Just about everyone knows Jackie Robinson. This great courageous man was the first African American to play Major League baseball with the National League Brooklyn Dodgers. The same cannot be said for Larry Doby. Larry was the second African American player in the Major Leagues and the first in the American League. He has never received anywhere near the attention that Jackie Robinson has. In my opinion, he should.
Larry Doby was born in the South and so grew up amidst the racism of the time. He later moved to New Jersey where his path to greatness began as he excelled in high school athletics. As the only African American on the football team, however, he had early exposure to what he would later face. He excelled in spite of racial taunts but also began to turn inward. Nonetheless, his skills were noticed such that he was offered a basketball scholarship at Long Island University. He also had attracted the attention of the owners of the Newark Eagles, a powerful team of the Negro Leagues.
World War II interrupted his plans and he served in the Navy, again experiencing the racism of the time. Many African American sailors were only allowed to fill positions of servitude. Through baseball, however, Larry was able to avoid the service roles many African Americans were given in the Navy. As the war ended, word came of the signing of Jackie Robinson by the Brooklyn Dodgers. After returning home, Larry eventually signed with the Newark Eagles.
Larry’s play was so stellar the it attracted the attention of Bill Veeck, owner of the Cleveland Indians. Veeck was willing to take the step taken by Branch Rickey of the Dodgers and sign an African American. Larry Doby was that ballplayer.
Like Robinson, Larry was given the same set of expectations. He was not to react with anger or aggression in response to the inevitable racial taunting. Keep in mind that at that time, American and National League teams would only meet in the World Series so the other American League teams and fans had no exposure to players of color. Larry would be the first.
Unlike Robinson, Larry went directly to the majors and did not have a season to adjust in the minor leagues. His initial season was a disaster. He was a second baseman on a team that already had one and so he was told he would become an outfielder, a position he had never played. Beyond that, he was shunned by some teammates, subjected to second-rate hotels because of racism, and had no roommate with whom to commiserate. But he didn’t give up.
The season of 1948 was a different story. Larry led the Indians in hitting and became a stellar center fielder. Indians fans no longer taunted him and instead cheered him. In fact, he led Cleveland to a World Series title. In game 4, Larry won it on a home run. After the game, he and pitcher Steve Gromek embraced. The picture received national attention. Keep in mind that this was 1948 and so a picture of a white man and a black man joyfully embracing was stunning.
In spite of being a World Series hero, Doby found it difficult to purchase a home back in New Jersey, often being turned away because of his color. He continued to endure second-rate hotels for several more years.
Jackie Robinson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Larry had to wait 40 years to receive the same honor. Like Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby was a man of wonderful athletic skills who had the courage to persist in the face of unspeakable racism. He faced the same degrees of hatred and harassment that Robinson faced. But Larry Doby played as important a part in terms of opening doors for other great African American ballplayers to follow.
At the end of the included news piece, the commentator states his belief that, like Jackie Robinson’s number 42, Larry Doby’s number 14 should also be retired in recognition of him being a trail-blazer in the American League. I couldn’t agree more!
Reading: There is a biography out there about Larry Doby but I would instead recommend a recent book titled Our Team which focuses on the 1948 Cleveland Indians and goes into depth on the experiences of Larry Doby.