Doby was Second to None
Black ones, of course.
He mentioned Jesse Owens and Joe Louis, Black athletes who survived and prospered during the middle of the 20th century while battling opponents for the ages along with a heavy dose of racism.
As the nation watched with much of the world, Owens and Louis began to share their spotlight with Newcombe and other Major League Baseball players after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier on April 15, 1947, with the hometown Dodgers in Brooklyn.
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“I think we had more of a need for Black heroes at that point in history, because of what was going on around the country,” Newcombe said, referring to everything from the ongoing segregation in the Jim Crow South to the racial ugliness suffered by Black players during the early years of integrated Major League Baseball.
Slightly less than three months after Robinson’s Dodgers debut, Doby walked into the visiting clubhouse at Comiskey Park in Chicago on Saturday, July 5, 1947, to pull on a uniform for the Cleveland Indians. He became the game’s second modern-day Black player overall, but since Robinson’s Dodgers were in the National League, Doby was the first Black player in the American League.
He could play, too. After he spent his pre-AL career – including a prolific stint with the Newark Eagles in the Negro Leagues – as an infielder, he was forced to learn outfield play in a flash with Cleveland. Gold Gloves weren’t awarded for great fielding until 1957, but if they were around during Doby’s prime in center field, he would have captured a slew of them.
Don’t forget about Larry Doby!
Courtesy of his glove and his bat, Doby made seven trips to the AL/NL All-Star Game. He won AL home run titles in 1952 and 1954, and he led the league in RBI in 1954. On Oct. 9, 1948, he became the first Black player to homer in the World Series, a blast that came as part of Cleveland’s six-game series victory over the Boston Braves. He also did the most to push the Indians into the 1954 World Series (which they lost to the Giants) by finishing second in the AL Most Valuable Player voting.
In Cleveland, where Doby used to say he was never booed, they gave him a street and a statue. The franchise also regularly honors Doby (retired number, franchise Hall of Fame, etc.), but outside of northern Ohio and baseball historians, many folks have forgotten about Larry Doby.
THE MONTCLAIR, N.J., THING
With much help from Doby’s first nine AL seasons of on-the-field glory for the Indians through 1955, he became a Hall of Famer. Even so, the most popular Cooperstown guy in Montclair, N.J., where Doby spent the bulk of his life with his wife and children, was Yogi Berra, the New York Yankees catcher, slugger and master of Yogisms to the delight of the universe.
THE BUZZ ALDRIN THING
Doby wasn’t even the most famous “second” person in Montclair. Buzz Aldrin also lived there, and he took three spacewalks in 1966 as an American astronaut. Then, after Neil Armstrong made “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” on July 20, 1969, by becoming the first person to walk on the moon, Aldrin followed Armstrong as No. 2.
THE OTHER ROBINSON THING
Cleveland made future Baseball Hall of Famer Frank Robinson its player-manager in 1975, which turned this Robinson into the first Black manager in the AL or NL. Three years later, the Bill Veeck who owned the Indians in July 1947 – when he acquired Doby from the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues – was the same Bill Veeck who owned the White Sox on June 30, 1978, when he promoted Doby from batting coach for the team to manager for the rest of the season. But Doby’s notoriety as a Black manager was muted since Frank Robinson already had been there, done that.
THE SATURDAY, JULY 5, 1947, THING
One moment, Doby was with the Eagles in Newark, where he finished the first game of a doubleheader in 1947 on the Fourth of July hitting .415 with 14 homers in the Negro Leagues. The next, he was getting word from team ownership that he had been sold for $15,000 to Veeck’s Indians. Soon, Doby joined Indians official Louis Jones for a train ride from Newark to Chicago, where the two Black men traveled to the south side the following day for Cleveland’s game against the White Sox at Comiskey Park. When Doby pinch hit in the seventh inning on Saturday, July 5, it was historic, but it wasn’t Jackie Robinson historic.
Not that it mattered to Doby.
Take it from Larry Jr., who remains in the family’s long-time house in Montclair. He has spent decades working on the road crew for famed singer Billy Joel. So, Larry Jr. had that job, but when Larry Doby Sr. was alive, Larry Jr. also had another one: Trying to get his father to share his baseball past. Instead, the son got only bits and pieces from the father who mostly shrugged over his status.
Gordon borrowed one for Doby from a White Sox player.
You get the picture: Just like Robinson, Doby survived the bigotry – of teammates, of opposing players, of fans on the road, of the media (who called everything from “surly” to “a malcontent” in for his quiet ways), of segregated hotels, restaurants, schools and neighborhoods – to become elite on the field among his peers. Even then, he couldn’t escape the racial issues, which was exemplified in 1954 when he shined the most as a player.
Doby led the American League that year with 32 home runs and 126 RBI, and he remained potent enough in center field to use his fielding and hitting to help the Indians end the Yankees’ string of five straight pennants. In the end, Cleveland managed a then-AL-record 111 victories, but it wasn’t enough for the writers voting for the 1954 AL Most Valuable Player. They gave the award to Berra, the Yankees’ white catcher, even though Berra ended with fewer home runs (22) and RBI (125) than Doby, and his Yankees finished eight games behind in the standings.
Doby and Robinson discussed such slights – and various triumphs – during phone calls through the years.
“My father had the utmost respect for him, and he always referred to him as Mr. Robinson,” Larry Jr., said of Larry Sr., who was a pallbearer at Robinson’s funeral in October 1972. “They were close. They did talk about who the good guys were, the bench jockeys, you know, which cities were rough. And they also barnstormed together. That was pretty cool, and it was a ‘who’s who’ of Black players. I’ve seen a picture from those days, and it’s Campanella. It’s Newcombe. It’s Doby. It’s Hank Thompson. It’s Monte Irvin. It’s Sam Jethroe.
“My father knew that, in 1946, when Mr. Robinson signed with the Montreal Royals (in the minor leagues), he said, ‘Maybe some of us will get a chance.’ He knew somebody had to be No. 1, and somebody had to be No. 2, and my father was perfectly content with being No. 2.”
Doby was more like No. 1B.
Terence Moore is a freelance writer from Smyrna, Ga.