Itzoe, Davidson an unlikely but well-matched duo


January 06, 1991|By BOB MAISEL

In continuing this periodic series of characters and personalities I've known in more than 40 years of covering sports for this paper, it is necessary to make a sort of parlay from Donald Davidson to the Baltimore Orioles' Phil Itzoe to get this one started. A more unlikely pairing never existed.

The reason for linking these two is that the Itzoe recently received the first Donald Davidson Memorial Award given to the major leagues' most outstanding traveling secretary.

I once heard Chuck Thompson say, "If they ever have a Hall of Fame for traveling secretaries, Phil Itzoe should be the first inductee." He got no argument from those of us who have traveled with Itzoe and the Orioles for so many years.

Itzoe is about as far removed from being a character as a person can be. He is a nice, extremely likable, quiet-spoken, efficient guy. . . a gentleman and decent human being all the way. How he manages to take care of every detail involving the transporting and housing of some 40 diverse personalities through an entire season without so much as a cross word, and while never becoming even slightly flustered borders on the incredible.

L The late Donald Davidson? Now there was a character for you.

Davidson, who died last March at 64, was a normal physical specimen in every way, with one exception. He was exactly 4 feet tall, although he always insisted it was 4.1. A childhood illness had stunted his growth, but if his small stature ever handicapped him, he never found out about it. He would stand there in the midst of all those big guys at baseball gatherings, looking up, hands on hips, more than holding his own, whether the situation demanded logic, facts, profanity, or acerbic wit. Don Rickles could take lessons from him on the subject of acerbic wit.

He never took the jibes at his lack of size seriously, except to give them back good-naturedly to the sender doubled in spades. I once saw him tee off in a golf outing, after which he cupped a little hand over eyes to follow the flight of the ball, and yelled, "Two!" instead of fore.

He is the answer to the baseball trivia question, "Who is the only one to remain with the Braves organization from Boston to Milwaukee to Atlanta?"

Davidson's size -- or lack of it -- got him into baseball in the first place. As a youngster in 1939, he was scuffling for autographs near the Braves dugout before a game in Boston one day when catcher Ray Mueller invited him to sit on the bench. Casey Stengel was the manager, and he liked the little guy so much he let him stay as a sort of honorary bat boy. The Braves won, something that didn't happen too often in those days, and he became a fixture, eventually acting as bat boy for both the Braves and Red Sox.

That led to a career of almost 40 years in baseball in numerous capacities, most as traveling secretary. Ted Turner eventually fired him for some petty reason, terminating his long stay with the Braves. He was out of work a total of three days before the Astros hired him.

There are a lot of stories concerning his size. Spahn told me about one involving Spahn, now a Hall of Famer, and his equally fun-loving roommate with the Braves, Lew Burdette.

It seems Davidson had the Braves staying in a Cincinnati hotel that had offices on lower floors, rooms up higher. Davidson, Spahn and Burdette were on an elevator together fairly late one night. The players punched No. 17, and Davidson, who couldn't reach that high said, "Punch 26 for me." Not ones to miss that kind of opportunity to pull off a practical joke, they said, "Punch it yourself," and exited laughing.

Apparently, the elevator made numerous ups and downs before finally getting to the lobby, where the irate Davidson got a bellman to rescue him. The Braves were in another hotel the next time they played in Cincinnati.

In 1983, Davidson developed throat cancer, which eventually led to the removal of his larynx. Not more than a year later, at the winter meetings in Houston, he was honored at a dinner and named "King of Baseball." A friend who was there told me later, "I was never so proud of the little guy. He hadn't been able to work too long with that mechanical speaking device they gave him, but he insisted on doing his acceptance remarks himself, and he did. There wasn't a dry eye in the place."

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