Jo-DEE! JO-dee Davis
Cub Catcher of the year
If this were a list of the most popular Cubs of all time rather than the greatest Cubs of all time, there isn't much doubt that Jody Davis would rank even higher. Why was Jody Davis so popular? Was it because the Cubs had struggled to find a catcher since Randy Hundley got old? Was it because Jody had overcome many obstacles to become an All-Star catcher? Maybe it was because of his blue-collar hard-working attitude? Or perhaps it was just because his name could be sung to "The Ballard of Davy Crockett"? Whatever the reason, to this day, almost twenty years since he last wore a Cub uniform, Jody Davis remains one of the most popular Cubs ever.
Jody Davis was born November 12, 1956 in Gainesville, Georgia. After graduating from Gainesville's North Hall High, he went on to continue his baseball career at Middle Georgia Junior College.He was the first of several major leaguers from that school, whose alumni include Kal Daniels, Shawn Hillegas and Ernest Riles. His play at MGJC earned him the attention of the New York Mets, who selected him in the third round of the 1976 Amateur draft.
In the Mets system, Davis quickly established himself as a slugging catcher who was defensively challenged. Actually, that's being kind. The Coyote had more luck catching the Roadrunner than Davis had catching the ball. He usually ranked first or second in every minor league in either passed balls, errors or both. The Mets, however, decided to leave him at catcher. Slugging catchers are always hard to find and Jody did hit the ball hard. In 1978 he hit 16 home runs for Lynchburg, which was good enough for fourth in the Carolina League, and he followed that up with 21 homers in the Texas League in 1979, which was the third-best total in that league.
That off-season, the Mets, seemingly set at catcher with John Steans, traded Davis to St. Louis for Ray Searage. Jody Davis's one season in the Cardinal organization was a miserable one. A bleeding ulcer limited him to only 58 games and he hit poorly afterwards. Unsure about his health and his defensive abilities, the Cardinals left him unprotected in the 1980 Rule V draft. The Cubs grabbed him.
Davis spent the strike-marred 1981 season splitting time with Tim Blackwell. He hit well enough and his arm was adequate, but again he had defensive problems. He made nine errors at catcher in only 56 games.
It looked like the Cubs were going to be the third franchise in three years to give up on Davis during the off-season of 1982. Dallas Green was the new general manager, and he brought Keith Moreland along with him from Philadelphia to be the new Cub catcher. Davis was going to be the backup and would have to fight for playing time. But by May of 1982, it became clear to Cub manager Lee Elia that Keith Moreland was possibly the only catcher in the major leagues who was worse defensively than Jody Davis. Moreland was moved to the outfield, and Jody Davis had finally become a major league starting catcher.
Davis responded with a solid .261 average with 12 home runs in 130 games. Not great, but it was probably a better hitting season than any Cub catcher had had since Randy Hundley in 1969. Defensively, he was still a disaster. It wasn't that he didn't care about his defense. He did and he worked hard at it. He just wasn't getting any better.
His 1983 season was a breakout performance for Davis. In 151 games, he hit .271 and doubled his home run total from the previous year, hitting 24. And sometime around then, Cub announcer Harry Caray decided that Jody Davis was his kind of ballplayer. To this day, Davis has no idea why. But to anyone who was listening, Harry Caray would sing the praises of Jody Davis. Literally. And to the tune of "The Ballard of Davy Crockett." Cub fans decided that Harry was right, and chanted "Jo-dee, Jo-dee" when he came to the plate. He played every day, got his uniform dirty and never complained. What was there not to love?
Defensively, Davis was still a mess. In 1983 Davis allowed 21 passed balls, which were the most of any NL catcher in eight years. But the next off-season, new Cub manager Jim Frey brought in Johnny Oates as a coach to work with him. Oates was able to get through to Davis like no other coach before. In that magical 1984 season, Davis continued to hit like he always had, knocking in 19 homers and 94 RBI in 150 games. But most impressively, he finally seemed to get the hang of catching. He only had ten passed balls that season, and his defensive improvement was as much responsible for the Cubs success that season as his hitting was. Davis was named to his first All-Star team in 1984.
In the game in Pittsburgh that clinched the NL East for the Cubs in 1984, Rick Sutcliffe was throwing a two-hitter going into the ninth and Pirate centerfielder Joe Orsulak had gotten both hits off of Sutcliffe. With two outs and Orsulak coming to bat, Davis walked out to the mound, aware of the history that was about to be made. Davis told Sutcliffe that he wanted to catch the game-winning ball. Sutcliffe just rolled his eyes at the Davis' expectation that Sutcliffe could just strike out a batter who was 2 for 3 with a triple off of him that night. Davis went back behind the plate and Sutcliffe, despite his doubts, proceeded to strike out Orsulak. Jody Davis was a player who believed in the Cubs.
Davis had a great NLCS, hitting .389 with 2 home runs and 7 RBI. Unfortunately, he made the last out in the NLCS as well.
Davis continued to play well from 1985 to 1987. Although his batting average dropped some, he began to draw a few more walks, so the net loss of OBP was small. He continued to hit around 20 home runs a season and play in almost 150 games each year. He was named to his second All-Star team in 1986. His hard work behind the plate was beginning to really pay off as well. The Cubs no longer had to suffer through his defense to get his bat in the lineup. He had now become a first-rate defensive catcher. In 1986, Davis had only made eight errors in 145 games behind the plate and he threw out 48% of runners trying to steal. Unthinkable just three years earlier, Jody Davis won a Gold Glove.
Astute readers will have noticed that Davis had been behind the plate for an awful lot of games by this time. The Cubs never really had a good backup catcher for Davis. His normal backup was Steve Lake, who was a good defensive backstop. Unfortunately, Lake couldn't hit a drunk if he were swinging his bat around in the Wrigley bleachers. To say that Steve Lake was "Neifi-riffic" is an insult to Neifi Perez.
Lake was so bad as a hitter that Jim Frey rarely gave Davis a day off. By 1988, all those day games without a break had finally caught up to him. Davis has always denied that his punishing workload shortened his career, but the record shows that Davis, only 31 years old, stopped hitting that year and lost his starting job to rookie Damon Berryhill. On the final weekend of the season, the Cubs traded Jody Davis to his hometown Atlanta Braves.
Davis spent the 1989 season as a backup in Atlanta. The Braves released him in May of the next season. He tried to catch on with the Tigers after that, but his skills had left him. He had played his last game.
Jody Davis retired to his native Georgia and mostly stayed out of baseball until 2003, when he was asked to manage in an independent league in Canada. The league folded quickly, before the season was even completed, but Davis's team had the league's best record and he found that he liked managing. After the season he called up the Cubs and said he wanted to get back in the game as a coach or manager. Cub minor league director Oneri Fleita told him that the Cubs didn't have any openings, but that he'd call him when they did. For two seasons, he worked with the Cubs in spring training and with local teams in the Gainesville area. It appears that he never called a different team, like the Braves, about a job with them. In 2006, his patience was rewarded when he was named manager of the low-A Peoria Chiefs, whom he led to a first-half title in his first season as a manager in the Cubs system. For this, he was rewarded with a promotion to the next level; in 2007 he'll manage the Daytona Cubs of the Florida State League.
And maybe, above everything else, that's why Jody Davis was one of the most popular Cub players of all time. He just loved being a Cub. In Carrie Muskat's book "Banks to Sandberg to Grace", Davis summed up his feelings on the matter: "I grew up fifty miles from Atlanta and the Braves and played two years for them, and still to this day I've never felt I was a Brave. I guess I'll go down as a Cub."
One of the top one hundred Cubs at that, Jody.