MLB.com Columnist

Lyle Spencer

Davis recalls aura that helped define Jackie

Former star remembers call leading him to sign with Dodgers over Yankees

Davis recalls aura that helped define Jackie

LOS ANGELES -- Fifty years ago this October, Tommy Davis took out his whipping stick and put a hurt on the Yankees in a four-game World Series sweep by the Dodgers. Sandy Koufax drew most of the acclaim, rightly so, but Davis was no innocent bystander. He delivered five hits in the first two games at Yankee Stadium, finishing the Series with a .400 batting average and a .667 slugging percentage, to help the Dodgers beat Whitey Ford and Al Downing.

At the time, Yankees Nation could not have known how close Davis had come to being a Bronx Bomber alongside Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.

A Brooklyn native, Davis was a teen sensation at Boys High School. The Yankees thought so much of him in 1956 that they invited him to come out to Yankee Stadium and hang out and bang some balls with Mantle, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard and Co. "Any time I wanted," Davis said. Al Campanis, the Dodgers scout who signed Koufax and was well aware of Davis' talents, heard that the slugging teen was a few days away from signing with the Yankees. Campanis, who would go on to become the Dodgers' general manager, asked Jackie Robinson, in what would be his final season, to give the kid a call and let him know he belonged home, in Brooklyn.

"I was going to sign with the Yankees Tuesday night," Davis recalled. "Al had Jackie Robinson call me Sunday night. That was all it took. I don't remember exactly what he said, but it was that voice. Jackie Robinson was on the phone with me. He said he wanted me to sign with the Dodgers. I'm a Brooklyn guy, and I was watching Jackie all the time. He was so exciting; he changed the game, the way he played.

"I signed with the Dodgers and forgot about the Yankees."

Matt Kemp takes a broader perspective on the influence of Robinson. Kemp, who would trade his normal jersey (No. 27) for No. 42 on Jackie Robinson Day as the Dodgers engaged the Padres at Dodger Stadium, grasps the historical impact of the man who integrated the game in 1947 and made America a better place.

"Every day I step on the field is a special day," Kemp said. "Today I get to wear No. 42 on my back. I'm proud to be a Dodger, Jackie Robinson's team, and I'm proud to be in Los Angeles."

Addressing an assembly room full of youngsters at Washington Middle School in nearby Pasadena on Monday morning, Kemp talked about growing up in Oklahoma with a bat in one hand and a basketball in the other.

"I just want to talk about dreams," Kemp told a rapt audience from a dais that included Sharon Robinson, Jackie's daughter, and Davis. "My dream was to be in the NBA and playing Major League Baseball at the same time. Jackie Robinson made it possible for me to be standing on this stage. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be playing Major League Baseball and living my dream.

"I know everybody in here has a dream. I think everybody needs to know the significance of Jackie Robinson. He was a great man. I never had the chance to meet him; I wasn't even thought of when he was alive. But we know what he stands for.

"We've all had barriers and had to overcome obstacles. If you have a dream, stay focused. The main thing is to have fun, work hard and your dreams will come true. I'm living proof of that."

Kemp drew an enthusiastic response from the students when he pulled out a bag, reached inside, and said, "I have a lot of Dodgers tickets in my hand. Everybody in here gets to go to a game. Whatever game you come to, I want you to cheer loud and have fun with it.

"I want to encourage everybody to go to see this movie, '42.' You all need to know how important Mr. Jackie Robinson was."

Unlike Kemp, Davis was as aware of the circumstances surrounding Robinson's dramatic arrival as a grammar school kid can be.

"I was there when he first came up," Davis said. "I was 8 years old, and I'm from Brooklyn. When he started with the Dodgers, he brought energy. He was not a small man -- 6-foot-1, maybe 6-foot-2 -- and he could fly. He stole home. He was a line-drive hitter and an outstanding fielder."

As he grew older, Davis came to understand the emotional burden that had been Robinson's constant companion as he carried the banner for an entire race in environments that could be volatile and hostile.

"Stress is something nobody wants," Davis, 74 and as cool as ever, said. "When he came to Brooklyn, his hair was all black. He came to my junior high school six years later and his hair was all white."

Robinson was 53 when he died on Oct. 24, 1972. His vision deteriorating, he'd had to give up golf, one of many sports he'd come close to mastering as the greatest all-around athlete his country has produced.

"He shot in the 70s, probably even the 60s at times," Davis said. "Jackie could do everything. I remember he was having trouble seeing, and he was at a golf tournament with [Don] Newcombe. Newk took him to the driving range, set him in front of the ball, and he hit a great drive, right down the middle.

"Jackie was one of a kind."

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.