Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 14 – Larry Doby
Bob Toth | On 20, Mar 2017
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Countdown to Opening Day – 14 days
To this day, Larry Doby does not get the credit that he deserves for the doors that he helped open in Major League Baseball, professional sports as a whole, or for the American society over the course of his baseball career with the Cleveland Indians and others.
The Indians honored his efforts on the field by retiring his number 14 on July 3, 1994, making him the fifth player (Bob Feller, Lou Boudreau, Earl Averill, Mel Harder) recognized by the club in such a manner. The ceremony came almost 47 years to the date of his first game in a Cleveland Indians uniform.
Doby had already played for parts of five seasons with Newark in the Negro National League and had served in the U.S. Navy during World War II by the time he joined the Indians and became just the second black player to suit up for a Major League team and the first to do so in the Junior Circuit.
When Indians owner Bill Veeck purchased the contract of Doby from Newark in July of 1947, the baseball landscape was entirely white, with the exception of Jackie Robinson, who had begun his career with the Brooklyn Dodgers just eleven weeks earlier and had already spent the 1946 season professionally in Montreal with the Dodgers’ farm club. Doby would not have the same time or luxury to acclimate to the pro game, as he made his big league debut with the Indians on July 5 and would appear in 29 games in total over the course of the season, hitting just .156 in limited at bats.
His reception from his teammates was not always warm. Stories of his original introduction to his new teammates conflicted, with some versions indicating all men in the clubhouse shook his hand, while Doby recalled the experience as both “shocking” and a “terrible feeling”.
“It’s a known fact there were a lot of guys that didn’t shake my hand,” Doby shared in a story in the July 3, 1994, edition of The Plain Dealer. “I just don’t think I want to dignify those people by mentioning their names.”
Doby expressed an understanding of the ignorance displayed by the teammates, as many had not ever had a black teammate.
“I was the only black on my high school football team,” Doby said. “I was one of two blacks on the basketball team and the only one on the baseball team. There was no discrimination as kids. We would walk home from school together and after practice and games.
“They (the Indians) had to do the adjusting, not me. Also, I was a rookie coming in to compete for a job. Some of them naturally didn’t like that.”
Tribe second baseman and future Hall of Famer Joe Gordon helped Doby greatly with his transition to Major League Baseball player.
“After Larry would strike out, he’d walk to the corner of the dugout and sit all alone. After a week or ten days of watching this, Joe Gordon struck out once and went right over to Larry and sat next to him and talked to him,” shared former Indians player-manager Boudreau in the same July 1994 story. “Joe told me he said to Larry, `Look, I’ve been around this league for a number of years and I still strike out. So don’t worry about it.’ Joe helped me tremendously. This [Doby’s arrival] was overwhelming. I didn’t know what the reactions would be by 24 other members of my team.”
The 1948 season was a different story and would mark the emergence of Doby on the MLB scene. The longtime infielder transitioned into a position in the outfield with Gordon manning his familiar second base spot and there were growing pains as he was learning a new role on the fly. But in that first full season on the national stage, Doby impressed with a .301 average, 14 homers, and 66 RBI while the Indians shocked the league by capturing the American League pennant in a one-game playoff before defeating the Boston Braves to win their second World Series in as many tries.
Doby’s star was recognized by the next season, when he made the first of seven straight All-Star appearances for the Tribe. His numbers continued to get better and better as he entered his prime, hitting as high as .326 in 1950 before putting together a near-MVP winning season in 1954, when he led the AL with 32 homers and 126 RBI as the Indians steamrolled the AL before a heart-breaking sweep in the World Series against the New York Giants.
Incidentally, that best season in the Majors was also the first year that Doby felt that he was an equal to his white teammates. In spring training of that 1954 season, Doby was finally allowed to room with his white teammates.
“I don’t think I ever was scared during the whole period,” said Doby, “but I was a bit down most of the time. I had come from situations where I had always been accepted. I was alone a lot in major league baseball.
“It’s hard to explain the loneliness. When you’re accustomed to leaving the ballpark and going to eat, or wherever, with your teammates, and then all of a sudden you leave one way and they go another … it’s a loneliness where you’re glad when the next day comes. Because you know you’re back in the ballpark. The best time was the time on the field.”
