Giants fixture Davenport reaches 50-year plateau
Longtime San Francisco player and coach revered by peers, disciples alike
SAN FRANCISCO -- Jim Davenport is woven into the fabric of the San Francisco Giants as tightly as the interlocking "SF" on the team's caps.
While Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal and Orlando Cepeda have been honored with statues outside AT&T Park, Davenport built his everlasting monument with the sheer length and breadth of his career. This year will mark his 50th with the organization, a half-century of service that figuratively places him alongside the club's all-time greats. Only clubhouse manager Mike Murphy has spent more years with the Giants than Davenport, 80.
The oldest generation of West Coast Giants fans know Davenport as the deft third baseman who broke into the Major Leagues in 1958, the franchise's inaugural season in San Francisco. Since retiring as a player in 1970 -- a tenure spent exclusively with the Giants -- Davenport has served the club as a coach and manager in the Major and Minor Leagues, as well as in his current capacity as a roving instructor and special-assignment scout.
"They've been awfully good to me, no question about that," Davenport said recently. "Everything I have, I owe to the Giants, that's for sure."
Except for stints as a coach with San Diego (1974-75), Philadelphia ('88) and Cleveland ('89) and as an advance scout for Detroit ('91-92), Davenport has remained a Giant since he signed his first professional contract in 1955. He expects to begin his 50th Giants season in early March by visiting Minor League camp at Spring Training, where he'll help tutor and evaluate players.
Two of Davenport's contemporaries used similar imagery to describe his devotion to the Giants.
McCovey, who amassed many of his Hall of Fame credentials while playing across the diamond from Davenport, expressed profound respect for his fellow infielder.
"Jimmy was one of those steadying rods on that team," McCovey said.
Joe Amalfitano has known Davenport as a teammate, an opponent, a colleague and, most of all, a friend.
"Jimmy's a pillar of that organization," said Amalfitano, himself a baseball "lifer" who has spent 60 years in the game and occupies a role with the Giants similar to Davenport's. "If you cut his veins, red wouldn't come out. It would be orange and black. I truly believe that."
McCovey readily acknowledged that Davenport merits the same respect accorded to the franchise's immortals.
"Jimmy is as much a part of the Giant organization as me and Mays," McCovey said. "We got all the publicity, but ... we all appreciated Jimmy. He looked up to guys like myself and Mays, but we looked up to him as much as he did us."
Many who never saw Davenport play have felt his influence. Kevin Frandsen, the Phillies infielder who began his professional career with the Giants, still reminds himself to crouch lower in his fielding stance as he plays closer to home plate. That's a tip he received as a Minor Leaguer from Davenport.
As Frandsen recalled, Davenport did more than share defensive fundamentals. He also exuded an infectious pride in the organization.
"It was, 'I am a Giant, I will always be a Giant and I'm going to do everything I can to show how it is to be a Giant,'" Frandsen said.
Davenport derived his work ethic from his father, Walt, who worked at a textile mill: "My father said, 'Give a man a day's work for a day's pay,' and I think I always tried to live that."
Walt Davenport provided a positive example in other ways. Born in Siluria, Ala., young Jim Davenport wasn't blind to the racial strife that surrounded him. But working with African-Americans at the textile mill inoculated Walt Davenport from prejudice, an attitude he conveyed to Jim and his siblings. "Things happened in the South between blacks and whites at that time, as we well know," Jim Davenport said. "But there was nothing like that in my family."
"There was not a prejudiced bone in his body, and that's what I admired about him so much," McCovey said. "He was just a regular guy."
This was evident toward the end of Davenport's playing career in 1968, when outfielder Bobby Bonds joined the Giants. Living near each other in the San Francisco suburb of San Carlos, Bonds and Davenport became fast friends and remained tight until Bonds' death in 2003.
"They were like Mutt and Jeff," McCovey said with a chuckle. "They were always together."
Said Davenport of Bonds: "We played golf together, we fished together. ... Gosh, I miss him."
