14—The True Story of a Forgotten American Legend
Steve Eby | On 03, Jul 2014
With no disrespect to Jackie Robinson, we should all be reminded of Cleveland’s own barrier breaker. He’s the one who took the second step; the one who baseball history often seems to forget. He’s the man who doesn’t get the credit that he deserves and is one of America’s true heroes. He is Larry Doby.
Doby is baseball’s version of Buzz Aldrin—the man who climbed down the ladder right after Neil Armstrong’s historic first walk on the moon. Doby climbed down baseball’s color barrier ladder a mere six weeks after Jackie Robinson did, as he became the second black player in baseball history. Outside of Cleveland, however, Doby is mostly a forgotten man.
Besides having movies made about him, Robinson was a first ballot Hall of Famer in 1962 and his number was retired throughout the Major Leagues in 1997; the only ballplayer to ever receive this honor. Since 2004, April 15 will forever be known as Jackie Robinson Day. It is a day when baseball players across the league don #42 on their backs, in respect to baseball’s ultimate pioneer. Robinson absolutely deserves all of the recognition and celebrations that he receives…but it’s a shame that Doby got nothing for almost 50 years.
In 1947, the year that both men entered the Major Leagues, Doby visited three cities and seven ballparks that Robinson did not. He was the first black player to play a Major League game in Comiskey Park (Chicago), Cleveland Municipal Stadium, Shibe Park (Philadelphia), Griffith Stadium (Washington) and Briggs Stadium (Detroit). Doby was the victim of racist hatred in each of these stadiums, facing the same turmoil and unfairness that Robinson did during his first year in the National League.
Doby was born on December 13, 1923 in Camden, South Carolina. His father, who died when Doby was only eight years old, was a former semi-professional baseball player. After his father passed, the Doby family moved to Paterson, New Jersey where Doby became an All-State star in football, basketball and, of course, baseball.
In 1941, Doby was offered a basketball scholarship from Long Island University. He accepted. In 1942, Doby became the second baseman for the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League. Records do not show Doby’s name on the roster, as was common for black players to do to protect their amateur status, but a man who played under the name of Larry Walker was a standout for the Eagles that summer.
After two years with the Eagles, Doby enlisted in the United States Navy and was shipped to the South Pacific. When his two years of military duties were fulfilled, Doby returned to Newark where he led the Eagles—with his .341 batting average—to the 1946 Negro League World Series Championship.
The following summer, Doby started the season with the Eagles, but finished it in Cleveland after Indians owner Bill Veeck signed him on July 3. Doby would make his first appearance two days later in Chicago.
“When I walked into that clubhouse on July 5, 1947, I got a lot of resentment from a lot of teammates,” Doby said in an interview from jockbio.com. “But after a period of time they got an opportunity to judge me for who I was and not the color of my skin.”
Legend has it that 10 of the Indians players in 1947 refused to shake hands with Doby when he joined the team. Catching wind of this, Veeck did his best to trade or release the players from the Indians roster. For as bad as the situation was in his home clubhouse, it was worse when he was on the field with the opposition and the fans.
“Once, as I slid into second base,” Doby remembered, “the guy playing shortstop spit on me. But I walked away from it.”
Getting spit on was only half as bad as the remarks that he heard from the fans. “I knew the racial remarks were from people who were prejudiced or wanted to disturb me. I wasn’t going to let them upset my play, so I didn’t think too much about them.”
It wasn’t just in the ballpark that Doby felt the hatred. On road trips, Doby had to be separated from his teammates. “During that time, our country was segregated and, of course, hotels wouldn’t allow me to sleep there and restaurants wouldn’t allow me to eat there,” Doby said. “Some taxis wouldn’t pick you up. There were normal circumstances where prejudice was concerned in the late 1940’s. You had to adjust, because they weren’t going to open up all these places for you right away.”
