added 8/31/05 by Willie B. Lakey
It took a mutual friend and a couple of weeks playing phone tag to catch up with former big leaguer Jerry DaVanon, and it sure was worth it.
Born Frank Gerald DaVanon in Oceanside, California on August 21, 1945, DaVanon looks taller than the 5-11 heís listed at in The Baseball Encyclopedia, and looks no more than the 175 they show for his playing weight. Not that I was expecting to meet a guy completely out of shape like myself, but considering our interview took place just a week or so shy of his 60th birthday, I was impressed to meet a man who looked every bit capable of fitting into those old, striped knit Astros jerseys from the mid-70s and not come off looking like an over-stuffed pumpkin.
How he has kept in shape over the years is something I would find out during our 90-minute conversation that included about 20 minutes of plain old conversation off-the-record while we ate lunch just a few minutes south of the Astrodome where I first saw DaVanon play during his two years with the Astros in 1975-76.
Despite bouncing around all over the baseball map from the mid-60s until 1977, Houston is where he chose to put down some roots and make a life. He currently works in sales for a specialty metals company in the Houston area and has two grown children. His son, Jeff, was also born on the West Coast but is a well-known name in Houston after playing high school ball at Bellaire. Jeff DaVanon currently plays for the Angels and is in his sixth season of major league service after originally being drafted by the Athletics in 1995.
Jerry DaVanon was initially selected by the Houston Astros in the 36th-round of the June 1965 draft, but did not sign. The following year, St. Louis grabbed him in the 1st-round (17th-pick) and he did sign to finally begin his professional baseball career. Between then and May 1977, DaVanon also spent time with the Padres, Orioles, Angels, Astros and, very briefly, with the Indians and Tigers.
Thanks to my friends John and Mike Mihaly who put me in touch with DaVanon. And, of course, special thanks to Jerry himself for not only taking the time to entertain and educate me, but he also picked up the lunch tab. I almost thought it was Christmas!
Jerry DaVanon: Just like you have it, D-a-Capital V-a-n-o-n. Itís always been that way, itís just that some people donít know it and use a little vee sometimes.
WBL: And happy birthday a little early since I see you have one coming up.
JD: Yeah, thanks, unfortunately I have too many decades going along right now (laughing).
WBL: You were originally drafted by the Astros in 1965, but didnít sign and were drafted again in 1966 by St. Louis. Why didnít you sign and what did you do from í65 to í66?
JD: Well, when the Astros drafted me, they drafted me as an outfielder. And I felt like if I was ever going to get to the big leagues, Iíd never make it as an outfielder. When I was in junior college is when (Houston) drafted me. I was, that year I played a myriad of positions. I played second and center because we had some injuries. And they thought I would be a better center fielder because I could run a little bit, so they put me out in center field. And thatís where I got seen as an outfielder. I didnít think I had enough power to play as an outfielder, so I felt like my chances were better to turn that opportunity down and go back to college.
WBL: What junior college was that?
JD: I went to San Diego City College first, but when I was drafted my coach moved to San Diego Mesa College, so I went there. I had a student deferment, you know, back at that time it was called a 2-S.
WBL: Where did you eventually graduate?
JD: I graduated from Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, with a degree in the Social Sciences with an emphasis on American history. I received my teaching certification from San Diego State College with a minor in Physical Education.
WBL: When you were drafted by the Cardinals, Iím assuming you started playing with their organization down in St. Petersburg?
JD: I started in Double-A because one of my Ďsigning bonusesí was I told them that being drafted where I was I wanted to start in Double-A. So I started in Little Rock, Arkansas. And they were true to their word --- waitress interrupts us briefly ---true to their word, they started me in Double-A. But two weeks later they shipped me to Rookie League (laughs). And then a month after that, they moved me up to A-ball, and I stayed there until my following year.
WBL: Where were you in í68 when the expansion Padres drafted you?
JD: I was in Little Rock, Arkansas, with the (Cardinalsí) Double-A team.
WBL: Were you excited about going to a brand new club in San Diego?
JD: Yeah, I really was, you know, going home like that. It was quite an honor but also quite a shock. My high school team was the Cardinals and I always thought the Birds would never leave me. So it was tough because I was very comfortable where I was, and then going to a whole new organization and starting over was a little scary.
