1921 Orioles: Ducky Davis
Catching was always the weak link in Jack Dunn’s seven consecutive pennant winning teams. From 1919 to 1925, the Birds went through no less than 10 backstops who played 20 games or more a season, with none really attaining the major league level of offense and defense that could be found manning every other position in the Orioles lineup. The 1921 team had Babe Ruth’s first catcher from 1914, Ben Egan, but he was a well-used 37, a light hitter, and injury prone. Dunn had been counting on Wade Lefler as a possible second-string catcher, but nagging arm problems that limited his ability to throw out base runners. When the team finished spring training without finding a suitable backup to Egan, Jack Dunn sent his scouts scurrying around Baltimore see if they could find a local solution.
Just before opening day, the scouts came back with three sandlotters: Peck Larian and Harry Gerwig, catchers for the St. Martin’s Catholic Club and Cal Davis, an 18 year-old who hired himself out for several good industrial league teams. Dunn put Davis, called “Ducky,” to work fast – throwing him into the last two innings of a pre-season exhibition game against the Philadelphia Athletics. He performed flawlessly behind the plate and in his only at bat he scorched a single to left field, driving in a run. Ducky was signed to an Orioles contract that night.
It wasn’t an ideal situation, Davis was still in his teens and being trusted with catching the best pitching staff in the highest level of minor leagues had to be intimidating. One big hitch was that he had to take two steps before throwing the ball to catch a base runner. However, Davis learned on the job with the old veteran Ben Egan mentoring him. In just the fourth game of season, Davis started against Rochester. He caught Jack Bentley without an error and went 3 for 5 at the plate, including a two-run triple that led the Baltimore Sun to call him “the pride of the 1400 block of East Preston Street.”
Still, Jack Dunn actively sought a more experienced backstop, finally grabbing veteran Harry Manning when Buffalo put him on waivers the last week of April. Unfortunately Manning couldn’t hit and was rendered completely useless after he split his finger in early June. So now, all hope lay with the kid from East Preston Street.
Though a rookie, Ducky had one thing other Orioles catchers never had – the confidence (or lack of sense) to catch Lefty Groves without using signs. Though Groves (he would drop the “s” in his last name when he made the majors four years later) set strikeout records and led the league in that category several times, he was scarily wild, making catching him a challenge to even the most veteran backstops. It might be opined that since Ducky was fresh off the sandlots where he was probably used to catching wild and inaccurate pitchers, just like Lefty Grove was in 1921. A 1925 article in the Baltimore Evening Sun proclaimed that Davis, “holds the distinction of being the only receiver to catch Lefty Groves without signals.”
While he didn’t set the league aflame with his bat, he did a credible job for a rookie playing in the highest class of minor league. He played 44 games behind the plate, second to Egan’s 95 and committed 4 errors for a .972 fielding percentage, above average for International League catchers that year. He hit .269 with 8 extra base hits – not great but not anything to be embarrassed about neither. But as valuable as Ducky was on the field as the Orioles backup catcher that summer, he was even more valuable to the team off it.
In an article in the April 18, 1922 Baltimore Evening Sun, Davis’ teammates all acknowledged that the grinning boy catcher was the butt of most locker room pranks. Even mentor Ben Egan got in on the fun, sending Ducky fake telegrams from Senators owner Clark Griffith and Dodgers owner Charlie Ebbets informing the catcher that they were interested in signing him. Relief pitcher Harry Frank took Ducky to see Niagara Falls when the team was in Buffalo. Seeing the rookie’s awe at the natural wonder of the falls, Frank told the rookie that it was even more impressive at night when they turn the water off. To no one’s surprise, Ducky returned to the falls the next evening after supper to see for himself. Another time Ducky was scheduled to start behind the plate, but at game time he was not on the field. Dunn dashed into the locker room to find his catcher. Sure enough, Ducky was in there, trying to squeeze into the batboy’s uniform and cap which someone placed in his locker to wear.
But while acknowledging that the boy backstop was the target of jibes, his teammates also noted how much his joyful attitude and big, non-stop grin helped liven the whole ball club.
In a game at Syracuse on July 17, Joe Boley hit a long ball that the shortstop thought cleared the wall for a home run. However, the ump called it foul, enraging the usually quiet and reserved Boley who threw his cap in disgust. Ducky, who was waiting to bat next, yelled to Boley, “why don’t you hit ’em fair, Joe?” Boley got back in the box and lined a single. Ducky then hit his one and only home run of the season, the ball clearing the fence almost exactly where Boley’s had. As the teen catcher rounded the bases he razzed the umps with, “call that one fair!”
It is often unsung heroes like Ducky Davis who keeps a team loose during a the dog days of a pennant race, contributing a certain something to a team that doesn’t show up in the stat book.
The hometown-boy-made-good remained very popular in Baltimore, and like most of the other Orioles, he landed a job promoting a local business – in his case hawking a line of business typewriters. A story from December reveals that he had given up the venture, admitting that he had failed to sell a single unit.
Ducky was invited to spring training the next year, but Dunn now had former Philadelphia A’s Wickey McAvoy as the main catcher backed up by future big leaguer Lena Styles. The kid from East Preston Street was farmed out to the Pocomoke City Salamanders of the Eastern Shore League, but he hit just .188 in 48 games. He was picked up by the Eastern League’s Springfield Ponys in 1923, hitting .272 as their first string backstop. He briefly returned to the International League the following year with Jersey City, but was released after playing a single game. Ducky returned to Baltimore where he was put to work catching for several semi-pro teams, including the Yellow Cab Company. The cabbies even featured a photo of Davis in newspaper ads promoting their games, proudly boasting of the former Oriole now catching for them.
In the spring of 1925, Jack Dunn found himself facing another season with a questionable catching staff. Just as he did in ’21, he called on Ducky Davis. The former kid backstop stepped in to catch a few spring exhibition games while Dunn and his scouts assembled a stable catching corps. When the season began, Ducky went back to working and playing for Yellow Cab, even turning down an offer from Jersey City late in the summer. Davis did come out of retirement one more time to help his old club, traveling with the Orioles in late August on a road trip in case he was needed to help out the team’s injury-ridden catchers. He didn’t get into a game, but it speaks much of Dunn’s respect for this former player that he felt comfortable to call on him twice.
Ducky remained a popular semi-pro ballplayer around Baltimore, working days as a steelworker and playing ball on weekends well into the 1930s. Starting in the 1950s, he fellow former Oriole Joe Mellindick were the two coaches for the annual Baltimore City little league all-star game held each summer at Memorial Stadium. Before he could take his usual place at the helm of the 1961 team, Davis fell ill with pneumonia. He seemed to be on the mend when he descended the steps to his basement and took his life with a rifle. The good-natured boy-catcher, the pride of East Preston Street, and former Oriole, was just 59.
We’re going to take a break over the weekend while I finish the final two illustrations of the 20, but Monday we’ll start on Baltimore’s unbeatable starting pitching staff, beginning with 31-game winner – yeah, I said 31 -, Jack Ogden.
You can see the whole 20-card index of players HERE.
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