A New Role and New Position Greets Doby
Mike B. | On 23, Sep 2013
April 19, 1948
If Larry Doby has not endured enough change in the last nine months, here is a little more.
Tomorrow, when the Indians open the season against the St. Louis Browns, Doby is expected to be in the starting lineup in right field, a position he has never played in the Major Leagues or the Negro Leagues. After breaking the American League color barrier last season, Doby is being expected to make a larger impact on this season’s Cleveland lineup.
When the Indians left for Spring Training, they had eight contenders for their three starting outfield spots. It was perceived that Doby was eighth on the list of the contenders to make the team. However, according to Indians manager Lou Boudreau, Doby made the team, “because he hustled the others right off the field.”
Indians’ owner Bill Veeck purchased Doby’s contract from the Newark Eagles for $10,000 on July 3, 1947. He made his debut, pinch-hitting, just two days later and became the first black player in American League history. Doby is the second black player to integrate Major League baseball, following Jackie Robinson’s achievement with the Brooklyn Dodgers 11 weeks earlier.
However, while Robinson logged more than 700 plate appearances for the Dodgers in 1947, earning himself the Rookie of the Year Award, finishing fifth in the Most Valuable Player vote and leading Brooklyn to the brink of a World Series title, Doby had a much slower start to his big league career. Doby was a second baseman with Newark, but with Joe Gordon manning the bag for the Tribe, there was little playing time available. Doby was resigned to pinch-hitting duty, a role he struggled with. He hit only .156 in 32 at-bats after signing with the Indians. His lone start in 1947 was at first base, and he made only six appearances in the field.
When last season ended, many believed Doby likely never would be seen in an Indians uniform again and was just one of Veeck’s marketing stunts. If he were to return to Cleveland, it likely would be after two to three years in the minor leagues. Instead, Doby ignored outsiders, applied himself, listened to coaches and refused to accept what everyone else found to be a certain demotion to the bushes.
Doby worked with part-time hitting instructor and former outfielder Tris Speaker during Spring Training in Tucson, Ariz., for just three weeks to become an outfielder. Doby will begin the season in right field, but the Tribe believes he has the athleticism to one day man center field, though he is far from a finished product. Cleveland boasts an entirely new starting outfield from last year. Thurman Tucker will start in center field, while Allie Clark will play left field.
But just like Robinson, Doby is an exceptional athlete, and the Indians feel he can transition to the outfield and become a full-time player. Robinson was a four-sport athlete at UCLA before signing with the Dodgers before the 1946 season. Doby was a three-sport athlete in New Jersey in high school and had opportunities to play college basketball or football if he wanted to. Instead, the Negro Leagues and Newark Eagles pursued Doby first.
“There was a gentleman where I lived, in New Jersey, that was a Negro Leagues umpire,” Doby said. “He suggested to (Newark Eagles owner) Effa Manley to give me a tryout when I graduated in ’42. They gave me a tryout, and I made the team.”
Doby played second base and was teamed with Eagles’ shortstop Monte Irvin as a dynamic double play combination. It was rumored that even Doby or Irvin could be the player to break the color barrier, but Doby never allowed himself to think that far ahead.
“I never dreamed that far ahead,” he said. “Growing up in a segregated society, you couldn’t have thought that that was the way it was gonna be. There was no bright spot as far as looking at baseball until Mr. Robinson got the opportunity to play in Montreal in ’46.”
While Robinson began to break the color barrier in the minor leagues, 1946 might have helped Doby reach the big leagues too. He hit .341 while leading the Eagles to the Negro League Championship. His play attracted the attention of Major League scouts, including the Indians and Veeck, who wanted to integrate in the American League.
Veeck liked Doby because despite having baseball playing experience prior to and after serving in World War II, he is still only 24 years old entering the 1948 season. He has the potential to have a long and fruitful big league career. To reach his full potential, like Robinson, he’ll have to endure the same pressures and hatred. Doby opens the 1948 season as the only African American player in the American League. He will make $5,000 this season, and is the first player to go straight from the Negro League to the Major League without any time in the minors.
Regardless of salary, or the loneliness of the road, Doby has the opportunity of a lifetime. Doby is expected to bat second tomorrow in Indians Manager Lou Boudreau’s lineup and remain there as long as he produces.
Position seems immaterial at this point. It’s a minor change for a young man enduring so many.
Photo: Cleveland Memory Project