Monday, July 6, 2009

The Forgotten Pioneer

Sunday marked the 62nd anniversary of Larry Doby's Major League debut with the Cleveland Indians. On July 5, 1947, a 23-year old Doby stepped up to the plate against the Washington Senators as a pinch hitter. Doby struck out in the first of 32 at-bats on the season, but would kick off his Hall of Fame worthy career by establishing himself as a key member of the 1948 World Series champs. Over a six game series against the Boston Braves, Doby batted second in front of Lou Boudreau and Joe Gordon, posting a .318/.375/.500 line with 7 H, 1 R, and 2 RBI in 24 PA. He also hit the first home run by an African-American in World Series history.

In his eight full seasons with Cleveland, Doby was selected to the All Star team seven straight times and led the league in runs, homers, RBI, OBP, SLG, and OPS at least once over that span. In a career spanning 13 seasons, Doby finished with 1,515 hits, 253 homers, 960 runs, 970 RBI, a slash line of .283/.386/.490, and an OPS+ of 136 while making most of his starts in centerfield for the Indians.

While Larry Doby's performance on the diamond is enough to elevate him as one of baseball's all-time greats, he also has the distinction of being the first player to break the color barrier in the American League. Doby was signed by Indians owner Bill Veeck and made his big-league debut just eleven weeks after Jackie Robinson of the National League. Robinson had spent the 1946 season playing with the Dodgers' Triple-A affiliate, unlike Doby who was thrust straight into the Majors after playing the previous season with the Newark Eagles in the Negro National League. Doby quickly realized the magnitude of his presence in the Majors, recalling a conversation he had with Veeck soon after signing with Cleveland:

''Mr. Veeck told me: 'No arguing with umpires, don't even turn around at a bad call at the plate, and no dissertations with opposing players; either of those might start a race riot. No associating with female Caucasians' -- not that I was going to. And he said remember to act in a way that you know people are watching you. And this was something that both Jack and I took seriously. We knew that if we didn't succeed, it might hinder opportunities for other Afro-Americans.''

Despite being separated by a mere eleven weeks, history tends to remember Larry Doby and Jackie Robinson very differently. Robinson is praised as a ground-breaking pioneer in not only baseball, but the civil rights movement. As an African-American player in a previously segregated sport, Robinson had to contend with ugly, racist behavior, segregation, vicious insults, and even threats of violence or death on a daily basis (as did the majority of blacks in 1940's America), all on a public stage. Even some of Robinson's own teammates were wary of interacting with him due to the public opinion at the time and often acted cold or hostile towards him.

The truth is, Larry Doby faced the exact same humiliation, insults, and dangers as Robinson. After being introduced to his new teammates by Veeck, Doby described the tension present in the clubhouse at the time: "Some of the players shook my hand,'' Doby recalled in a 1997 interview, ''but most of them didn't. It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life." Doby would go on to earn the respect and friendship of many of his teammates and remembered the city of Cleveland warmly in his Hall of Fame induction speech, but it was an uphill battle to garner even the basic courtesies and respect afforded to his white teammates by the baseball community and society as a whole.

Even after winning the World Series in 1948, Doby's fondest memory from his career was when teammate Steve Gromek embraced Doby in a moment of spontaneous celebration. Said Doby, "I would always relate back to that whenever I was insulted, or rejected by hotels. I'd always think back to that picture of Gromek and me. It would take away all the negatives."

Those eleven weeks where Robinson was the only black man in Major League baseball did not soften the blow from the swarm of racial epithets hurled at Doby in the field, nor the sting of an opposing player's tobacco juice as he spit into a sliding Doby's eyes. Both men displayed extraordinary courage just by showing up for work every day when so many people in the stands and the opposing dugout wanted nothing more than to see them fail, or worse. Not because they played for a rival team, but because of the color of their skin.

Eleven weeks are all that separated the debut of the two players most responsible for knocking down baseball's long-standing color barrier and paving the way for a future generation of ballplayers who may not have otherwise had the opportunity.

Why has Larry Doby never been able to step out from under the shadow of Jackie Robinson? Are their accomplishments not equal in the eyes of historians, fans, and the media? Sadly, no. History has always had a pre-occupation with those who came first. Even in the example of Larry Doby who followed so closely in Jackie Robinson's footsteps and made such a lasting impact, the second person through the door is never remembered as fondly as the first.

Robinson arrived on the scene as a burgeoning civil rights movement was making its way to the forefront and he soon transcended his role as a pro athlete to became a representative of something greater than baseball. As is often the case in history, there is only room for one icon in the national consciousness and Jackie Robinson was the player who captured the attention and imagination of the country during this turbulent period.

The media was keen to take advantage of Robinson's status as the first black player in the Majors. Robinson was not one to shy away from the spotlight either. His thrilling style of play and charismatic personality only added to his admiration by the press as a hot ticket. Doby recognized the media's infatuation with Robinson, while he was only mentioned in the boxscores. "[The discrimination] was every bit as bad as Jackie went through," said Doby, "but Jackie had already gone through it, so I had no publicity."

Doby was often viewed as aloof by fans and the media, but this was just a mis-interpretation of his reserved personality and utmost professionalism. Remembering the foundation he was expected to set for future players Doby "always tried to act in a dignified manner. When I was in the major leagues, some people thought I was a loner. But, well, when Joe DiMaggio was off by himself, they said he just wanted his privacy." Doby's outstanding performance on the field and his struggles with racism often went overlooked by the national media as a result. Robinson may have also held an edge in being the premier player for the Brooklyn Dodgers, a franchise that has become almost synonymous with the Golden Age of baseball for multiple generations of fans.

Today, Jackie Robinson is more celebrated than ever, especially within Major League Baseball. April 15, the anniversary of Robinson's debut, was declared Jackie Robinson Day within the Majors. Since 2007, the occasion has been marked by allowing all players the choice of wearing Robinson's number 42 for the day. Robinson's number was retired league-wide in 1997 and has since been hanging in every Major League ballpark alongside the franchise's own retired numbers. In addition, the annual Civil Rights Game (originally held in Memphis in 2007 between St. Louis and Cleveland) tends to focus on Robinson's first step rather than highlighting the impact of immediate predecessors such as Larry Doby and other early pioneers in the 40's and 50's who gradually chipped away at the looming remains of baseball's color barrier.

The Cleveland Indians have made efforts to bring Larry Doby's accomplishments to the attention of modern fans, holding Larry Doby Day on August 10, 2007. Every member of the Indians wore Doby's number 14 in tribute during the game, with the game-used jerseys later being auctioned for charity (while this is a great tribute, I'm curious as to why it wasn't held the week of July 5 instead). Yet, most baseball fans outside of Cleveland still have no sense of who Larry Doby was and that's a shame. "Jackie's number is hung in every ballpark in the country," said former Cleveland DH Ellis Burks in 2003, "but Larry Doby never did get enough recognition for what he did."

Not to take anything away from Jackie Robinson, but how long will baseball continue to relegate Larry Doby's legacy to the fringes of history? While they may have just been ballplayers on the surface, Larry Doby and Jackie Robinson were ultimately striving for equality in the sport of baseball and beyond. It's too bad Major League Baseball has honored their memories with anything but.


Berkow, Ira. "He Crossed the Color Barrier, but in Another's Shadow." The New York Times 23 February 1997.

Bechtel, Mark. "The Next One." Sports Illustrated 30 June 2003.

Jackson, Scoop. "Eleven Weeks to Irrelevance." 13 July 2007.

Schneider, Russell. The Boys of the Summer of '48. Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing, Inc., 1998.

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