Larry Doby Faced a Tough Road on His way to the Indians All-Time Team
By Ronnie Tellalian
Larry Doby was no gimmick, he was the real deal. The seven times All-Star faced a long and hard road as the first black player in the American League. He is often overshadowed by Jackie Robinson, but Doby was only three months behind Robinson in his integration of Major League Baseball. Doby was the first to integrate the American League. He is among the Indians all-time leaders in home runs and RBI, and with his five-tool talents excelled to a Hall of Fame career.
Right Field: Larry Doby
Forward-thinking Cleveland owner Bill Veeck saw a great deal of value and potential in the Negro Leagues and worked tirelessly to integrate baseball. Despite the Dodgers of the National League beating him to the punch in April 1947, Veeck was determined to break the barrier in the American League. The idea to sign a black player was not a new one to Veeck. He first proposed the concept in 1942, but it was rejected by MLB Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
In 1947, still determined to integrate the American League, Veeck sought out Robinson. He told Robinson that he wanted to sign a black player but he needed to find one that could not only dominate the American League, but could handle the pressure that came along with the difficulties of being the first black athlete in the AL. Robinson immediately mention Doby. Bill Veeck purchased Doby’s contract from the Newark Eagles for $15,000 and he signed with the Indians on July 5, 1947.
The first encounter with his teammates was a rocky one. Introduced by his Manager Lou Boudreau, very few players would shake his hand. As the team began to warm up for their doubleheader against the White Sox, none would even talk to the new player. Second baseman Joe Gordon noticed Doby standing alone and offered to play catch. The two began a lasting friendship as Gordon would help Doby adjust to the new surroundings.
A second baseman with the Eagles, Doby had nowhere to play when he first arrived in Cleveland. The Indians had one of the best double play duos in the Major Leagues with Boudreau at shortstop and Gordon at second base. That first season he played in 29 games making only one start, but he did enough to prove he belonged. Boudreau tried moving Doby to the outfield in an effort to find him a place in the line-up. The athletic Doby accepted a move to the outfield and won the job in center field.
All was not well in Indians spring training camp in 1949. Black players were not permitted to stay at the Santa Rita hotel with the white players. Instead Doby, Satchel Paige, and Minnie Minoso had to stay with a local family and take a rental car to and from the facilities. The adjustment was a difficult one at first, but despite facing racism and bigotry, Doby received some helping hands with the Tribe. Former Indians outfielder Tris Speaker worked closely with Doby. He helped him make the change from the infield to the outfield and assisted him with tips on playing hitters and facing big league pitching. Coach Bill McKechine would also offer encouragement to Doby during times of particular hard ship. His close relationship with Gordon also helped him find confidence in his new environment.
His first full season was in 1948, the Indians last World Series championship. Doby played in 121 games hitting 14 home runs and batting a crisp .301. Against the Boston Braves in the World Series Doby fared well. He batted .318 in the fall classic and hit a home run in the Indians 2-1 Game Four victory; the Tribe went on to take the Series in six games. No player for either team had more hits in the series than the rookie Doby.
His encore performance in 1949 was even better. He hit 24 home runs, scored 106 runs and batted .280/.389/.468. He also made his first All-Star game, he came in to pinch run for Joe DiMaggio and finished the game in center field. Doby would go on to make seven consecutive All-Star games in his 10 year career in Cleveland. He led the league once each in runs scored, RBI, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and twice in home runs. He was good in the field as well, one of the best outfielders in the league with Gold Glove worthy seasons in 1948, 1952-53, and 1956. He was always among the leaders in range and displayed a strong arm with 88 career outfield assists.
From 1949-1952 Doby was the best position player on the Indians team. He was outshined in 1953 by Al Rosen’s near triple crown season and possibly again in 1954 by Bobby Avila. Even with those two eclipses Doby was one of the top five position players in the American League from 1950-1954. He came close to winning the MVP in 1954, but was barely edged out by the Yankees Yogi Berra. Doby, Avila, and Berra all finished within 8 percentage points of each other and only two first place votes separated the group.
Doby was traded to the White Sox after the 1955 season, but in 1958 he would be traded back to Cleveland from the Baltimore Orioles. He would be traded once again following the 1958 season to the Detroit Tigers for a name and face Indians fans should now know quite well. On March 21, 1959, Doby was shipped off to Detroit in exchange for Tito Francona, father of current Indians Manager Terry Francona.
He retired in 1959 finishing off a 13 year career. He played 10 seasons in Cleveland hitting a total of 215 home runs. He scored 808 runs in a Tribe uniform and drove in 970 with a .286 batting average. It took him 33 years, at least 30 years longer than it should have, to finally be inducted into the Hall of Fame. The Veterans Committee finally voted him in in 1998. 1n 1994, his uniform number 14 was officially retired by the Cleveland Indians.