Doby’s time with the Indians came to a close, albeit a brief one, when the club dealt him to the Chicago White Sox following the 1955 season for Jim Busby and Chico Carrasquel. It was a bit of a homecoming of sorts for the outfielder, as he had been assigned to Camp Robert Smalls of the Great Lakes Naval Training Station outside of Chicago during his military commitment.
In his first season with the White Sox, he hit 24 homers, drove in 102 runs, and drew 102 walks, but he was limited to 119 games the next season and saw declines in his power and runs output and in fan support from the Comiskey faithful. Following that season, the Sox traded him to the Baltimore Orioles. He would not, however, make it to Opening Day as a member of the O’s as he was traded prior to the start of the 1958 season back to Cleveland in a five-player trade.
He hit .283 for the Tribe that season, but his return trip to Cleveland was a short one as he was traded the following March to the Detroit Tigers for Tito Francona. It was the second time the two men had been traded for one another, as Francona was one of the moving pieces from Baltimore to Chicago in the prior trade. Doby’s stay in the Motor City would last less than two months before he was purchased by the White Sox. He had hit .218 to start his season with Detroit in 18 games and hit .241 in another 21 games in Chicago in what would mark the final games of his big league career. The same man who brought him into the professional baseball scene, Veeck, optioned him to the minor league San Diego club at the beginning of August.
He emerged in Japan a few years later, playing in 72 games while hitting .225 with ten homers and 35 RBI. He was inducted into the Cleveland Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966, joined by longtime Indians Jim Hegan and Stan Coveleski.
Doby got back into the MLB game in 1971, working for three seasons as a coach (and scout) with the Montreal Expos before returning to Cleveland in a similar capacity in 1974. Shortly after his return to baseball, there was a bit of speculation that Doby could become the first black manager in MLB history and he did eventually get his turn, but once again was second to a Robinson as the Indians named Frank Robinson the first in 1975.
Doby got his turn in 1978 for Veeck while coaching with the White Sox; he replaced former teammate Bob Lemon as the skipper in Chicago for the final 87 games of the season in what would be his only MLB managerial opportunity.
Appreciation for his contributions to the world were slow coming in and he has routinely been a distant second to the level of attention and gratitude paid to Robinson. Despite going through the same tribulations and hardships as his contemporary, he shared that it did not bother him.
“Jackie Robinson was No. 1. And he deserves that,” Doby shared in the same above-mentioned July 3, 1994, story in The Plain Dealer. “But when people ask me, `Did he make it easier for you?’ … That’s a stupid question. Eleven weeks. C’mon, we’re still having problems in 1994, 47 years later.
“Whatever happened to him naturally happened to me in the American League. People don’t realize I might have gotten worse treatment than he got. For one thing, the American League was the so-called elite, the top echelon at the time. And the American League was not that concerned with bringing in Afro-American players.”
The Indians retired his number 14 in 1994 on the 47th anniversary of his acquisition by the Cleveland club. It took selection by the Veteran’s Committee in 1998 to enshrine Doby in the Baseball Hall of Fame that summer. His number was unretired on the 60th anniversary of his debut in 2007, worn by the entire Cleveland lineup, and in 2012, the stretch of Eagle Avenue in Cleveland behind Progressive Field was renamed “Larry Doby Way” in his honor. He was also recognized that year on a United States Postal Service stamp, joining Joe DiMaggio, Willie Stargell, and Ted Williams.
During the 2015 season, he became the third man immortalized outside of Progressive Field when the Indians unveiled a statue in his honor.
“It didn’t dawn on me for three or four years. I was always told by Veeck that I was doing something for history and I’d say, `OK, fine.’ All I wanted was to play baseball,” Doby recalled in 1994. “But after a few years, when I saw other black players coming up, I realized that 20, 30, 40 years from now, somehow my name would be involved in being a part of the integration of baseball.”
He passed away on June 18, 2003, at the age of 79, his name remembered fondly in Cleveland but still lacking the level of credit and admiration that he deserved for his sacrifices for integration and the betterment of all.
Photo: Ron Kuntz/Reuters