Righting a Wrong and Honoring a Legend in Doby

In a season full of so many things gone wrong for the Cleveland Indians, Saturday afternoon marked a moment that they absolutely got right, albeit many, many years too late.

A new statue of Larry Doby joined those of Bob Feller and Jim Thome in welcoming baseball fans into the Tribe’s home in downtown Cleveland.

For some, the decision corrects a massive oversight made when the club opted to give all-time home run leader Thome his due in 2013 over Doby, whom many felt was far more deserving and rightfully so. For others, they are just happy to see an icon far underrepresented in the annals of Indians history given a more revered status amongst the greats to ever represent the city of Cleveland on the diamond.

The story of Doby dates back 68 years, when the innovative Bill Veeck changed the course of American League history and put Cleveland in a spotlight that far too few places were willing to go in 1947. Veeck, remembered more for his silly gimmicks than his role in the integration of baseball and the advancement for more equal rights for all, signed the young World War II veteran Doby from the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League and, when he suited up on July 5th, 1947, he became the first African-American player in the AL and just the second to break the color barrier, following in the footsteps of the far more often mentioned Jackie Robinson of the National League’s Brooklyn Dodgers.

Robinson was the first and therefore received the deserved attention of being the man needed to break through baseball’s color lines and to help change the tides of racial prejudices across the country. He also had the pressure of doing so on one of the largest stages on the planet, playing in the media capital of New York City.

The game of baseball was different then, and the two leagues had a level of competitiveness that may have disappeared with the advent of free agency and especially now with frequent interleague battles each and every season.

Even though Robinson had set the stage less than three months before him, it did not make Doby’s task any less difficult. Indians owner Paul Dolan said it perfectly during the presentation prior to the unveiling of Doby’s statue, sharing that “history can be tough on the ‘second guy’…but we need to celebrate Larry Doby.”

Being second did not alter the evils of the time that Doby had to deal with, which included denigrating names, disrespect from teammates and opposing players on the field and the fans in attendance, and dealing with separate eating and living accommodations in many locales, all while having to adapt to the Major League game on the fly with no time in the minor leagues, unlike Robinson, who spent a season of professional baseball in Montreal before reaching the Majors. In doing so, Robinson was able to prove his worth on the field and earn the respect from the players while presenting as a legitimate prospect for the Dodgers, even at the age of 27.

A statue does not do enough to memorialize Doby, but the Indians have done well in the last two decades to keep his memory and his story alive.

His number 14 was retired during the inaugural season of Jacobs Field in 1994. The number was unretired, so to speak, in 2007 when every Indians player wore his number on their backs to remember the 60th anniversary of his entrance into Major League Baseball. In 2012, a stretch of Eagle Avenue behind the park was renamed Larry Doby Way in his honor.

Doby Forever Stamp
Photo: USPS.com

The Veteran’s Committee finally recognized Doby’s efforts when they enshrined him in the Hall of Fame on July 26th, 1998, after he appeared on the ballot in 1967 and 1968, earning no more than 3.4% of the Baseball Writers Association of America’s vote. He is also remembered in name on the Most Valuable Player Award for the Futures Game held at the All-Star break each season.

Even the United States Postal Service recognized his efforts, including him as one of four players to be emblazoned on a “Forever” stamp three years ago, when he joined Boston’s Ted Williams, Pittsburgh’s Willie Stargell, and New York’s Joe DiMaggio.

The Indians righted a wrong in 1947 when they signed Doby. They righted another wrong on Saturday by giving the man a far more deserving award, one that will do much more to keep his memory and legacy alive in the city he loved for embracing him and “never booing him”.

Cleveland was progressive in the movement, much more so than other teams around the league.

The St. Louis Browns’ Hank Thompson was 12 days behind Doby, debuting on July 17th, 1947, giving the AL two clubs who had integrated. They would not get another until 1951, when the Chicago White Sox acquired Minnie Minoso from Cleveland, where he had already benefited from integration in nine games for the Indians in 1949 and another eight to start the 1951 season. It took still two more years before the Philadelphia Athletics played Bob Trice and joined the other three clubs, making it then half of the AL who had integrated officially on the field.

