Doby’s legacy, too often forgotten, lives on

Doby's legacy, too often forgotten, lives on thumbnail

Hall of Famer integrated AL shortly after Robinson’s arrival in NL

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A version of this column originally ran in 2015 in advance of the unveiling of a Larry Doby statue outside Progressive Field in Cleveland. We are running it again today on Doby’s birthday.

Eighty-one days separated the Major League debuts of Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby. But the difference in our collective appreciation for what those two great men meant for the game — and the nation — is incalculable.

Jackie, who debuted for the Dodgers on April 15, 1947, was the face of a movement, the representative of an idea larger than baseball. In film, in print and in the unprecedented tribute that came with the league-wide retirement of No. 42, he has been celebrated accordingly and deservedly.

Doby, who broke the American League color barrier with Cleveland on July 5, 1947, endured the same hatred and the same bigotry as Robinson, but with less publicity and ultimately, less recognition.

“Larry Doby was a better ballplayer than Jackie Robinson,” the legendary Bob Feller once told me, in that gruff no-nonsense way of his.

I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that Doby’s name ought to be known and celebrated by baseball fans as every bit the pioneer that Robinson was. As Doby told Jet Magazine in 1978, “Nobody said, ‘We’re gonna be nice to the second Black.’” Doby traversed the same intensely difficult road as Robinson. In some ways, his road was even harder.

Doby debuted just two days after the Newark Eagles agreed to sell his contract to Cleveland owner Bill Veeck. Though Veeck is remembered far more for his flair and penchant for the theatrical (Eddie Gaedel, Comiskey Park’s exploding scoreboard, etc.) than for his progressive ideas, he had been eager to integrate the AL, and Doby, having led the Eagles to the Negro Leagues World Series title the previous season, earned his attention. Doby hit a home run in his final at-bat for Newark, then headed off to presumably join Cleveland after the All-Star break. But when a newspaper reporter caught on to Veeck’s plan, Doby’s debut was moved up from July 10 to July 5.

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That was a stark contrast from Robinson’s timetable, which included a full season playing in the International League for Montreal as part of an acclimation process. Doby had his life and his world turned totally upside down in a matter of days. Some of his teammates wouldn’t shake his hand when player-manager Lou Boudreau introduced him in the clubhouse. Fans would shout racial epithets at him. Later in life, Doby would tell people about the time he slid into second base in that 1947 season and an opposing shortstop (he wouldn’t say who) spit tobacco juice in his face.

Beyond enduring such intolerance, Doby also dealt with the fundamental challenge of playing baseball at its highest level. He was signed as a second baseman, and he arrived, as Feller once put it, “with two left feet and 10 thumbs.” Relegated primarily to a pinch-hit role, he hit an uninspiring .156 in 29 games in that first season. Veeck and Boudreau told Doby that he’d have to learn to play center field if he wanted to stick in the AL.

That’s how Doby came upon an unlikely ally in Tris Speaker.

Though never conclusively verified, it has been reported by multiple researchers that Speaker was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. At the very least, the native Texan, who grew up in a segregated society, was known to have bigoted views toward minorities in his younger years. But the author Tim Gay, who wrote “Tris Speaker: The Rough-and-Tumble Life of a Baseball Legend,” contended that Speaker’s views on race softened during World War II, when soldiers of various races, colors and creeds fought and died for the United States.

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Tris Speaker (center) demonstrates batting for Cleveland players. Left to right: Luke Easter, first baseman; Jim Hegan, catcher; Larry Doby, outfielder; Ray Boone, shortstop; Al Rosen, third baseman.

So by the time Speaker, who had taken on a coaching and advisory role with Cleveland in his post-playing years, was asked to assist Doby’s transition to center field in the spring of 1948, he was open to the idea. The two developed a lifelong bond while working on the ins and outs of Doby’s game. That might be my favorite element of the Doby story.

“I’ve never seen a young ballplayer with such high potential,” Speaker told Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich in 1949.

Doby turned that potential into a Cooperstown-worthy career. In his first full season in 1948, he not only won the job in center field but also batted .301 to lead Cleveland to the top of a tight four-team playoff race. In the World Series against the Boston Braves, he hit a team-best .318, and Cleveland won a championship that still stands as its most recent.

Importantly, the 1948 Cleveland club, which also featured the legendary Satchel Paige, was the first racially integrated World Series champion. That team success — and Doby’s rapid acclimation after a difficult debut in ’47 — opened eyes in the industry. Ebony magazine noted that while Robinson had been the 1947 NL Rookie of the Year, “probably Doby has been an even more important factor in sending club owners into the chase for Negro talent.”

A seven-time American League All-Star who finished second in the 1954 AL MVP Award voting, Doby hit 253 home runs with 243 doubles and 970 RBIs in 13 seasons with Cleveland, the White Sox and the Tigers. Doby finally received his Hall of Fame call in 1998 before he died in 2003 at the age of 79.

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In Cleveland, Doby’s No. 14 is retired, the street that runs behind the Progressive Field scoreboard has been renamed Larry Doby Way and a statue of Doby stands outside the ballpark. These are appropriate tributes to a franchise icon.

But from a national perspective, because he came second to Robinson and because he was more introverted than Robinson, Doby’s name too often gets lost to history.

I once asked Jim “Mudcat” Grant, Doby’s friend and former teammate, if Doby was bitter about the way his role in baseball’s integration often went unnoticed.

“Bitter is not the right word,” Grant said. “Because when we all came into the league, we were in a segregated state of being. If you let the bitterness seep into what you were trying to do and competing out in the field, you weren’t going to be a success. I wouldn’t say he was bitter, but he was certainly disappointed.”

It saddens me to know Doby went to his grave not feeling his contributions to MLB had been fully appreciated. But it’s never too late to acknowledge his impact. Larry Doby might have arrived to the big leagues shortly after Jackie Robinson, but he was second to none.

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