Baseball Digest Birthdays: Crash Davis

This post first appeared on BaseballDigest.com

Thanks in part to the fifth best sports movie of all time(according to the American Film Institute), Lawrence “Crash” Davis lives on for baseball fans and moviegoers as a central character of “Bull Durham”. While the real life Crash Davis wasn’t quite the character that Kevin Costner portrays in the 1988 hit, his life and career are nonetheless worth celebrating, along with the great hope that minor league baseball offers to hundreds of players each summer.

Born in 1919 in Greensboro, North Carolina, Davis(unlike the movie version) actually went straight from college ball at Duke University to playing infield for the Philadelphia Athletics for three seasons beginning in 1940. He played 86 games with the 1942 Athletics before being drafted into the United States Navy during World War II. Upon his discharge in 1946, he returned to Duke for further schooling, and began his seven year career throughout the minor leagues. Aside from Costner’s Crash Davis being a catcher rather than an infielder, another difference between the movie and reality was that Crash Davis didn’t own the all time minor league home run record. In his minor league career, he slugged just 51 homers.

In an August 1981 issue of Baseball Digest, Art Rosenbaum wrote about the great nicknames in Major League Baseball, including “Crash” Davis. Click here to read the full article!

The real Crash Davis had a much more impressive major league career than the Crash Davis in the Bull Durham story, who had spent just 21 days in the big leagues. Crash Davis’ first big league hit came off Spud Chandler of the New York Yankees, went on to win AL MVP honors three years later, on August 11, 1940. Though Davis struggled to establish himself as an everyday player, he did manage to slug a few big leagues home runs near the end. In 1942, he cranked homers off Yank Terry of the Detroit Tigers and Dizzy Trout of the Boston Red Sox in games where the score was decided by one run.

Upon returning from military service, Davis caught on with the Lawrence Millionaires in Massachusetts for two years before moving on to join the Durham Bulls for the 1948 season. With the Bulls, Davis led the team with 50 doubles(a league record) and 171 hits overall. He played alongside Babe Birrer, a brief big leaguer who went on to compile 18 years and 139 wins in the minor leagues. Birrer played eight seasons in the minors after his last big league game; which evokes the character trait of Kevin Costner’s Crash Davis, who had spent years trying to get back to the big leagues.

Crash Davis played just the one season with the Durham Bulls and moved on to Raleigh Capitals and Reidsville Luckies over the final three seasons of his professional career. The phrase “Art mirrors life” has an especially strong meaning with the teams that Crash Davis played with, and the teammates who continued on years after their best(and often brief) big league days were behind them. The fictional Crash Davis could easily represent many of the minor leaguers of the day. Cecil “Turkey” Tyson, for example, played with Davis on the 1949 Raleigh Capitals and had just one at bat with the 1944 Philadelphia Phillies. His minor league career included 15 seasons, hitting .309 with nearly 2,000 hits. He last played in 1952, eight years after that single at bat in the major leagues. Mike “Iron Man” Kash is another teammate of Davis who logged 20 years in the minors without a whiff of the big leagues.

In retirement, Crash Davis went on to coach high school and legion teams, and he became a minor celebrity in his own right when the movie featuring his namesake hit the big screen. He passed away in August of 2001, but his connection to the great Bull Durham story is retold throughout minor league ballparks where players young and old are trying to get one more shot at the big leagues.

Also Born Today:

Tim Hudson(b.1975), the three time All-Star and four time top 10 Cy Young Award finisher has eight wins on the 2011 season and 173 for his career with the Oakland Athletics and Atlanta Braves. Since having Tommy John Surgery in 2009, he has won 27 games and has had an ERA of 3.14. Despite a 1-3 postseason record, he has a career 3.46 ERA in 10 games over 54+ innings.

Robin Ventura(b.1967), a two time All-Star, six time Gold Glove winner, and owner of 294 career home runs may be best remembered for his 1993 rumble with Texas Rangers icon and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan. Ventura charged the mound after being plunked by Ryan, and was put pummeled by the Texan upon arrival. The incident is replayed regularly at Rangers home games.

Bob Purkey(b. 1929, d. 2008) was a five time All-Star who spent most of his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds. The knuckleballer was a member of the 1961 Reds that lost to the New York Yankees in the World Series. He won 129 games over 13 seasons, and his best year arguably was in 1962 when he notched 23 wins and finished third in the MLB Cy Young Award voting.

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