An Introduction to Larry Doby

Doby, the first black player in the American League, has always been overshadowed by Jackie Robinson. Here, from the Cleveland Plain Dealer of early July, 1994, are excerpts from a lengthy profile of Doby written by the paper’s Tony Grossi:

On an airplane from Cleveland to Newark, one passenger notices another paging through a book. It is the authorized biography of Larry Doby, “Pride Against Prejudice.”

“Who was he?” inquires the passenger, a businessman in his 30s.

“Ever hear of Jackie Robinson?” he is asked.

“Of course.”

Jackie Robinson broke the National League color barrier 11 weeks before Doby did so in the AL. Doby has never been able to step out of the long shadow cast by Robinson in those 11 weeks.

“That doesn’t bother me,” Doby says. “Jackie Robinson was No. 1. And he deserves that. But when people ask me, `Did he make it easier for you?’ … That’s a stupid question. Eleven weeks. C’mon, we’re still having problems in 1994, 47 years later.

“Whatever happened to him naturally happened to me in the American League. People don’t realize I might have gotten worse treatment than he got. For one thing, the American League was the so-called elite, the top echelon at the time. And the American League was not that concerned with bringing in Afro-American players.”

Doby was 23 when Indians owner Bill Veeck signed him to a $5,000 contract on July 3, 1947. The next day, Doby hit a home run in his final at-bat for the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League. He departed on a train between games of a double-header for his historic journey through an America with which he was unfamiliar.

When Doby arrived the next day in Chicago, where the Indians were playing, he hit what he still considers the low point of his life.

“That reception I got in that clubhouse when I walked in the first day … that was a total shock,” Doby says.

After a private meeting with manager Lou Boudreau, Doby was escorted into the clubhouse and introduced to each of the Indians. To this day, Boudreau and Doby disagree about the reception Doby received.

“He shook everybody’s hand,” Boudreau said in an interview from his home in Dolton, Ill. “Now, whether they were a little backwards in doing it, I don’t know.”

Doby recalls: “It’s a known fact there were a lot of guys that didn’t shake my hand. I just don’t think I want to dignify those people by mentioning their names.”

After the Indians took the field for warmups, Doby says he waited a full five minutes before any of his new teammates tossed him a ball.

Second baseman Joe Gordon, who would become Doby’s closest friend in those early years, finally broke the ice and warmed up with him.

“You don’t know what a terrible feeling that was,” Doby says of the longest five minutes of his life.

Doby, though, is far from being a bitter man.

He understands the cold treatment he received at first from his teammates as a product of their ignorance. They never had a black teammate.

He had played alongside whites throughout his high school years in Paterson, N.J. “I was the only black on my high school football team,” Doby says. “I was one of two blacks on the basketball team and the only one on the baseball team. There was no discrimination as kids. We would walk home from school together and after practice and games.

“(The Indians) had to do the adjusting, not me. Also, I was a rookie coming in to compete for a job. Some of them naturally didn’t like that.”

After that tentative beginning, Doby and his new teammates gradually settled into a rather unevent- ful relationship the remainder of that first season together. Doby biographer Joseph Thomas Moore credits Boudreau for keeping a volatile situation from exploding.

Gordon, who died in 1978, also was instrumental.

Boudreau recalled: “After Larry would strike out, he’d walk to the corner of the dugout and sit all alone. After a week or 10 days of watching this, Joe Gordon struck out once and went right over to Larry and sat next to him and talked to him.

“Joe told me he said to Larry, `Look, I’ve been around this league for a number of years and I still strike out. So don’t worry about it.’ Joe helped me tremendously. This (Doby’s arrival) was overwhelming. I didn’t know what the reactions would be by 24 other members of my team.’

Doby, a natural second baseman, appeared in only 29 games in 1947, mostly as a pinch hitter. The following season, Doby was switched to the outfield and took over as an everyday player.

Over the next eight years, Doby starred as a center fielder on the last great Indians teams. He was a fixture on the teams that won two AL pennants and one World Series championship and finished second – to the Yankees, naturally – four times.

Doby was named to the AL All-Star team six consecutive seasons. He led the league in home runs twice, in runs scored once and in runs batted in once.

Through it all, he never stopped being reminded that he was a black man in a very white world.

“It was awful for him,” [Steve] Gromek said.

“I don’t think I ever was scared during the whole period,” says Doby. “But I was a bit down most of the time. I had come from situations where I had always been accepted. I was alone a lot in major league baseball.

