May 3, 1948
The transition of Larry Doby from infielder to outfielder has hit its first significant bump in the road.
The 24-year-old Indians right fielder was one of a handful of options Cleveland considered during Spring Training to fill several voids in the outfield. Doby, a middle infielder off of the bench last season for the Tribe, had two giant obstacles in Lou Boudreau and Joe Gordon that he simply was not going to move past on the depth chart.
With significant needs in the outfield, Doby made the transition while beating out several of the nine different players brought into camp to compete for opportunities patrolling the pasture.
Through the first month of the season, he had handled his new task relatively seamlessly. In each of those six games, he was the starter and played every inning of every game. In two of those games, he had only one chance to be involved. In the April 26 matchup against Chicago, he played 14 errorless innings in the Indians’ 12-11 win in extras.
He finished the month with 59 innings logged, a pair of assists and no errors from his new right field position.
As the calendar turned to May, Doby has seen his first significant struggles in the outfield. Since the beginning of the month, he has now made four errors in two games, both played at Municipal Stadium and both losses to Detroit.
On Saturday afternoon, Doby earned half of the Indians’ six errors in their first loss of the year. In the second inning, he juggled a ball hit to him in right, allowing the batter to advance to third base. In the fifth inning, Doby overcharged another ball hit to him and then missed badly with his throw to second base, earning him a pair of errors as both runners advanced on the play. Both scored on back-to-back hits by the next two batters, giving the Tigers their first two of 10 runs on the day and aiding in the departure of the day’s starter, Bob Feller.
Doby earned another error in Sunday’s loss in the first inning. With a runner on second and already ahead 1-0, Detroit’s Pat Mullin sharply singled to right with one out, scoring George Kell from second base. Doby misplayed the ball, allowing Mullin to move into second. Bob Lemon was able to come back and retire the next two batters to end the frame with no further damage caused by Doby’s error.
After the miscue, his fourth error of the season and in the last two games, the boo birds started chirping on the shores of Lake Erie.
No one should be satisfied with the failed fundamentals being displayed by the young outfielder, but it certainly seemed like a harsh reaction to the man playing out of position in the major leagues. Fans need to consider that he is playing at a brand new spot and that there is a learning curve associated with such a move.
Patience will need to be considered by fans of the Tribe. On the other hand, Doby seems to be receiving the same treatment by fans as most other players who contribute a subpar performance on the diamond. As the American League’s first African-American player, being treated as an equal to other players has to be seen as a positive stride for the growth of the game of baseball.
During his debut season in 1947, Doby was perfect in limited opportunities in the field. All of those chances, however, were in the infield, where he played innings at second base (14), shortstop (5) and first base (9). He generally was utilized as a pinch-hitter, though, starting just one game with the Indians against the Chicago White Sox in his second professional appearance.
The one thing the Indians seem to feel strongly about is that they need to keep his bat, and his legs, in the lineup. The outfielder can change the dynamics of a game with the speed he possesses. Throughout the spring, Doby played well enough to beat out several other established players for the job. He flashed his offensive skills on the field, turning singles into doubles, scoring from first on base hits and keeping opposing pitchers unsettled while he danced off of first base.
Doby has been reliable at the plate this season, batting .263 through his first eight games. He has hit a pair of home runs, his first two of his career, and driven in six. While he has not drawn a walk while striking out 12 times, he has been hit by a pitch by Detroit’s Art Houtteman.
For now, his job is safe. Manager Boudreau indicated after Sunday’s loss that he still intends to start Doby in the upcoming series with the Athletics in Philadelphia, even after his bad stretch in the field. It was a surprise to some, as Boudreau has been known for displaying a lack of patience with younger ball players.
Doby is still a work in progress. He is beginning just his first full season in the majors after being relegated to bench duty in his first few months with Cleveland last season. It would be a bad message sent by the Indians skipper to the new outfielder if he pulled the plug on him after just a few bad games. Boudreau will have to utilize the same patience that fans will need to in order to allow Doby the time to learn, adapt, and adjust to his position on the fly.
Photo: Cleveland Memory Project