WBL: What about other spots had you played in minor league ball? Any place stick out in your memories?
JD: I played in Rochester, New York, and was never so cold in my life playing baseball. I also played in Salt Lake City for the Angels and in the last game of the year I went 4-for-5 to end up hitting over .300.The Cardinals had me in and out of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in three different years. And I had some great times and seasons during winter ball in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. My team in Puerto Rico went to the Caribbean World Series.
WBL: Another transaction that I found interesting on your charts was in 1975 when, in a period of about a month-&-a-half, you went from the Tigers to the Indians to the Astros. How did all of that happen?
JD: What happened back in that period of time was I got sent from the Cardinals to the Tigers, and (Detroit) sent me a huge pay cut. I said, I wrote them back and I said if thatís all you think about me, why donít you send me my release? So I got my release. And then the reason that I went to Cleveland was I played for two years, you know, with Frank Robinson with Baltimore, and he was managing winter ball in Puerto Rico, and I played for him in Puerto Rico. So I felt my best chances of getting to the big leagues was with Cleveland because Frank Robinson already knew me. And the two clubs who were talking to me at that time (after his release) were the Astros and the Indians. So I chose the Indians, because I thought I had a better chance with them.
WBL: And then the Astros purchased your contract from ClevelandÖ
JD: Yeah, right at the end of Spring Training, like a week left in Spring Training, I got purchased by the Astros.
WBL: Did the Astros have some injury and thatís why they made the late spring deal for you?
JD: I have no idea.
WBL: You eventually made your Astros debut on August 03, 1975, in San Francisco in a doubleheader against the Giants. Started at shortstop and went 2-for-4 with a pair of singles and scored twice. Anything from that game stick out in your memory.
JD: When I say this, and I donít want to sound bad, but I was having a very good year, I think I was in the top 10 in hitting in Iowa, and I was going well. And in August, I never thought I was going to get back to the big leagues. So during the All-Star break I went home to California and, because I was a college graduate I had a teaching degree, and I had been long-term substituting in the offseason. That was my offseason job, you know, because you used to have to work back then. So I had been teaching for two winters. They had a brand new high school opening (Fall of 1975), and I went to interview for a position as a teacher-coach. And they accepted me, and gave me the opportunity because I would be home in September. In those days, California schools didnít start until after Labor Day, and our (minor league) season would be over Labor Day, and we were in last place, so it was perfect. I might not be there to set my room up right away, but Iíd only be a day or two late. And then, it was quite ironic, they say, well, youíre going to go up to the big leagues. And how many times does a Triple-A manager do that, you know, thatís the excitement. You were talking about Ball Four earlier, and thatís something from that book, that the nice part about being a (minor league) manager is telling somebody theyíre going to the big leagues and the worst part is telling somebody theyíre going home.
I told the manager I didnít want to go. I said I had a position (teaching), that Iíd be just as happy to stay (in the minors) and finish out the season. And he said, ďNo, you gottaí go.Ē I said, ďI donít want to go.Ē He says, ďWhat they tell me is itís just until (Roger) Metzger is back, youíll go up there for 10 days and come back.Ē So I said ok.
I went up to the big leagues and was there for the month of September, finished out the year. I was very fortunate. My wife at that time had the same degree that I had. And I talked the school district into letting her teach my classes and that when I would come in October it would be an easy transition because we would sit together, she knew my students and I knew hers, and we would just transition from her to me. And then off Iíd go on down the road. They agreed to it, and it started off very well until December (1975) and the Astros sent me a contract and pretty much promised me a position in the big leagues. I was still a few days minus from getting my pension. So this would give me my pension, and I resigned my position with the school district to go to Spring Training. And it really wasnít one of those things, after them bending over backwards for me, (the school district) werenít the happiest of campers at the time.
WBL: The í75-í76 teams that you played with in Houston reads like a Whoís Who list of Astros Greats --- Larry Dierker, Jose Cruz, Cesar Cedeno, JR Richard was just coming up, Bob Watson, Joe Niekro, Art Howe and Joe Sambito just to name a few. Do you still keep up with any of them or any other players that you played with along the way?
