My Favorite Player: Larry Doby
The summer I turned eight years of age, my interest in baseball was focused primarily on getting my little mitts on a real glove—a Spalding five-fingered pancake, which with the proper grooming and care would develop a deep enough pocket so that when I threw a ball into it, it would make a great thwacking noise.
On my birthday—July 30, 1947—I got my glove, and work began on the glove pocket that very month. This was the same month that Larry Doby followed Jackie Robinson by 11 weeks in breaking baseball’s long-standing, but unwritten, color barrier. Robinson broke through with Branch Rickey’s Brooklyn Dodgers of the National League, and Doby with Bill Veeck’s Cleveland Indians of the American League.
These events were little more than a curiosity to me at the time. I had to learn about them in increments, but first I had to become a Cleveland Indians fan—not an easy feat for a kid from South Yonkers, hailing distance of both Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds. My great-grandfather Phil had been a business partner of Charles Ebbets, so there was also pressure to pull for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In early 1950 my father took me to the Concord Hotel in the Catskills where Buster Crabbe was the swimming pro. Crabbe and my father had become friends when my father had traveled with the 1928 U.S. Olympic swimming team as an assistant to the team manager.
Crabbe had won a bronze medal in 1928, a gold in 1932, and went on to star in Hollywood serials and features playing Tarzan, Buck Rodgers, and Flash Gordon. My father, a banker, helped Crabbe with his taxes, which got my dad a weekend at the Concord. I tagged along and met the man I called Mr. Crabbe, but I always saw him as Flash Gordon battling his archenemy Ming the Merciless. Mr. Crabbe asked me if I wanted to meet his friend “Flip,” a professional baseball player who was visiting the Concord that weekend.
Flip it turned out was none other than Al Rosen of the Cleveland Indians, and he actually seemed genuinely pleased to meet me. We walked around for a few minutes and talked about the Cleveland ballclub. He shook my hand when I told him I had to catch up with my father.
At that moment I became an Indians fan as I prepared to return to my street, which was pure Yankee territory. I began following the team. Rosen was my favorite for a while, then it was a tie with Larry Doby who, like Rosen, seemed to me to be the ideal blend of offense and defense. The thrill was watching Doby build a career. In 1948, his second year in baseball, he batted .301 to help the Cleveland Indians to the World Series. Once there, he led the team to a Game 4 win with a home run. The Indians won the series, and Doby was a key part of the last Indians team to win the Fall Classic. A fine hitter and outfielder, Doby led the American League in slugging, on-base percentage, runs, homers (twice), and RBIs. Defensively, he established a Major League record of 164 consecutive errorless games in 1954 and ’55—a record that stood for 17 years. Doby played for 13 years with an overall .283 batting average, 253 home runs, and 969 RBIs. During his career he was named to seven All-Star teams.
Larry Doby and Dale Mitchell wave to fans during the parade celebrating Cleveland’s 1948 World Series championship.
When I was writing my book about Bill Veeck, I had added reasons for viewing Doby as my personal favorite—mainly because the road he traveled was as tough, if not tougher, than the one taken by Jackie Robinson. Doby was a World War II veteran who played with the Negro National League’s Newark Eagles and led them to a championship in 1946. Shy and introverted, he was ill-prepared for the racial taunts, snubs, and physical punishment he would face in the American League. He had grown up in a poor but mixed neighborhood of Italian, Irish, Jewish, and black kids in Patterson, New Jersey, where his boyhood pals included the late Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ). Doby ran for the winning touchdown in a game against Montclair High, a team that included Buzz Aldrin. Doby recalled later: “Given the circumstances at the time you could say that I had as much chance of playing in the major leagues as Aldrin did of going to the moon.”
Doby also recalled being subjected to a racist insult only once during high school, and it occurred during a football game. He responded by whirling past the foul-mouthed defensive back to haul in a touchdown pass. “That shut the guy up,” said Doby. He then played basketball on a scholarship on integrated team at Long Island University under legendary Coach Claire Bee. In 1943, after three months at LIU, he signed a contract with Newark Eagles of the Negro National League.