“It’s hard to explain the loneliness. When you’re accustomed to leaving the ballpark and going to eat, or wherever, with your teammates, and then all of a sudden you leave one way and they go another … it’s a loneliness where you’re glad when the next day comes. Because you know you’re back in the ballpark. The best time was the time on the field.”

Even on the field, Doby had to abide by a different set of rules. Veeck specified them immediately: Turn the other cheek. Don’t fight back. Don’t disagree with the umpire. Don’t listen to the fans. Be thankful you’ve been given this opportunity.

“They kept emphasizing, `If you did anything out of character, you’re out and the next person ain’t gonna get an opportunity,’ Doby said.

The only recorded instance of Doby “cracking” under the pressure, of him stepping “out of character,” occurred in a game in 1957. By then, he was a member of the Chicago White Sox, having been traded after the 1955 season.

Yankees pitcher Art Ditmar knocked Doby down with a high fastball. Doby ran to the mound and knocked Ditmar flat with a punch described at the time as a “symbolic left hook,” setting off a brawl.

It was recorded as the first baseball fight involving a black and a white player. The possibility the pitch may have been called by a black player, Yankees catcher Elston Howard, served to sanction the knockdown as nothing more than a pitcher throwing at a hitter.

“I never did find out if Howard called that pitch,” Doby says with a laugh. Doby says that early on in his career, he did not fully grasp the responsibility thrust upon him as a 23-year-old.

“It didn’t dawn on me for three or four years,” he says. “I was always told by Veeck that I was doing something for history and I’d say, `OK, fine.’ All I wanted was to play baseball.

“But after a few years, when I saw other black players coming up, I realized that 20, 30, 40 years from now, somehow my name would be involved in being a part of the integration of baseball.”

Doby also barely missed out – to another Robinson – at becoming the first black manager in major league baseball.

When Doby returned to the Indians in 1974 as a coach, speculation was rampant he would eventually succeed manager Ken Aspromonte. But Indians General Manager Phil Seghi named Frank Robinson the following season.

Doby was appointed manager of the White Sox during the 1978 season by his old friend Veeck, but the stint lasted only 87 games.

Since 1990, Doby, 69, has worked with Major League Properties, securing licensing revenue for former players in need. Proceeds also aid the Jackie Robinson Foundation and the planned construction of a Negro Leagues museum in Kansas City, Mo.

Nine years later, on June 18, 2003, Doby died, at 78. The Plain Dealer’s Bob Dolgan:

Hall of Famer Larry Doby, the first black baseball player in American League history, died last night in his home in Montclair, N.J.

Doby was one of the Indians’ finest center fielders, a slugger with speed. He had been suffering from cancer. He was 78.

He endured a lot of vicious bench jockeying. “They would yell anything you can think of,” Doby recalled. “In those days, every team had bench jockeys. That was how they kept their jobs. But that’s all right. Life has been good to me.”

Doby survived because of the support he received from his late wife, Helyn, Indians owner Bill Veeck, who brought him to the majors, teammates Gordon and catcher Jim Hegan, and coach Bill McKechnie. They were the closest to him that first year.

Veeck held a special place in his heart. “He was one of the greatest people I ever met,” Doby said. “I lost my father when I was 8 and I certainly would have liked him to be the same kind of man Bill Veeck was.”

When he first met the dynamic Indians owner, he called him “Mr. Veeck.” Veeck replied, “Call me Bill and I’ll call you Lawrence.”

“We remained friends until the day he died,” Doby said. “He personified the phrase, ‘human being.'”

At the end of the 1947 season, fatherly coach McKechnie, who had won four pennants as a National League manager and was Boudreau’s top aide, told Doby, “We’ve got a second baseman in Gordon. I suggest you get a book and learn to play the outfield, because when you come to spring training that’s where they’re going to put you.”

“It was no big deal to me,” Doby said. “I had played every position in high school and the Negro League. I just wanted to play every day.”

He read Yankees star Tommy Henrich’s book on playing the outfield, then received more instruction during spring training in 1948 from Hall of Famer Tris Speaker, who had led the Indians to the 1920 world title as centerfielder-manager.

“He talked to me about charging balls and throwing to the right base,” Doby said.

Doby was thrown into the competition for the right field job among a platoon of players. He made the team, but not before a harrowing experience in an exhibition game in Texarkana, Texas. Fans threw bottles at him, driving him out of the game.