JD: Some of the guys I see locally. My son (Jeff) grew up here, and I sort of managed with the Bellaire High School offseason baseball program, summer and fall. A couple of seasons I managed against Terry Puhl, Alan Ashby, and Dierkerís son, also against Kevin Bassí kids. So I sort of saw them in opposite dugouts. (Jose Jr.) Cruz played with my son side-by-side all the way through. And Iíd say Jose was, he was Iíd say average up until his junior year. But his junior year it was like somebody hit a light switch, like a bolt of lightning hit him and he just exploded.
At one time John McMullen, I know heís not the most popular name around here, was starting an alumni association for old Astros. It lasted one year, and then, when Drayton (McLane) first took over the club, it sort of disappeared. And as you well know, theyíre trying to re-institute that here in the last six months. Also, where I used to see some of them, there are a few (golf) tournaments for fundraisers, and theyíll give me a call.
WBL: Did you play in the alumni tourney that they held back in June?
JD: Yeah, I did. Came in second place. It was out at Wildcat, and I got to see a lot of players that I havenít seen in a while. Got to see Bill Virdon, whom I havenít seen for a long time. Talked to Tim Purpura, bumped into him. But a lot of old Astros that I havenít seen. Saw Joe Niekro, Sambito, got to see JR, Tal Smith. It was a nice time reminiscing, saw Craig Reynolds. Heís a Youth Minister at Second Baptist and his son, you know, is a star at Baylor. And heís remained close to Puhl and Sambito through their church ties. And Sambito is working for the Hendricks Brothers. The Hendricks opened up a West Coast office and (Sambito) moved out to Anaheim to work in that arena for the Hendricks group that was purchased by, I donít know, some other athletic organization. But Sambito is out there now.
WBL: Youíre from Southern California and your son was born there as well. What made you decide to settle in the Houston area?
JD: Well, (laughs) you know, I thought I was going to have a long career with the Astros after I had a nice season in í76. And I thought it sure would be nice to have a home in the city where Iím going to be playing instead of traveling back and forth. If you can believe this, Iím in the process of shutting down the home in California and closing on a home in Houston and, a week before, I get a phone call saying Iíve been traded to the Cardinals. I was devastated, because I just sold my home in California and I was coming here, driving cross-country on Monday to close on a house here (in Houston). And I said to my wife, ďWhat are we going to do?Ē And so I became a Texan and moved to Texas and have been very happy.
I thought, after the year I had, that Iíd be set for 2-3 years. In September, I was trying to become (the Astrosí) third catcher. I warmed up everybody in the bullpen because we only had two catchers, and when we had two people warming up, with one (catcher) in the game, Iíd always be down in the bullpen. And in between batting practice Iíd catch guys. I just enjoyed it. I didnít need a facemask and shin guards to catch a fastball and a curve. So I thought that if I was the third catcher and could play three infield positions, Iím going to be around for a while. And at the time they were talking about taking me to Spring Training with the pitchers and catchers.
WBL: And then they ended up trading you, along with Dierker, for a catcher, Joe Ferguson. It seemed like the club back then was always looking for a catcher.
JD: Yeah, exactly. But they never could get (a catcher) that they wanted. You know, they tried Cliff Johnson. Cliff could hit but he was just sort of, uh, a little stiff in his hands. And they just never could find somebody that could fill that position.
WBL: So you stuck around Houston, and you eventually refereed high school basketball.
JD: Yeah, I enjoy that. Iíve been doing it now for over 25 years.
WBL: So youíre still doing it?
JD: Yeah, you know, you always love the game that you canít play (laughs). It wasnít that I wasnít quick enough, I just wasnít tall enough. But I love the game (basketball). And I got involved in it, and it keeps you in shape. You work at that time of year when you eat too much, it helps you keep your waistline in check. And also, I get the best seat in the house and make a few dollars. A little play money, and I get to see a lot of great athletes come through the Houston area.
WBL: Do you only officiate basketball?
JD: Yes, I just do basketball.
WBL: Was this something you took up after you quit playing baseball?
JD: No. I had an opportunity when I came here (after baseball) to do two things, to either teach or get into sales. My wife at the time had a cousin here who was, had a (sales) rep firm. And since I still had some money coming to me from baseball, I started repping. And that progressed into more and more outside sales. I looked into it at the time, checked with HISD since thatís the school district we were living in, I never checked any others, and I think the starting salary was something like $16,000 a year. And in sales, I was going to make over $20,000 a year. So sales was the avenue that I pursued.
