Friday, the 13th, is often regarded as a superstitious date, but Jan. 13, 2023, was more sad than superstitious in Richfield with the passing of one of the community’s sports legends, Bill Davis.
Many of us remember Davis for his Hall-of-Fame career as a Richfield High athlete. Others recall his exploits as the University of Minnesota first baseman and College World Series hero. Then, there are those who were thrilled to see the local boy’s face on a Topps baseball card when he played for the Cleveland Indians and the San Diego Padres.
At a basketball banquet in 2007, Davis received the Jim Dutcher Award for his lifelong contributions to basketball.
During his speech that evening, Davis recalled playing in one of the most famous games in the history of Minnesota history of Minnesota high school basketball. The Spartans were favored to win the state championship in 1960, but in the state tourney semifinals at Williams Arena, with more than 18,000 fans watching, Richfield was upset 63-60 in overtime by a tiny school from Southwestern Minnesota called Edgerton.
“There isn’t a week that goes by that someone doesn’t mention that game,” Davis said in his 2007 speech.
Edgerton was the darling of basketball fans across the state in 1960. They were nicknamed the Flying Dutchmen for their town’s Dutch heritage. While the 6-foot-7 Davis was the big man for Richfield - an All-Lake Conference and All-State center, Edgerton had two big men in the lineup - 6-5 center Dean Veenhof and 6-4 forward Dean Verdoes.
In the state semifinal game, Davis made a basket late in the fourth quarter to tie the score 56-56 and send the game into overtime. Then he missed another shot that could have won the game. As overtime began, Veenhof had already fouled out trying to guard Davis and Verdoes had four fouls. On Richfield’s first overtime possession, Verdoes fouled out, and fans on both sides of Williams Arena figured the Dutchmen were done.
Edgerton coach Richie Olson - suddenly without a big man - put a swarming defense around Davis. Whenever the big lefthander caught a pass, he saw Dutchmen on all sides. When Edgerton had the ball in overtime, Richfield’s players committed fouls and the boys from the tiny school knocked down free throws to take a three-point win.
In the state finals the next night, Edgerton upset another big school, Austin, 72-61 by making 56 percent of its shots from the floor.
Sixteen years ago, Davis said he didn’t think too much about losing to Edgerton at the time. “Losing a game to Edgerton was the same as losing a game to Edina or Hopkins or any other team,” he said. “It hurt the same way.”
Davis recalled that there were no lingering effects of that loss. He was excited to pull his bat, glove, and spikes out of the closet and start practicing for the 1960 Spartan baseball season.
When Davis graduated from Richfield High in June of 1960, there was no suspense regarding where he would go to college. The University of Minnesota camped on his doorstep, offering him a chance to play both basketball and baseball.
A starter at forward on the basketball team, Davis played alongside future NBA greats Lou Hudson and Archie Clark. But it was baseball that launched Davis to superstardom. The Gophers won their third NCAA baseball championship in his senior season. Davis made the All-College World Series team and batted .350. At the conclusion of that season, he was awarded the Big Ten Medal of Honor for athletics and academics.
The Cleveland Indians signed Davis to a contract and he progressed to the big club in 1965. In 1969, he moved from the American League to the National League with an opportunity to play first base for the San Diego Padres.
Davis was not destined for the Baseball Hall of Fame, however, he showed other Lake Conference area athletes what it takes to make it to the majors. Younger men such as Kent Hrbek from Bloomington Kennedy, Greg Olson from Edina and Mike Mason and Jim Brower from Minnetonka followed him to the big leagues.
After retiring from Major League Baseball, Davis settled in Richfield and became active in the community.
Davis helped start the Spartan Foundation, which has raises scholarship money for youth in the community and also helps Richfield High sports teams meet their ever-increasing costs.
Richfield American Legion past commander George Karnas said that Davis was the first person he talked with about joining the foundation’s board. Karnas called Davis. “Mr. Richfield.”
In addition to devoting time to the foundation, which sponsors the Richfield High Athletic Hall of Fame, Davis coached youth teams in the community and was supportive of the coaches at the high school. His son Ryan became an All-State quarterback for the Spartan football team.
Another passion for Davis was the University of Minnesota men’s basketball. As a former player, he offered opinions whenever he was asked, but never interfered with the program in any way. He soldiered on through good times and low points with coaches Bill Musselman, Jim Dutcher, Clem Haskins, Dan Monson, Tubby Smith and Richard Pitino.
Davis would attend almost every luncheon sponsored by the Gopher basketball booster group called the Golden Dunkers.
Game of inches
During his lifetime in Richfield, Bill Davis had far more good breaks than bad ones.
Years ago, talking again about the storied 1960 basketball game between Richfield and Edgerton, Davis said, “I had the last shot in regulation with the score tied, and the ball rolled off the rim.”
“What if you had made that shot?” a friend asked.
“It might have changed history,” Davis said.
Indeed, Richfield had already beaten Austin once that season, and Davis was confident the Spartans could take the Packers again.
Was Davis sorry he missed that shot?
“Of course I was,” he said in 2007. “That was our chance to win the state championship.”
And what if he had made the shot?
“People would still remember Edgerton as a great team,” Davis said. “But because they won the state title that year, they’ll be remembered and talked about forever.”
It’s ironic Davis would put it that way. In Richfield, he is the one who’ll be remembered forever.