In an exhibition in Columbia, Ga., ushers refused to let him enter the front gate even though he was in full uniform. “You have to go in through the centerfield gate where the colored folks go in,” he was told. So, Doby entered through centerfield.

His most famous homer came in the fourth game of the 1948 World Series at Municipal Stadium, when he connected to give Steve Gromek a 2-1 victory and the Indians a 3-games-to-1 lead over the Boston Braves.

After the game, Doby and Gromek were photographed hugging each other in jubilation. The picture is considered a civil rights milestone. It was the first widely-publicized photo of two baseball players of different races embraced in victory.

“We had won and we showed respect for each other,” said Doby, who considered that incident the highlight of the season. “The picture showed that black and white people could get along and work together. I don’t think too many people were ready for that type of picture in 1948.”

Doby led the Indians in hitting in the series, with an average of .318.

Players soon accepted him because of his playing ability and he became a confident leader in the clubhouse as time went on. He was articulate and friendly on Jimmy Dudley’s Dugout Interviews radio show and in television appearances.

The right-handed throwing Doby was also an excellent fielder, once playing 166 straight games without an error. He had a powerful arm and made many spectacular catches. Maybe the most memorable came on July 31, 1954, when he raced to the Stadium fence in left-center, leaped and grabbed a drive by Tom Umphlett of Boston. His body was half-draped over the fence when he caught the ball.

He was still only 29 years old in 1954 and appeared to have many fine seasons ahead of him. But that season was his apex.

In 1955, he pulled a leg muscle and suffered a hand fracture, but still had a good season, hitting .291 with 26 homers. His RBI dropped to 75, however.

The Indians traded him to the Chicago White Sox for shortstop Chico Carrasquel and centerfielder Jim Busby on Oct. 25, 1955. It was a bad deal for the Indians.

Doby rebounded with 102 RBI for the White Sox in 1956, his fifth and last season over the century mark. He also hit 24 homers, his eighth straight year over 20.

From there it was a steep drop. He went to Baltimore in a six-player deal and then came back to the Indians in 1958 in another trade. In 1959, Cleveland sent him to Detroit for Tito Francona. Injuries to his back and rotator cuff ended his career at age 34.

Al Lopez, Doby’s manager for most of his career in Cleveland, said, “Larry had tremendous ability, but he could have been even better. Being the first black player in the league, he over-tried. He’d get real mad at himself when he didn’t do well.”

He received many honors in his later years. The Indians retired his number 14 on July 3, 1994, the 47th anniversary of his debut in Cleveland.

In 1998, Doby was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame, becoming the fifth player from the ’48 Indians to reach Cooperstown. The others were Boudreau, Feller, Lemon and Leroy “Satchel” Paige.

When he was 72, Doby was stricken with cancer and his left kidney was removed. His wife, Helyn, to whom he was married for 52 years at the time, suspected the cancer was caused by radon, a soil contaminant that was ordered removed from the street where they lived by a government environmental agency. The Dobys had lived in the house in New Jersey for 39 years at the time.

Half the street where the Dobys lived was dug up by the government because of the radon.

“I have no idea if the radon caused my illness or not,” Doby said. “My wife and five children lived here, too, and they’re all healthy.”

Shortly after, Helyn Doby contracted liver cancer. Doby then became ill with bone cancer. “I have my good days and my bad days,” he said.

In 1998, the Indians held a 50-year reunion of the ’48 team. Doby was the center of attention as a new inductee into the Hall of Fame. Then-team owner Richard Jacobs presented the old player with a replica of his 1948 World Series ring, which had been stolen.

“Two great things happened to me this year,” Doby said at the time. “I was voted into the Hall of Fame and I got my ring back.”

Published in: on August 20, 2013 at 4:32 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. There are a couple more similarities between Doby and Robinson, rather dubious ones. One is that neither Negro League team they were playing for received a dime from the Major League teams that took them away. The other is that all four owners involved are now in the Hall of Fame: Bill Veeck of the Indians spirited Doby away from Effa Manley’s Newark Eagles while Branch Rickey of the Dodgers swiped Robinson from Tom Wilkinson’s Kansas City Monarchs.

    Negro Leagues owners as a whole weren’t exactly known for treating their players well, but that wasn’t the case with either Manley or WIlkinson. Manley was known for treating certain Eagles extremely well (and I’ll leave it at that) while Wilkinson was well respected by both his players and no less than Rube Foster for being a very fair guy to deal with.

  2. Oops. That’s J.L. Wilkinson. Tom Baird was his business partner with the Monarchs.

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