Unlike Robinson, playing time was initially sparse for Doby. The Indians had an excellent team on the field and Doby, a middle infielder, was blocked by future Hall of Famers Joe Gordon and Lou Boudreau in the middle of the diamond. Doby was mainly used as a pinch hitter, appearing in only 29 games for the Tribe that summer and getting only 32 at bats. Doby struggled adjusting to his part time role, batting only .156.
The next summer was different, however. Doby was moved to centerfield—a position that he had never played before. After taking a crash course from Hall of Fame outfielder and former Indian Tris Speaker, Doby found out he was a natural at tracking fly balls and soon became the Tribe’s starter and outfield captain. Ironically, Speaker was the former Indian who was once rumored to have been a member of Ku Klux Klan, but the former star showed no prejudice toward Doby and helped the young player’s career take off.
The move to the outfield paid dividends as Doby batted .301 with 14 homeruns and 66 RBI as he helped lead the Indians to the World Series Championship. His homerun in Game Four proved to be the difference in the Tribes 2-1 win and with it Doby became the first black player to ever hit a World Series homerun. When the Tribe won the series after Game Six, Doby was also the first player to win a championship in both the Negro Leagues and Major Leagues.
Doby only seemed to get better from there. In 1949, he made his first of six straight All-Star Games with the Indians at the age of 25. In 1950, Doby batted a career high .326 and broke the century mark in RBI for the first time when he drove in 102. In 1952, he led the American League in homeruns (32), runs (104), slugging percentage (.541) and OPS+ (163). He then had his best season in 1954, leading the league in homeruns (32) and RBI (126) while leading the Tribe to a franchise record 111 wins and back to the World Series. Doby finished a close second in the MVP race to the Yankees’ Yogi Berra.
After another All-Star season in 1955, the Indians traded Doby to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for All-Star shortstop Chico Carrasquel and former All-Star centerfielder Jim Busby. The trade turned out to be one of regret for the Indians, as their two new players saw a dramatic drop in their previously excellent statistics.
Doby, on the other hand, hit 38 homeruns over two seasons in Chicago, but he saw his batting average dip to .268 in 1956. He rebounded to hit .288 in ’57, but his homerun total dropped to 14 which was his lowest total since his rookie season.
Perhaps seeing the error of their way, the Indians traded back for Doby when they sent Tito Francona to Chicago in exchange for their former star. Doby put together a solid 1958 season with the Indians, but was let go after the season. He spent the 1959 campaign with Detroit and then back with Chicago before calling it a career in July.
Doby finished his historic 13 year career with a .283 batting average, 253 homeruns and 970 RBI. He led the American League in homeruns twice and both RBI and runs once. He made six consecutive All-Star Games and was the first African American to ever play in the American League. In 1978—31 years after doing it as a player—Doby became the second black manager in baseball history; second only to the Indians Frank Robinson, who broke that barrior three seasons prior. Even with all of the accolades and twice being a baseball pioneer, Doby was still a generally forgotten ballplayer.
It took the Indians until 1994 to retire Doby’s #14 and it took the Veteran’s Committee until 1998 to elect Doby into the National Baseball Hall of Fame at the age of 73. After Doby lost his battle with cancer in 2003, the Indians donned a black stripe on their jersey in honor of their former star. In July of 2012, the U.S. Postal Service unveiled a Larry Doby Stamp as a part of the Baseball Legends stamp release. That same month, the Indians and the city of Cleveland dedicated the stretch of Eagle Avenue between East Ninth Street and Ontario to Doby, calling it Larry Doby Way.
All of the accolades are great and well deserved, but it certainly is about time. While America celebrates the amazing story of Robinson in the movie theaters this week, let’s not forget about the man who suffered much of the same way that Robinson did, just six weeks later. Excelling in the face of adversity, in the face of prejudice and in the face of hatred…that is what should be known as the Larry Doby Way.
It’s the way of a forgotten American legend.
Photo: Associated Press