"Larry Who?" just might be a valid question regarding Larry Doby. Since Jackie Robinson got all the ink and exposure in the media for being the first black player in the 20th century to play in the Major Leagues. That happened, of course, with the Brooklyn Dodgers of the National League. Mr. Doby just happened to be the first black player in the American League, appearing with the Cleveland Indians in 1947, the same year as Robinson, just 11 weeks later.
The Early Years
Doby was born in Camden, South Carolina, in 1923, but moved to Paterson, New Jersey, when he was a teenager. He was an all-stater in football, basketball, and baseball at Eastside High, and was offered a scholarship to play basketball at Long Island University.
The following summer he played second base under an assumed name to protect his amateur status in basketball, for the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League. After a two-year stint in the Navy, Doby returned to the Eagles to play for $500 a month. Doby hit .341 and finished one home run behind league leader Josh Gibson. Together with teammate and future Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, they opened up a can o' "Whup Ass" on Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Monarchs to win the Negro World Series of 1946.
The following year, Doby started off a house-a-fire, hitting over .400, when Bill "Veeck as in Wreck" and the Cleveland Indians came calling. Doby would later affectionately refer to Veeck as "his godfather."
So much was made in the media about Robinson breaking the "color barrier," but in actuality there were two color barriers. When Doby entered his first game in early July of 1947, he was met with the same biases and racial slurs that Robinson had to live with, but they weren't openly publicized when it applied to Doby. The first time he slid into 2nd base, the opposing shortstop spit on him, but know one ever knew because Doby had prepared himself to live with the grief, rather than react to it.
There were 10 "teammates" that refused to shake his hand when he joined the team in the locker room. To Veeck's credit, he made an effort to remove those players from the roster by trades or outhouse releases. But there also were the hotels he wasn't allowed to sleep in and the restaurants where he couldn't eat at.
The Indians of the late 1940s were a stacked ball club. Capable veterans manned every position, so it wasn't like Robinson's fate of moving directly into the starting lineup—Doby had to be content to pinch hit and play the field when a regular needed a day off. His less-than-impressive .156 average was a direct result of not getting a chance to play every day.
Veeck was not discouraged and gave Doby a shot at centerfield, a position Doby had never plaayed, during spring training in 1948. But a crash course on how to track a ball's flight was administered by Hall of Fame centerfielder Tris Speaker. After a half-season adjustment, Doby felt as comfortable as favorite pair of genes. As comfortable as a home boy in the 'hood. As comfortable as XXX In his first full season, Doby hit .301 with 14 home runs and a team-high nine triples, in helping the Indians to the pennant. He also led the club with seven hits in the World Series victory over the Boston Braves.
In 1949, with DiMaggio on the decline, Doby became a fixture for the American League in the All Star game, making six straight appearances in the midsummer classic. Doby had great numbers in 1952 and '54, leading the league in homers and RBIs ('54). He also led the league, at various times, in runs scored, slugging percentage, and on-base percentage, and hit for the cycle in 1952*.
Other Side of the Coin
Doby holds no grudges against those who denegrated him early on, but he held a special place in his heart for those that gave him a helping hand; treated him like a human being: Indian veterans Jim Hegan, Joe Gordon, and Hall of Famer Bob Lemon.
Asked if he wished he could have played in this era of big money, Doby replied, "Not really. Though it's nice to see what's happening as far as athletes are concerned—to be able to make some good money. I look back and see how far this country has come because of the integration of baseball. I think that if the country itself had progressed as much as baseball has progressed, we wouldn't have a lot of the problems we have."
Who were some of the greats that you played against? Doby replied, "I played against some great players. You had a pitching staff in Detroit with Hal Newhouser and Dizzy Trout, great pitchers in Chicago, you had the New York club with Reynolds, Raschi, Ford and Lopat, and you had the Washington Senators, with Walt Masterson and Sid Hudson. We were lucky enough to be involved in some great pennant races while I was in Cleveland. We played against guys like Williams, DiMaggio and Mantle."
Hall of Fame Credentials
Doby, despite having to wait until he was 24 to break into the big leagues, put together 10 years of oustanding service to the game of baseball. He hit .283 lifetime with 253 home runs and 970 RBIs in about 1500 games, in leading the Indians to two pennants in an era dominated by the New York Yankees, before a broken ankle finally slowed him down in 1959 while with the Chicago White Sox.
Doby stayed around the game after he retired from the Major Leagues—he played in Japan, coached for the Montreal Expos in 1971, and then became the second African American to manage a teams in the Majors. This time he was second to another Robinson, Hall of Famer Frank.