One of the guys that got me involved in basketball was Doug Harvey (former NL umpire). I started in San Diego with Doug Harvey because in the offseason he did basketball there. And Harvey talked me into (refereeing) out in San Diego. And when I got here, after a year, I went through a divorce and it was pretty hard when I had first and third graders, my son and my daughter, being a single parent, to get out and do too much at night.
WBL: Do you still see or hear from Harvey?
JD: No, because he stayed out on the West Coast and I was here.
WBL: Any other umpires you remember or still run into?
JD: Satch Davidson, you know, Satch is such a great guy. I still see him here at some of the local events. But not any others, because umpires, theyíre not youíre enemies but theyíre also not someone we ever socialized with (while playing).
WBL: When you were growing up who were the players you admired?
JD: Thatís a tough question. I donít know if I really looked up to anybody, but in San Diego, we had Clevelandís minor league team there, Triple-A. And (Rocky) Colavito used to play for San Diego, and I liked him.
WBL: Do you get to see your son Jeff play much?
JD: Every night on TV that he plays. Iíd say the greatest innovation in baseball has been that Dish Network and even the Internet, the MLB. But I get to watch every night on TV as long as their gameís broadcast. Roughly, Iíd say I get a good 90% of his games. When I get disappointed is when the Astros play the Rangers because for some reason the Angels games are blacked out then. And I get to Arlington every time (the Angels are) there.
WBL: Ok, thought Iíd jog your memory here a little bit with some notes about some individual games during your career. Did you know that all three of your home runs were 3-run shots?
JD: No, I didnít ever think of that. To be honest, I couldnít even remember who I hit the first one off until you reminded me the other day in your e-mail (against Montrealís Mike Wegener in Jarry Park on September 26, 1969).
WBL: You made your major league debut on April 11, 1969, in San Diego, your hometown. You pinch hit for Padres pitcher Tommie Sisk, faced Ray Sadecki of the Giants and flew out to Bobby Bonds in right field. You remember any of that?
JD: (Laughing) My heart was pounding like a tom-tom, thatís about all I remember. I was the only member of the Padres team that had no major league experience already. I came from Double-A. I was in Little Rock (the season before) and made the ball club.
WBL: You get your first big league hit a few days later, on April 15, at Candlestick Park leading off the game against Juan Marichal. Thatís got to have been a thrill.
JD: Exactly. It was quite an experience because, growing up in Southern California, the only people we listened to were the Dodgers. I grew up listening to Vin Scully, and the Giants were the Dodgersí arch rivals.
WBL: So it really meant something coming off Marichal?
JD: Oh yeah. The interesting part, I always thought I was going to be a Dodger. I was playing for a small school when I signed with the Cardinals. I was playing for a school like H.B.U., you know, a small Christian liberal arts college called Westmont in Santa Barbara. And Tommy Lasorda was coming to look at some guys with the University of California in Santa Barbara. And he was killing some time and he heard there was a baseball game up at our school. My girlfriend at the time was sitting in the stands talking to Lasorda, and I had a pretty good game. In fact, I think I went 3-for-4 with a couple of doubles, and hit the ball well all four times. So Lasorda invited me and my wife, later on, down to Dodger Stadium and I sat in (Los Angeles GM Buzzie) Bavasiís box and watched the game! And guess who was pitching? Sandy Koufax! So I just thought that was it, that I was going to be a Dodger. And when I heard I got drafted by the Cardinals, I was just stunned!
WBL: You played alongside another great pitcher, Bob Gibson. What do you remember about him? What was he like in the clubhouse?
JD: You know, the two people that were hardest to get to know for me, but they became friends, were Frank Robinson and Bob Gibson. They just wanted to see who you were first. But once I got to know them, we became good friends. I could tease with them. I mean, we all became friends, but there were just some guys that wanted to see who you were first, see if you were a real person before they act. And others, like Lou Brock, heís the first guy who came up to me and said (extending hand), ďIím Lou Brock. Welcome.Ē Gibson just wasnít that way.
