlie Parker did, in fact , die laughing while watching TV. It’s kind of eerie how many people I’ve actually known who have died while watching TV. I hate to admit how quickly my thoughts turn to “my god, what the hell were they watching?”
    I’d hate to think that some sitcom or reality show pushed them over the edge. It’s hard to picture someone clutching their chest and screaming. “dammit , Gilligan, how are you ever gonna get off that island now??”, but it’s probably happened.
    Thanks for the heads-up on the poem; I’m gonna try to find it.

  3. Found that poem with a search for the first line, which I remembered:

    Charlie Parker (by Jack Kerouac)

    Charlie Parker looked like Buddha
    Charlie Parker, who recently died
    Laughing at a juggler on the TV
    After weeks of strain and sickness,
    Was called the Perfect Musician.
    And his expression on his face
    Was as calm, beautiful, and profound
    As the image of the Buddha
    Represented in the East, the lidded eyes
    The expression that says “All Is Well”
    This was what Charlie Parker
    Said when he played, All is Well.
    You had the feeling of early-in-the-morning
    Like a hermit’s joy, or
    Like the perfect cry of some wild gang
    At a jam session,
    “Wail, Wop”
    Charlie burst his lungs to reach the speed
    Of what the speedsters wanted
    And what they wanted
    Was his eternal Slowdown.

  4. We had a regular on Baseball Toaster who died while watching a Yankees game and reading the Bronx Banter game thread.

    I guess that could be a test of your baseball fanaticism: do you think that’s a great way to go–watching your favorite team, reading your favorite blog? Or does that idea trigger in your mind a mid-life-crisis-type panic, instead?

  5. Hey, that poem’s got some nice imagery in it. I can almost picture Kerouac looking at Parker’s baseball card as he typed; thanks for posting it.

    Ken A., Thinking about passing while watching baseball actually gives me kind of a nice feeling, odd as that sounds.

  6. Great article Josh.

    I don’t even remember Willie Davis being on the Padres. I always felt really sorry for Willie Davis. He was a great defensive center fielder who was a good hitter stuck in a pitcher’s park in a terrible hitting era. He never gets anywhere near the respect he deserves. I think in the Chone WAR projections he’s ranked as the 123rd best player of all time.

    That’s the thing that’s really interesting and depressing about baseball and perception. Ask 10 baseball fans if Willie Davis was a better player than Jim Rice and all ten will laugh at you and say that it’s not even close that Rice was the far better player when in reality Davis was the far superior player.

  7. Nicely done as always. But more importantly, are you playing Turkey Swamp?

  8. tpynchon:
    Turkey Swamp?!? I wish. I really do. But I was only just barely able to survive two days of tournament ultimate frisbee ten-fifteen years ago; now I am lucky to pick up a dictionary without causing irrevocable physical damage to myself. What about you? Are you playing?

  9. Sure. When I’m not in a cast as I frequently and currently am. Red Hook abides, if only in the mind. And if cards existed for ultimate, there’d be a Josh Wilker card, no doubt. Otherwise, I attend graduations in Montpelier for ex-girlfriends, miss many book deadlines and remain reclusive.

  10. This is one of my favorite posts in a long time, Josh. Great stuff.

  11. Beautiful poem.
    And no doubt The Bird, greatest practitioner and revolutionary presence
    Ever on the alto saxophone may, indeed, have shuffled off this mortal coil while watching the Dorsey Brothers’ variety show on television,
    but maybe, just maybe, I’m guessing dope played some part in his passing?

    But a beautiful poem.

    As for Willie Davis, I harbor no doubts at all that he was a superior practitioner of The Art of Centerfield, and that his Buddhist chanting added yet another dimension to his arsenal of gifts, both mental and physical; all the better with which to enhance his focus and attain results both victorious, and enlightening, in the daunting sphere of competition, and I’d like a quarter-pounder and a thickshake, and YES dammit, I want fries with that. Please hurry.

  12. No ballplayer, not even Sandy Koufax, Maury Wills, or Don Drysdale conjures up more memories of my baseball-filled youth in Los Angeles than Willie D, my favorite back then. He fascinated me because he could do things that no one else could even imagine doing. And I am not referring to the three errors in one World Series inning. During one game I attended at Dodger Stadium when I was about 10, he hit an inside-the-park homer that never entered the outfield. It wasn’t one of those Little League home runs where booted plays and bad throws occur either. He smoked a liner that caromed off the right corner of the first base bag and careened into foul territory and rattled around. Be the time the right fielder got the ball home, he was sliding under the tag. Clearly, he was the fastest player in the Big Leagues. That included, the early 60s Los Angeles Dodgers, a team built on pitching and fleetfoodedness.

    Willie was also one of the streakiest hitters I have ever seen. He was dubbed “The Man of a Thousand Dances” because he changed his batting style to emulate whoever was really on a tear at the time. This was at least partly attributable, I think, to the fact that the Dodgers needed offensive firepower from him so desperately, particularly after namesake Tommy Davis blew out his knee on the 4th of July during a game I attended at Dodger Stadium. Somehow the Carnation chocolate malts and the post game fireworks which we could also see above The Rose Bowl and The Coliseum weren’t so thrilling after that.

    There were so many hopeful expectations on Willie that he appeared to be trying too hard much of the time. I remember seeing him lash a triple at the Stadium and the excited crowd exploded into a roar as soon as the ball came off the boat because it was immediately evident that we’d get to see him sprint all out. He made it to third with ease, but was going so fast that he slid about 5 feet past the bag and was tagged out. Maybe his hyperintensity led him to take up chanting in an attempt to calm down a bit. He probably took the ‘inner peace’ thing too far, because by the time he made the infamous three errors in one World Series game, he commented afterwards, “It’s not my wife; it’s not my life; it’s only a game.” Perhaps he was right. But to this young kid, the October Classic was more important than life itself.

    Oh well. Om and all. And pass the Cracker Jack please.

  13. Namyo Ho Renge Kyo…..rest in peace Willie Davis.

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