The first time Doby encountered racial segregation—then known as Jim Crow—was as a Navy draftee early in World War II when he was separated from his white high school friends on a train heading to basic training in Illinois. The reality of the enforced racial divide in the Armed Forces really hit home when he was denied a shot at the famous Great Lakes Naval Training Station ballclub, managed by Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane, and was forced to play for the all-black team at an all-black camp. Later in the war, he was permitted to play softball with white professionals on a small island of Mog-Mog in the Ulithi Atoll in the Pacific, a tiny fog-shrouded speck of a place that one veteran later said reminded him of the “eerie island in the movie King Kong.” The men he played with included Billy Goodman, who went on to a career with the Red Sox, and Washington Senators veteran Mickey Vernon, with whom he established a lifelong friendship.
Vernon saw Doby as the best player in both the island’s softball and basketball leagues, and they became friends and spent many hours together talking baseball late into the night. In 1945, when Jackie Robinson signed with Montreal and Doby was still in the South Pacific, Vernon wrote a letter to Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith asking him to give Doby a tryout, which, of course, did not happen. Then, when Doby rejoined the Newark Eagles in 1946, Vernon shipped him a dozen Louisville Sluggers as a gesture of respect and friendship.
After two years of military service, Larry Doby rejoined the Newark Eagles in 1946 and helped the team defeat the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro League World Series.
Like Jackie Robinson, he had to cope without losing his temper. “I couldn’t react to (prejudicial) situations from a physical standpoint. My reaction was to hit the ball as far as I could,” he said later. Unlike Robinson, Doby had to cope with far less preparation. He also got none of the intense and sympathetic media coverage the charismatic Robinson received. He later recalled: “You didn’t hear much about what I was going through because the media didn’t want to repeat the same story.”
Doby’s signing, often viewed as a simple replay of Robinson’s Dodger signing, was just as compelling but different. While Robinson’s struggle was mostly with other players, not the Brooklyn fans, Doby had to deal with players on other teams as well as a large segment of the local population that was not ready for him. One of the reporters who covered the Indians in 1947, Robert Ames Alden of the Cleveland Press, during a 2009 interview painted a picture of a city deeply divided along racial lines. Veeck’s hiring of Doby exacerbated these divisions, which played out in a violent confrontation between black and white fans at a basketball tournament in early 1948. Alden also said the media were intent on keeping the situation from boiling over, so numerous other incidents were either not reported, under-reported, or reported in code words.
Veeck later estimated that 20,000 angry letters had come into the club headquarters protesting the Doby signing. Veeck himself answered all of them. Alden said that the number was higher than 20,000 if you added angry calls and letters coming into the three daily newspapers. One of Alden’s jobs as a rookie reporter was to deal with them. The majority of these protest calls and letters were, in Veeck’s words, “violent and sometimes obscene”—a characterization shared by Alden.
Lou Brissie, who began pitching for the Phillies in 1947, later told his biographer Ira Berkow he listened in the dugout as his teammates shouted things like, “‘Porter, carry my bags,’ or ‘Shoeshine boy, shine my shoes’ and well, the N-word, too. It was terrible.” Brissie, who had been severely wounded in Italy and left for dead, was now pitching with a large metal brace on his leg and identified with Doby. “He was a kind of underdog, like me,” Brissie told Berkow.
Veeck would later acknowledge that he had put Doby in a difficult situation, “Not only being first in the American League but even more difficult was the fact that he himself had never really been exposed to the virulence that racism took once he had donned an Indians uniform.
Larry Doby became the first African American player in the American League when he was signed by Cleveland owner Bill Veeck on July 5, 1947.
Doby created an odd apprehension among other players who saw him as a threat. For his column in the New York World-Telegram, Dan Daniel interviewed an unnamed New York Yankee who feared the coming discrimination against white players. The reasoning was that the only reason Veeck had brought Doby to the Majors was “simply because he was a Negro, and the Cleveland club wants to cash in on the Negro trade.” He continued: “I am not opposed to having Negroes in the majors. But let them go through the same rugged preparation as the white players. Send the Negroes into the minors and let them work their way up.” He then added a warning, “If there is discrimination against the white youngsters there will be trouble.”
