Noting the recent passings of Merlin Olsen and Willie Davis, YKI initially had little interest outside of the prerequisite sadness for a local celebrity death. That said, the legends of these two Los Angeles icons is still resonating locally, as the L.A. Times & Daily News (as well as local/national blogs) are still printing letters extolling the virtues and memories of both greats.
When it really hit home, however, was whenThe Count made a personally concerted effort to express what these two athletes meant from his perspective. An L.A. native, my father grew up in a sports-centric household during the most tumultuous times in American history, and lived it all firsthand. Through the free love, the rock n’ roll and the political upheaval, sports provided a great backdrop for the consummate post-WWII ‘baby boomer’ suburbia, and the Rams and the Dodgers were the two teams that captivated the Southland.
The Rams, led by the Fearsome Foursome on defense, rode Merlin Olsen’s coattails (literally, see pic:)
in making DEFENSE the name of the game. My father expressed that the Rams were one of the first teams that excited fans from the defensive side of the ball. There have been many eulogies and posthumous odes to The Gentle Giant, but my Father’s memory perhaps sums it up best: Rams-Cowboys at the Coliseum. Roger Staubach, Heisman Trophy winner from Navy, is on a roll. 1:30 left in the game and the Cowboys trailing 21-17. First and 10 at the Rams 30 yard line. Staubach rolls out, out of nowhere, Merlin Olsen, 14-time pro bowl defensive lineman, hits him from behind causing Staubach to fumble. Merlin pounces on the loose ball. Rams win!!! Walking off the field Olsen says in an interview, “Roger can run, but, he can’t hide!”
The funny part about this quasi-fictional account is that my father is an ardent Ram-hater in his current life, but still waxes poetically when discussing the Rams. Why? “Because of Olsen – a great person, a great player, and lived life & played the game the right way. And most of all, because of what he meant to Los Angeles. The Rams were the first team to come West, and led by Olsen & the Fearsome Foursame, they, along with the Dodgers, gave Los Angeles national credibility and respect.
As for Willie Davis, the Roosevelt High School (Los Angeles) alum set city records in the 100-yard dash with a scorching 9.5 second time and the long jump with a gravity-defying 25’5” leap. Needless to say, he was the fastest ballplayer in the game, and according to The Count, to this day.
Here’s the Count’s account of Three Dog:
Bottom of the ninth, one out, down by one run, Maury Wills on first and Willie Davis at bat. Maury takes off on the pitch, Willie lays down a perfect bunt. Safe all around! Tommy Davis, next up. Davis hits a line drive to the left center gap, Maury scores easily from second, the fielder cuts off the ball, and fires it to the cut off man who sends it home. Too late! Willie scores standing up. The only thing Vinny can say is “Oh My. I have never seen a faster player!” The first person to congratulate Willie from the dugout is Sandy Koufax, who pitched a complete game, winning 2-1.
The Count says that ThreeDog was underappreciated in his day, hence the Dodgers not retiring his jersey despite owning the offensive record book for Los Angeles Dodgers history (hits, hitting streak, steals, triples). Perhaps racially-tinged (this was the 60’s, after all), Davis was labeled ‘nonchalant’ and considered a bit lackadaisical at times. For those very reasons, he represented Los Angeles perhaps better than any player – a bit Hollywood, but exciting and flashy and a good performer, despite flaws. Again, as The Dodgers came West, players such as Davis were necessary to draw fans and engender local excitement – and he surely did the job.
Both L.A. legends will be missed, and their contributions to the Los Angeles socio-cultural landscape will be appreciated for generations to come.