It took more than 12 years after Robinson and Doby for the final MLB team, the Boston Red Sox, to have a black player on their club (Pumpsie Green – July 21st, 1959).

Mudcat Grant, Larry Doby, & Satchel Paige
Mudcat Grant, Larry Doby, & Satchel Paige

Doby opened the door for others who followed immediately within the Indians organization. Forty-something Satchel Paige, considered a risky move and possibly more of a publicity stunt, was finally granted access to the Major Leagues in July of 1948 after once being considered by Veeck as the man to peg as the first African-American to join the AL. Minoso and Luke Easter played for the Tribe in 1949, as did Bobby Avila, the fourth Mexican-born player in Major League history and the first to play for the Indians. Harry Simpson, the “Suitcase” man and an Army vet himself, signed with the club in 1949 and played in the minors before reaching the Majors beginning in 1951. Pitcher Sam Jones joined him; he later threw a no-hitter in 1955 for the Chicago Cubs.

Frank Robinson, upon joining the Indians dugout as a player and manager in 1975, became baseball’s first black manager. Doby, in strangely coincidental circumstances, became the game’s second once again, taking over for Veeck’s White Sox and manager Bob Lemon, his former teammate, who was relieved after a 34-40 start to the 1978 campaign. Doby finished 37-50 and never managed again, replaced for the 1979 season by Don Kessinger.

With social unrest and racial tensions still an issue almost 70 years after Doby suited up for the first time in a Major League game, it is important for everyone to remember how far we have come as a society and how much further we still have left to go. Part of that is remembering and, when necessary, honoring that history, to pass down the stories and legacies to the future generations to make sure the details of the past do not go forgotten.

The addition of a statue in Doby’s honor will hopefully set a trend for the Indians organization of remembering and honoring other players who have contributed to the franchise, both on and off the field, for the advancement of the club and of the city of Cleveland.

Who should join Doby next in statuesque immortality?

None of the candidates could claim to have the sort of societal impact that Doby did. Few were icons of the sport and war heroes like Feller was, and others did not have the kind of numbers and notable charitable work that Thome provided at various stops around the league.

But hopefully, it does not stop future statues of Lou Boudreau at the bat, a leaping Omar Vizquel, Kenny Lofton blazing a path on the bases, or any of the number of former heroes of yesteryear like Nap Lajoie or Tris Speaker from one day getting such an honor.

Many of the 28 players and one manager to reach the Hall of Fame after stops in Cleveland would be worthy of similar sculptures and it could go a long way for the club in preserving the memory of a large chunk of the 115 years of the organization’s existence. Other teams around the AL Central have done so, with the Indians lagging far behind most.

Chicago leads the way with nine, honoring Minoso, Luis Aparicio, Harold Baines, former owner Charles Comiskey, Carlton Fisk, Nellie Fox, Paul Konerko, Billy Pierce, and Frank Thomas.

Detroit has six sculptures posted in their left-center field area honoring Ty Cobb, Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, Willie Horton, Al Kaline, and Hal Newhouser. Greenberg and Newhouser each have ties back to the Indians and, in particular, Doby and Feller. Hall of Fame announcer Ernie Harwell, who started calling games for Detroit the season after Doby’s playing days with the Tigers, is also honored with a statue.

Kansas City has statues of George Brett, Frank White, manager Dick Howser, and former owners Ewing and Muriel Kauffman. Minnesota has created statues of Rod Carew, Kent Hrbek, Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, and Kirby Puckett, as well as former owners Calvin Griffith and Carl Pohlad, with his wife Eloise, and mascot T.C. the Bear.

Doby died in 2003 at the age of 79, but his legend and legacy still lives on. His contributions to the game of baseball, and much more importantly to civil rights and the end of segregation, will live on amongst those who know it and share it and get to play it in homage to him, even if he never receives the level of acknowledgement that Robinson did for the sacrifices he made for the betterment of all.

Photo: AP Photo/Tony Dejak

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