Larry Walker has been a Hall of Famer for years, thanks to Larry Doby
In 1942, Larry Doby was a senior at Eastside High School in Paterson, N.J. He was renowned in the area for his athletic prowess – dazzling teammates and opponents as a scholastic star in baseball, basketball, football and track. But to retain his amateur eligibility, the college-bound Doby took a unique summer job under an assumed name.
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Acquiring a pseudonym to protect one’s amateur status was not uncommon in the first half of the 20th century, with legends such as Lou Gehrig and Eddie Collins taking on their clandestine monikers at one time. For the 18-year-old Doby – a left-handed batter and right-hander thrower – a chance to get paid while playing in the high-caliber Negro National League for the nearby Newark Eagles was an offer to good to pass up.
Doby was born in Camden, S.C., and soon moved to New Jersey with his mother. It wasn’t long before the teenager established himself in his new North Jersey hometown as an outstanding four-sport star.
“When a particular gent by the name of Doby is feeling good – woe be it to any team, barring none. Doby, in most people’s estimation, is the nucleus of the Ghost’s attack, and it is more than self-evident that he is,” wrote The Garfield (N.J.) Guardian in March 1942, referring to Doby’s play in the state basketball tournament. “When Eastside faced Garfield the second time out, Laughing Larry Doby, who doesn’t laugh when he’s performing, was the sparkplug as he singlehandedly maneuvered Eastside to a thrilling victory. A salute to Larry Doby, a ballplayer’s ballplayer on any club.”
With World War II raging in Europe and the future of professional baseball – segregated or not – in doubt, Larry Walker (alias Larry Doby), with his high school graduation still weeks away, made his professional debut as a ballplayer on May 31, 1942, at Yankee Stadium. This was despite many in Paterson thinking he was better at basketball than baseball.
A few days after his Eagles introduction, The Morning Call of Paterson, N.J., published this laudatory note: “Track lettermen at Eastside were announced yesterday, and when Larry Doby’s name was posted, it meant another chapter in the school’s athletic history being written by the Negro race. He is now the first four-letter athlete in Eastside’s history, having won varsity letters in baseball (3), basketball (4) and football (4). His total of 12 varsity letters is also a new school record.”
When it was time for Doby to finally accept his high school diploma – one of 334 Eastside High students to graduate – the local Paterson, N.J., newspaper, The News, wrote glowingly, “Included in the list is Larry Doby, brilliant Negro athlete. Doby, only Eastside athlete to ever win four letters (football, baseball, basketball and track), earned All-State recognition in all these sports except track.”
Doby would end that inaugural pro season, according to information provided by a National Baseball Hall of Fame-sponsored study and published Baseball-Reference.com, batting .333 (19-for-57) with three doubles, two triples, nine RBI and 12 runs scored.
After initially attending Long Island University to play basketball, Doby transferred to Virginia Union University in the winter.
“The acquisition of Larry Doby is a routine baseball purchase – in my mind,” said Tribe manager and shortstop Lou Boudreau. “Creed, race or color are not factors in baseball success whether it be in the major or minor leagues. Ability and character are the only factors.
“Doby will be given every chance, as will any other deserving recruit, to prove that he has the ability to make good with us.”
But before Doby left the Negro Leagues for good, he homered with his wife and mother in the stands in his farewell game with the Eagles on July 4. The next day he made his big league debut – only a few months after Jackie Robinson’s appearance with the Brooklyn Dodgers – to become the first African-American to play in the American League.
In 1997, 50 years after making his trailblazing debut with the Indians and a year before he was to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Doby, a seven-time All-Star himself, was named the American League’s honorary captain at the All-Star Game in Cleveland. Colorado Rockies slugger Larry Walker was the Senior Circuit’s starting right fielder in that game on the way to a National League MVP Award winning season.
When Doby was asked about the irony, having once played under the name “Larry Walker,” he explained how his acquiring the name came about.
“To keep my scholarship, I couldn’t play pro baseball under my own name. My mother’s maiden name was Etta Walker, so my name with the Eagles was Larry Walker from June until September,” Doby said. “I never thought that name, Larry Walker, would pop up again.”
Doby would pass away on June 18, 2003, at the age of 79 in Montclair, N.J.
Bill Francis is the senior research and writing specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum