Anniversary of Larry Doby’s breaking of AL color barrier deserves more recognition
Friday marks the anniversary of the major-league debut of Larry Doby, who on July 5, 1947, broke the American League color barrier, just three months after Jackie Robinson did so in the National League. While Robinson is rightly hailed for his pioneering effort—with a special day in his honor celebrated across baseball every Apr. 15 (the day he debuted), his uniform number retired by every team and, this year, even a feature-length Hollywood biopic—Doby, who passed away in 2003, has largely been confined to Robinson’s shadow despite his own outstanding career. The man deserves a day of his own, to say the least.
Doby endured the same virulent racism that Robinson faced — the segregation, bench-jockeying from opponents and cool receptions from certain teammates — and yet he thrived at the major-league level, earning All-Star honors for seven straight years from 1949 through 1955. Not until 1998, 39 years after his playing career ended and 36 years after Robinson’s first-ballot election, was he inducted into the Hall of Fame, that via the Veterans Committee. “The only difference was that Jackie Robinson got all the publicity,” Doby later said. “You didn’t hear much about what I was going through because the media didn’t want to repeat the same story.”
Doby began his professional career at age 18, as the second baseman for the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League. Indians owner Bill Veeck signed him to a major league deal on July 2, 1947, and three days later, he was in the majors, striking out as a pinch-hitter against the White Sox. He started the nightcap of a doubleheader the following day and went 1-for-4, but that was his only start of the year. With All-Star and future Hall of Famer Joe Gordon manning the keystone, and player-manager (and future Hall of Famer) Lou Boudreau at shortstop, Doby played sparingly as a rookie, accumulating just 33 plate appearances in 29 games. First baseman Eddie Robinson not only wouldn’t shake Doby’s hand, he wouldn’t lend him a mitt out of fear he would take his job.
With the help of Hall of Famer Tris Speaker, Doby converted to centerfield the following spring. As the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s Terry Pluto recounted last year:
In the spring of 1948, the Indians brought in Hall of Fame center fielder Tris Speaker to tutor Doby as an outfielder. Once rumored to have been a member of the Ku Klux Klan, Speaker became Doby’s advocate and showed no signs of racial prejudice.
Former Plain Dealer sportswriter Hal Lebovitz covered the 1948 Tribe for the Cleveland News and he told me several times how Speaker was a key to Doby becoming a seven-time All-Star and a superb outfielder. Doby had the ability, but he needed someone besides Veeck as an advocate. Speaker took that role, telling everyone that Doby had major-league talent.
With Speaker’s help, the 24-year-old Doby stepped into a starting role and hit an impressive .301/.384/.490 with 14 homers for a team that won 97 games and the franchise’s only world championship since 1920. In the World Series against the Boston Braves, Doby hit .318/.375/.500, with a Game 4 homer off Johnny Sain that provided the margin of victory.
The following season, Doby began a string of seven straight All-Star appearances, developing into one of the league’s best power hitters. He placed among the league’s top 10 in OPS and slugging percentage in each of those years, with seven top-five finishes in that span and the league leads in several key categories. In 1950, he led in on-base percentage (.442) and OPS (.986). In 1952, he led in slugging percentage (.541), Wins Above Replacement (7.0), home runs (32) and runs scored (104). In 1954, he led in homers (32) and RBI (126) and finished as runner-up to Yogi Berra in a close AL MVP vote. Overall, he was in the top 10 in OPS nine times and in WAR eight times. For the 1948-1956 span, he ranked fifth in WAR among a top 10 where every player wound up in the Hall of Fame:
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Doby’s 1954 season (.272/.364/.484 with 32 homers) helped the Indians win 111 games and the AL pennant, though he was just 2-for-16 during the World Series sweep by the Giants. He was traded to the White Sox after the 1955 season, the first of five deals that sent him bouncing between those two teams and the Tigers over the last four years of his major-league career. Back and rotator cuff injuries limited his playing time, and he was done at the major-league level at age 35. In a major-league career of 1,533 games — the equivalent of 10 seasons — he hit .283/.386/.490 with 253 homers and accumulated 49.4 WAR.
Doby spent time playing in Japan, and later coached the Expos, Indians and White Sox. In 1978, Veeck, then on his second stint as the owner of the Sox, gave Doby another “second,” naming him the game’s second black manager (after Frank Robinson) to replace the fired Bob Lemon. He finished the season 37-50. Doby later worked as an executive for Major League Baseball in a variety of front-office positions, and was honored several times, albeit belatedly. When he debuted on the Hall of Fame ballot in 1966, he received just 2.3 percent of the vote from the Baseball Writers Association of America, and just 3.4 percent the following year, after which he fell off; when the writers restored several other players who had received less than 5.0 percent of the vote to the ballot in 1985 — Ron Santo, Curt Flood and Vada Pinson among them — Doby was nowhere to be found. The Indians didn’t retire his number until 1994, and he wasn’t elected to the Hall of Fame until 1998, an honor long overdue.
Doby’s numbers only tell part of his story, to such an extent that his biggest backer, Veeck, was led to wonder what might have been. In his autobiography, Veeck as in Wreck, the maverick owner wrote, “[H]is inner turmoil was such a constant drain on him that he was never able to realize his full potential. Not to my mind, at any rate. If Larry had come up just a little later, when things were just a little better, he might very well have become one of the greatest players of all time.”
On the occasion of his death at age 79 in 2003, Doby’s passing was treated as front-page news by the Plain Dealer. In a since-archived column, Bill Livingston wrote:
Larry Doby, who died yesterday, was a 90-day wonder.
The wonder, you see, was that anyone thought much had changed in the three months be tween the start of the 1947 Major League Baseball season, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the National League with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Doby’s arrival at old Municipal Stadium on July 3 of that year as the first black player in the American League.
The same racial poison that greeted Robinson was steeping in the hearts and minds of many players and fans in the American League, too. Unlike Robinson, Doby had not gone to UCLA. He had not been the gem of the farm system, carefully nurtured before his big-league debut in Montreal, where the Dodgers’ top farm team was located. Race was not the same explosive issue in Quebec that it was in such Southern towns as Washington and St. Louis (home then to the AL’s Browns), where Doby would play.
Robinson was the first, and would be remembered throughout baseball, with his number (42) retired at every ballpark in the majors on the 50th anniversary of his rookie season. Doby was the pioneer who did not get primacy of place, but who endured the same privations of race. Outside Cleveland, he is probably not a household name. More is the shame.
Doby did achieve one notable first. After his World Series homer in 1948, he was photographed embracing winning pitcher Steve Gromek, a shot that made newspapers around the country, and one believed to be the first of black and white ballplayers embracing; it hangs in the Hall of Fame and was among Doby’s most treasured possessions. As the New York Times‘ Richard Goldstein recounted on the occasion of Gromek’s passing in 2002:
At a time when resistance to black players was still intense, it was a signal moment of brotherhood.
“That picture of Gromek and Doby has the unmistakable flesh and blood cheeks pressed close together, brawny arms tightly clasped, equally wide grins,” wrote Majorie Mackenzie, a columnist for the African-American Pittsburgh Courier. “The chief message of the Doby-Gromek picture is acceptance.”
Outside Brooklyn’s MCU Park, where the minor league Cyclones play, there stands a statue of the possibly apocryphal moment when white teammate Pee Wee Reese put his arm around Robinson as a show of solidarity. It would be every bit as fitting if a statue of the Doby-Gromek moment stood outside the Indians’ Progressive Field, perhaps unveiled on a Larry Doby Day sometime in the not-too-distant future.