Remembering Willie Davis and Merlin Olsen
While I was out of the country last week, two Los Angeles sports stars of my youth — Dodgers center fielder Willie Davis and Rams defensive tackle Merlin Olsen — passed away. Both were 69.
Growing up in Long Beach, I have fond memories of Davis and Olsen. If not for their age and overlapping athletic careers in L.A., these two men would have little, if anything, in common.
The following photos were taken by Frank Finch of the Los Angeles Times. He donated them to the Dodgers and Mark Langill, team historian and publications editor, was kind enough to share them with me a few years ago.
Davis (above left, standing next to Ron Fairly at a batting cage in spring training) was born in Mineral Springs, Arkansas on April 15, 1940, seven years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. His family moved to Los Angeles when he was a youngster. Tall and slender, Davis lettered in baseball, basketball and track & field at Roosevelt High School. He ran a 9.5-second 100-yard dash and set a city record in the long jump of 25 feet, 5 inches. Dodgers scout Kenny Myers signed Willie after he graduated from Roosevelt HS in 1958.
Myers converted Davis into a left-handed hitter to take advantage of his speed. The scout and his protege starred in "The Willie Davis Story," a black and white made-for-television movie that I remember airing back in the early 1960s. John Herbold, a legendary high school baseball coach at Long Beach Poly and Lakewood and former scout with the Dodgers and Angels, wrote a terrific column about Myers for the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper several years ago. I had the privilege of playing for Herbold and he taught us several fundamentals that he learned from Myers, whom he called "the greatest baseball teacher and thinker I ever met."
Davis played 18 seasons in the majors (plus two years in Japan) and was a member of two World Series championship teams in Los Angeles in 1963 and 1965. He produced 2,561 hits (82nd all time) and stole 398 bases (68th). Davis also won three consecutive Gold Gloves from 1971-73 although Dodgers fans may remember him more for the record three errors on two consecutive plays in the fifth inning of Game Two of the 1966 Fall Classic against the Baltimore Orioles (which happened to be the last game that Sandy Koufax pitched). Willie's nickname was "Three Dog," not for the errors or what sometimes appeared to be his lackadaisical play in the field but rather for the number he wore on the back of his uniform. His 31-game hitting streak in 1969 broke Zack Wheat's franchise record of 29 in 1916.
The three-time All-Star fell upon hard times during the 1990s. He abused alcohol and drugs and was arrested at his parents' home in Gardena for allegedly threatening to kill them and burn down their house unless they gave him $5,000. The Dodgers subsequently reached out to Davis and hired him to work in their speakers bureau. I last saw and spoke to him at a game three years ago and am thankful for that opportunity. He recalled my Dad, who covered the Dodgers from 1958-1968. Davis looked frail to me, but he seemed to be in good spirits. I will always remember him for his positive contributions to my favorite team while growing up.
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Olsen (in the photo on the right, standing near the tunnel of the Coliseum prior to the 1964 Pro Bowl game) was born in Logan, Utah on September 15, 1940. He was exactly five months younger than Davis. Olsen was the oldest son in a large Mormon family. He attended Utah State University and graduated summa cum laude and Sigma Chi with a degree in finance in 1962. Merlin was a three-time academic All-American and an All-American defensive tackle, winning the outland Trophy in his senior season.
Drafted by the Rams in the first round in 1962, Olsen played his entire 15-year career with the the team and was elected to the Pro Bowl a record-tying 14 times. He was named the NFL's Rookie of the Year and first-team All-Pro in 1964 and from 1966-1970. Olsen is a member of both the College Football and Pro Football Halls of Fame.
Although Olsen is wearing 76 in the photo above, he may be the most famous player associated with the number 74 in the history of pro football. He was a member of "The Fearsome Foursome," the Rams' defensive line that consisted of Olsen and Rosey Grier at the tackle positions and Deacon Jones and Lamar Lundy on the ends. Olsen and Jones may have been the best defensive tackle and defensive end in the game for several years during the 1960s.
A gentle giant off the field, Olsen was smart and articulate. After his playing days were over, he was a noted broadcaster, actor, and businessman. Olsen starred in Little House on the Prairie, Father Murphy, and Aaron's Way. He teamed with Dick Enberg on NBC's coverage of the AFC throughout the 1980s and was one of my favorite color commentators. Olsen also served as a pitchman for FTD Florists for a number of years.
Olsen was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2009 and underwent three courses of chemotherapy. He died on March 11, 2010 at City of Hope Hospital in Duarte, California, two days after Davis passed away at his home in Burbank.
Davis and Olsen will be missed by their families, friends, teammates, and fans. Rest in peace.