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Remembering Crash Davis

By Blair Lovern

Sept. 8, 2001


Crash Davis at Duke

GREENSBORO, N.C.--Almost everyone who knows minor league baseball these days, and even many who don't, recognize the name Crash Davis.

The resemblance between the real Lawrence Davis and the character played in "Bull Durham" by Kevin Costner was in name only, though Davis would sometimes joke that in his day he was better-looking than Costner.

In his later years Davis became almost real-life fiction, or vice-versa. Until you looked into his life a little bit, fantasy and reality sometimes got swirled together.

"Like anywhere I go in America, they call my name, they know me," Davis said in a July story in The Washington Post. "Then they step back and they look at you like a different person. But you aren't, really. I'm just thankful it happened to me."

Davis died August 31 at age 82 after a lengthy bout with stomach cancer, and hundreds gathered at the First Presbyterian Church here for a memorial service in Davis' honor this week.

His friend John Williams told the crowd, in words that couldn't help but boom across the walls of a massive sanctuary, that the real Crash Davis had none of the rough edges of the fictional Crash Davis. Of course, anyone who knew Davis knew this. But more had only known of him.

"He wasn't like the Crash Davis in the movies; he was much better than that," Williams said.

Davis rarely let others see anything but his cheery side, Williams said, even during the last few months of his life when it became apparent he was very ill.

"Anyone in the world who met Crash would have nothing but good things to say about him," said another friend, David Gillespie. "Crash always had a smile on his face."

Davis loved to sing, Gillespie said, though he'd sing loud and sometimes off-key. When they were young, they taped a duet to play for a friend and his new bride.

"It was probably the worst thing ever recorded," Gillespie said.

Crash Of Fate

Davis played three seasons in the major leagues as a middle infielder after graduating from Duke in 1940, all with Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics. In 148 games he hit .230. He enlisted in the Navy ROTC in 1942 and served during the war. He spent 1946-52 in the minors and never played again.

More than 30 years later, a then-unknown movie director and writer named Ron Shelton thumbed through an old Carolina League record book for inspiration.

What would have happened if Davis had been stuck with his original nickname? Almost 70 years ago, during an American Legion game in Gastonia, N.C., a 14-year-old shortstop called Squeaky Davis chased down a fly ball and collided with his left fielder.

If he had caught it, or ducked out of the way, it's not a stretch to think a corner of the baseball world would have ended up differently.

If they hadn't run into each other, Davis--called Squeaky for the high-pitched way he ended his infield chatter--likely would have gone to Duke anyway a few years later. He probably would have signed with Philadelphia for $3,000.

Presumably, he would have ended his career in the minors the same way and would have been hired by Burlington Industries and stayed in management there for three decades. He would have raised a family and made many friends. If fortune had smiled upon him as much as he did to most everyone he met, he would have enjoyed a good, full life. And after it had ended, a church full of those family and friends would have attended a memorial service much like the one this past week.

But he crashed into the other player. The nickname changed. His life changed. Even baseball changed. It was a line of dominoes that took five decades to finish.

Shelton called a friend of Davis' and asked for permission to base a character on his name in a movie. It took Davis about two seconds to answer, once he found out he'd get Susan Sarandon.

Davis wasn't responsible for the huge growth minor league baseball saw in the 1980s. But his influence cannot be completely written off.

If Davis hadn't set a Carolina League record in doubles in 1948, while playing for the Durham Bulls, would Shelton have stumbled across the name? He surely would have made the movie if he didn't have Crash Davis. He could have based it on a fictional team.

But this is what did happen: The movie was a hit when released in 1988. It doused a then-Class A franchise in fame. It wasn't by coincidence that baseball people everywhere saw lots of dollar signs.

"The movie obviously made Crash Davis a household world," said Dave Chase, executive director of the Museum of Minor League Baseball. "But more than that, it put minor league baseball on the map."

Since 1990, about half of minor league baseball's 160 clubs have built or plan to build new stadiums. Licensed minor league sales grew from $2.5 million in 1991 to a peak of $60 million in 1994. In 2000, 37.7 million fans watched minor league games--the most since 1949, when the minors had three times as many teams.

" 'Bull Durham' came at the right time; it was the early days of the stadium explosion," Chase said. "After 'Bull Durham' you also saw a national licensing agreement between the clubs, which hadn't existed. There was a lot of money to be made, and of course the Bulls reaped all that themselves initially. But when other clubs saw that, you had the logo mania that just exploded."

Better Than Fiction

Davis became a celebrity and dropped by stadiums across America. He worked as a motivational speaker, talking about his days as a player and later a coach of championship high school and American Legion teams.

Chuck Hartman, the baseball coach at Virginia Tech, played for Davis at Gastonia High.

"He was an excellent baseball man, one of the most excellent coaches I've associated myself with," Hartman said. "He was the best at relaxing players before a game. But he was also very superstitious. One time we had a 13-game winning streak in high school. We had to wear the same socks, same shirts, same everything, and we played twice a week for six and half weeks in the same clothes. He wore the same things, too. Nobody sat within three rows of him on the bus."

Davis always let people in on his fun side, Hartman said. "He would always say something and just laugh. You couldn't help but like him."

One of Hartman's favorite stories is one Davis told him about coming to bat for the Athletics on Ladies' Day. "The whole stadium was full of ladies, and he came to bat and shook his rear and did a little can-can dance in the box," Hartman said. "He said the place went crazy and he had phone calls from women all over the place."

Though "Bull Durham" was released 13 years ago, and he last played 49 years ago, people still wanted to know about Crash Davis. He was a featured guest at a Smithsonian Institution event this summer celebrating the 100th anniversary of the minor leagues. He was a founding member of the Minor League Baseball Alumni Association. He was a fund-raiser for Duke, a Sunday school teacher, a coach, a parent, a friend.

He became a bigger part of the game than anyone who saw him smack into that left fielder way back when could have imagined. Strange as it may seem, he was even a symbol.

Davis threw out the first pitch at a Greensboro Bats game in April. Jeff Manto, the hitting coach for the visiting Lakewood Blueclaws, was at the game and on his next visit to Greensboro asked to meet Davis. He said meeting Davis helped him come to grips with the end of his 16-year playing career. In his locker this year he propped up a picture of them together.

"The latter part of my career a lot of articles were written about me," Manto said. "They kept saying things like, 'Jeff Manto, a la Crash Davis' and I thought that was pretty cool. The more it went on the more intrigued I got. And when I saw him throw out the first pitch back in April it shocked the hell out of me. I mean, I didn't even know where this guy lived. I didn't know anything about him.

"What was funny is that the whole thing triggered a couple of stages for me that helped bring closure in my career. When you end your career you think 'What did I miss?' and 'What were the best memories?' and that sort of thing. In some kind of crazy way, I don't know what kind, really, it was a way to help me accept that my days as a player had ended. He didn't even say a whole lot to me. It's just because he was there."

Crash Davis was more than the guy from "Bull Durham." It's simply how things began with people. And he accepted the role. Anyway, it didn't take long to get all that out of the way and to know the real Lawrence Davis after he flashed his trademark smile.

"Life's funny," Davis said in July. "It only takes one or two things to happen and it sort of propels you up there in the atmosphere to a different level. I know this very well."

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