Barry Bonds continued to honor his father's friendship with Davenport, as Frandsen noticed during his first two seasons with the Giants (2006-07).
"Barry never got up for anyone," Frandsen said of the sometimes sullen home-run king. "But if he heard Davvy's voice in the background, he'd be in that other room. It was because of how Davvy was with Bobby. They were like brothers. And Barry knew it. Not one day went by that he took that for granted."
Younger players joining the Giants in the '60s benefited from Davenport's genial, giving nature. For instance, Davenport had settled into a utility infielder's role by 1964, when middle infielder Hal Lanier was promoted to San Francisco. Lanier potentially could have taken playing time from Davenport, yet that didn't stop Davenport from assisting Lanier when necessary.
"He paid special attention to those people," Lanier said. "... He's one of the nicest guys you'd ever want to meet."
Outfielder Ken Henderson echoed Lanier.
"He was especially good with rookies," Henderson said. "He is just a down-to-earth guy, and very special. I cannot pick out any one specific example, but I remember when I was a rookie at age 19 in 1965, he would point things out to me in certain situations in an effort to help me make smart decisions on the field. Hitting the cutoff man so that runners wouldn't advance, taking the extra base, getting runners over -- all the things that would make me a better player, and an asset to the team."
Davenport was always an asset. He led National League third basemen in fielding percentage each season from 1959-61 and won a Gold Glove for fielding excellence in '62. That was the same year he made the NL All-Star team. Davenport played 97 consecutive errorless games at third base from July 26, 1966-April 28, 1968, a Major League record that was eventually broken by Pittsburgh's John Wehner.
"The first thing you think about Jim as a player is that glove at third base," McCovey said. "He wasn't flashy like Brooks Robinson, but he could really pick it over there. He was the best I've ever seen. He gave you a perfect throw all the time."
In a sense, third base still belongs to Davenport. He played 1,130 games there, more than any other Giant. "The American League had Brooks Robinson, but in his era in the National League, I'd like to know who was a better defensive third baseman," Amalfitano said.
A .258 lifetime hitter, Davenport complemented the powerful Giants lineups of the '60s. Early in his career, he frequently batted leadoff. Playing on ballclubs that often ignored fundamentals, he ranked among the NL's top 10 in sacrifice bunts seven times. As late as 1969, his final full season in the Majors, Davenport stroked 10 game-winning hits. He could be counted on in the clutch, batting .285 lifetime with runners in scoring position, and .388 with a runner on third base and less than two outs.
"I came along with some guys who could swing the bat well," Davenport said. "I was smart enough to do the little things -- hit and run, bunt and catch the ball -- to make myself a decent player. I wasn't going to hit for a .300 average or hit the ball out of the ballpark."
Amalfitano believed that Davenport deserved more recognition for his all-around skills.
"He was kind of under the radar with his career," said Amalfitano, who played for the Astros and Cubs, besides the Giants.
But Davenport never drew attention to himself. Asked about his impressive .290 batting average against Sandy Koufax, Davenport said of the Dodgers legend, "He probably felt sorry for me."
Davenport's modesty, like all of his other qualities, was genuine. Gary Davenport, one of five children born to Davenport and his wife, Betty, has constantly observed this trait. As manager of the Giants' short-season, rookie-level Salem-Keizer farm club, Gary Davenport has the privilege of occasionally working with his father and seeing how he and others interact.
"The one word that comes to mind every time you talk to him or about him is how humble he is," Gary Davenport said. "It's not like he ever thought that the Giants have owed him anything. It's always, he owed the Giants, and he was very fortunate and he played with good ballplayers and they could afford to keep a good defensive third baseman and stuff like that. ... I like how humble he is and how he let his production and ability talk, and not his mouth."
Obviously, the Giants appreciate Davenport considerably. And the feeling is mutual.
"It's been 50 wonderful years," he said. "They've been great, and I've enjoyed every year."