WBL: Your second of three career homers was in the Astrodome on August 11, 1975. Do you remember where you hit it, where it landed?
JD: Right down the left field line. In fact my son tied me, did you know that? He hit a home run during a playoff game for Bellaire. So he tied my record. We each have one home run in The Dome (laughing).
WBL: You had a few 3-hit games in your career, and one of them was at Busch Stadium on August 26, 1975. It was a 12-inning, 10-9 loss to the Cardinals, and you had three of Houstonís 20 hits.
JD: I think it was just like you always play well against your former team, and I always performed well against the Cardinals.
WBL: For a while you were tied with a few others for most RBI in a single game with the Astros with five. Rafael Ramirez eventually set the mark with seven. Your 5-RBI game came on May 30, 1976, in Atlanta at Fulton County Stadium. In the second game of a doubleheader that day, you went 3-for-6 and drove in five. The clincher was a bases-loaded triple in the ninth off Braves pitcher Bruce Dal Canton.
JD: I just missed a grand slam by that much (holding hands about eight inches apart).
WBL: Your last career homer came off Pirates lefty John Candelaria in Pittsburgh (July 20, 1976). How tough was he to hit then?
JD: Well, you know, that was during his heyday. Like anybody, you get to the big leagues hitting a fastball, and you get to the big leagues throwing a fastball. If the pitcher throws it in the inner third or the outer third of the plate, more times than not heís going to win. If he throws it in the middle third, more times heís going to lose. (Candelaria) just happened to throw one in the middle third and tried to throw it by me. Itís just like, you know, I played with Nolan Ryan with the Angels. One time, during Spring Training, I had to take BP off Nolan Ryan. Most BP, theyíre throwing like high 70s, and (Ryanís) throwing upper 80s, low 90s. So you had to gear up just to hit the ball in BP. Completely un-fun.
WBL: Your last game as an Astro, you drove in the winning run in the bottom of the ninth (September 19, 1976). Do you remember that?
JD: No, I really donít.
WBL: It was a pinch-hit single that plated Wilbur Howard and made a winner out of Mark Lemongello. And the pitcher you were facing was San Diegoís Randy Jones. What I thought was interesting was that Jones had hit you with a pitch about a week earlier. Did that get your adrenaline going a week later when you faced him again?
JD: No. He couldnít throw hard enough to raise a red mark on you anyway (laughs). You know, if you really look at him, he was a modern, like the guy thatís up in Seattle right now, the left-handerÖ
WBL: Jamie Moyer?
JD: Jamie Moyer, yeah. Jones was even a little like Kenny Rogers. You just sort of have to look for a pitch from them in a certain location and drive it. Because you know what heís going to do, heís going to try to show you the fastball and get you out with the breaking ball.
WBL: Your last major league game was on May 4, 1977. The Cardinals released you after that. Did you stick around any longer in the minors and try to get back to the big leagues?
JD: No. What happened was, if you look at my career, I moved around a lot. And when the Cardinals released me, my wife said, ďThatís it. Iím going home.Ē And she had been chasing me all over the map, and the Mets called me and wanted me to go to Norfolk, Virginia. And my wife said, ďLetís go home and be a family.Ē And so I tried to get into, tried to get the Astros, you know, Tal Smith to pick me up. But he said. ďSorry, just donít have any room for you.Ē Iíd have loved to have caught on with the Astros, but it just wasnít there.
WBL: So what do you miss most from your playing days?
JD: I always tell people I miss the camaraderie. I really wish I had the chance to get 250 or more at bats in a season. You know, I played on some good teams, played with four 20-game winners with Baltimore. How many guys have a chance to do that? I got an American League Championship ring. But if you said to me, if you asked me would I give all of that up just to have a full-time job for one season along the way, I donít know, I might do it.
But playing baseball, the way my career worked out, really taught me two things that are important, have served me well. It really helped me in sales because of the simple reason I was traded a lot and had to adjust to new surroundings all the time. And I learned to keep an even keel on things, keep my emotions on a steady plane. You canít get too excited when you go 3-for-4 one night and you canít, you know, get too down when you go 0-for-4 because you still have to get up and go back out there the next day. Same thing in sales, you canít get too excited with a big sale or no sale because you have to just go out and make the next sale.