Perhaps the hardest time for Doby came while he was returning from spring training in Tucson at the beginning of the 1948 season. The team barnstormed its way back to Cleveland playing a series of games with the New York Giants in different places, including three stops in Texas. The trip was especially harsh on Doby. Since arriving in Tucson he had spent every night away from his white team members because the team hotel barred blacks. The hotels on the road were no better, and Doby was forced to board with local black families and find his own way to the ballpark.
At Lubbock, Texas, he was not allowed into the park by gate attendants until a team official vouched for him. In Texarkana, both of the Jim Crow taxicabs were busy, and he had to walk several miles to the park in uniform only to be denied entrance by a new set of gatekeepers. A barrage of bottles and other objects greeted him in center field, and he was taken out of the game for his own protection and the gratification of those who attacked him. In Houston, he was booed until he hit a ball beyond the fence in center field at distance of about 500 feet and was then applauded. He was not mollified. As he told his biographer Joseph Thomas Moore, “In fact, I resented the cheers.”
Doby also told Moore that this was the loneliest of his life.
Although Robinson and Doby entered the Majors 11 weeks apart, it took Doby 36 years to join Robinson in baseball’s Hall of Fame. He was not admitted until 1998. There were those who campaigned for Doby’s Hall of Fame for years. The push for induction intensified after 1997, when great attention was paid to the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s baseball debut. For example, Ian O’Conner wrote in the New York Daily News just before the 1998 balloting, “With the 50th anniversary of baseball desegregation fading from memory, it’s high time Larry Doby finished first. A survivor of cancer, a survivor of the same racism that confronted Jackie Robinson, Doby deserves to be voted into the Hall of Fame by its Veterans Committee.” O’Conner, who had been in contact with him, wrote that Doby said he felt he was a second-class citizen in the eyes of his very own country.
Doby clearly belonged in the Hall of Fame if only based on his performance on the field. He also belonged because he was a true pioneer. Doby was the first African-American to play in the American League, first to lead his league in homers, first to hit a World Series homer, and the first to win a World Series title. He was also MLB’s second black manager—again following a man named Robinson, this time Frank Robinson.
Also Doby, who had a lackluster rookie year, had played in the Negro Leagues but never spent a day in the minors, so he was not as well prepared for this role as Robinson. As author Daniel Okrent commented in 1995, “Robinson had a two year drum roll, Doby just showed up.”
If Doby lived in Robinson’s shadow—former Baseball Commissioner Faye Vincent has compared Larry Doby to Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon—he also co-existed with Satchel Paige, the second African-American signed by the Indians. Doby was almost the opposite of Paige in terms of personality. He was a shy and subdued man, Paige was not. Paige attracted great attention while Doby avoided it.
Teammates Larry Doby and Satchel Paige made history in the 1948 World Series — Doby as the first black player to hit a home run in Game 4 and Paige as the first black pitcher to take the mound in Game 5 in front of a record Major League crowd.
Doby possessed a grace and tolerance that kept him from calling out those who had judged him by the color of skin. At Doby’s funeral, his friend Joe Morgan told the standing-room-only church gathering: “He never, ever told me who those guys were that wouldn’t shake his hand . . . because some were in the Hall of Fame. But he did tell me about Joe Gordon.” Gordon was to Doby what Pee Wee Reese was to Robinson. “In the half dozen conversations I had with Doby over the final five years of his life,” Ian O’Conner wrote, “he mentioned Gordon’s gestures of kindness each and every time. But when I’d ask Doby to name the opponent who once spat in his face, he’d never budge.”
Morgan also reflected, “We’ll never know how great he could have been if he hadn’t been forced to endure his unique crucible. He played under a different type of pressure than me and my contemporaries. Certainly, both would have been better players, but how much better? We’ll never know.”
Larry Doby was a player involved in several important firsts. During the 1949 season, Doby was selected — along with Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and Jackie Robinson —as the first black players to participate in All-Star competition.
 The softball played at this time was nothing like the slow-pitch version of the game played today. It was old-style rough and tumble fast pitch with windmill / slingshot pitching, with no discernible arc, and a rise ball that came in low and curved up towards the head. Several Major League players had come up through the sandlot softball ranks, including Yankee great Tommy “Old Reliable” Heinrich.