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This is Larry Doby’s Story: Reliving Yesteryear

Larry Doby Jackie Robinson

With the unveiling of Larry Doby’s statue at Progressive Field on Saturday, much will be made of the indignities he suffered during his playing career for the Cleveland Indians. His feats on the field will be dutifully recited. His supporters will boast of his Hall of Fame bona fides, while noting these accomplishments were recorded under constant pressure to perform. He was very proud of helping prove blacks belonged in the big leagues — illustrated by the 1949 All Star teams, which featured four of the five blacks that were currently in MLB (Doby, Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe, and Roy Campanella)1 .

This isn’t Bill Veeck’s story. But the flamboyant owner/general manager of the Indians was responsible for the opportunity Larry Doby received, as the first Negro League ball player to play in the American League, in 1947.

This isn’t Jackie Robinson’s story. But Larry Doby’s experience was influenced by the first Negro League player to be elevated to the major leagues (Brooklyn Dodgers); eleven weeks before Veeck signed Doby to a Cleveland Indians contract.

This isn’t Joe Gordon’s story. Or Steve Gromek’s. Or Lou Boudreau’s or Jim Hegan’s or Bob Lemon’s. But, amidst the mental and occasionally physical abuse endured by Larry Doby when he arrived in the big leagues with the Indians, these teammates were notable for not taking the easy route by clashing with or remaining aloof to the newcomer. They went out of their way to befriend Doby and make things easier for him.

This isn’t Frank Robinson’s story. Although, Larry Doby was a coach with the Indians when they signed Robinson in 1974 as a prelude to installing him as the first African-American to ever manage in the major leagues.

It is notable, however, that the story of Larry Doby is largely told in the context of the careers and the lives of other giants in baseball history. Is it due to his being the second to break the color barrier? Is it owed in part to his inward personality, which some took as sullen or selfish?

Bill Veeck had been a minor league franchise owner while he served in the Marine Corps during World War II. He looked into purchasing the Philadelphia Phillies with his stated intent of stocking the team entirely with Negro league stars. According to his memoirs, the financing was in place and he had an agreement in principle to acquire the team. After disclosing his plans to MLB commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the team was taken over by the National League.

Veeck turned his attention elsewhere, and, in 1946, he purchased the Cleveland Indians. He quickly began to introduce to the team various ideas and innovations: he permanently moved the Indians to Municipal Stadium, ending their practice of splitting games between that venue and old League Park. He began to feature game-day entertainment promotions, and he put all of the team’s games on radio broadcasts2 .

And he signed Larry Doby. By the 1940s, pressure was building on the major leagues to integrate. The Mexican baseball league had been signing top Negro league players and were threatening to rival the U.S. big leagues. They’d even begun a salary war over veteran major league (white) players. The final straw for observers such as Bill Veeck was that many Negro league stars, like Doby, had served their country in the U.S. military during the war.

By the time Veeck signed the Newark Eagles’ second baseman/shortstop, Jackie Robinson had already made his debut with the Dodgers. He’d completed a minor league stint with the Montreal Royals; an underrated benefit of that were the friendships he’d been able to forge (a rapport with various teammates that in some cases carried forward to the Dodgers).

Larry Doby jumped right from Newark to the Indians. Everything was new, and the introverted Doby knew nobody on the team — or in the league; the American Leaguer never crossed paths with the National Leaguer Robinson at ballparks. Veeck had two rules for his new addition: No arguing with umpires, not even turning around when a bad call was made at the plate. Also, “no dissertations with opposing players.” He told Doby that “either of those might start a race riot.”

On his team, a few players were particularly hostile to Doby. He did not divulge which players declined to shake his hand during introductions but allowed there were three. Relatively quickly, Veeck rid the team of those players.

Several teammates were merely indifferent to Doby, amidst the stress he bore of intense scrutiny, public segregation, and taunting from opposing players and fans. (Off the field, the Indians’ offices received countless angry telephone calls and thousands of letters, all of which were said to have eventually been replied to by Veeck). But Doby later noted four players who went out of their way to befriend their new teammate: Gordon, Hegan, Lemon, and Gromek.

Especially Joe Gordon. Right from the start, the second baseman and future manager of the Indians made it a point to play catch with Doby during pregame warmups on the field. (In lieu of that, it seems commonly accepted that in those first few days, Doby would have had to stand off by himself, while his teammates paired off.) Doby often noted that Gordon always had his back. There is an apocryphal story (related by Veeck) of Larry Doby striking out very early in his time with Cleveland. He missed on three wild swings, and walked to the end of the bench and buried his face in his hands. Gordon, up next, struck out in a likewise manner, and assumed a similar pose next to Doby. Basically, it is said he whiffed on purpose so as not to let Doby feel so alone. Larry Doby later smiled at this story, stating it wasn’t true, but that Gordon “would have done” it.

Larry Doby, a middle infielder, was asked by manager Lou Boudreau to play first base (for the first time in his life) when he first arrived with the team. Doby didn’t have a first baseman’s glove, and Eddie Robinson refused to allow a “n-“ to borrow his. At least until Gordon talked him into it. Doby eventually settled into center field, providing breathtaking plays while also setting a record errorless streak3 .

If Larry Doby’s introduction into the American League was a milestone that transformed American society in a way that transcended sports, then another moment perhaps proved equally as meaningful. In Game 4 of the 1948 World Series, Doby hit a home run to help Indians pitcher Steve Gromek earn the win. After the game, in the locker room, a joyous Gromek and Doby embraced, and a photo recording the moment ran prominently in every newspaper in the country. Gromek received some backlash back home in Hamtramck, Michigan for that moment. It is thought to be perhaps the first time a white person and a black person were publicly photographed with such mutual affection. Doby always regarded that moment as one of the very best in his life4 .

The segregation while traveling gradually lessened over the years. In 1954, the Santa Rita Hotel — the team’s home while training in Tucson, Arizona — began to allow Larry Doby to stay there with the team. (Of course, he was not allowed to sit in the lobby. Or use the elevator.).

Larry Doby was traded by the Indians after the 1955 season. Shortstop Chico Carrasquel, one of the players acquired in that deal, replaced Bobby Avila in the Tribe infield. The Indians reacquired Doby in 1958 before dealing him again ahead of the 1959 season.

Trivia question: Whom did the Tribe receive in the 1959 Doby trade? (Answer below. Interestingly, this player and Larry Doby had also been principals in a 1957 trade between the White Sox and the Baltimore Orioles.)

When Larry Doby was coaching with the Cleveland Indians in 1974 veteran slugger Frank Robinson was signed by the team. At the time, it was thought Doby was perhaps in line to eventually succeed manager Ken Aspromonte. But, when the latter was fired after the season, it was Frank Robinson whom the team named to be the first black big league manager. Doby was eventually hired to manage the Chicago White Sox (by Bill Veeck) becoming not only the second big league black player ever, but now the second big league black manager ever as well.

So, why has Larry Doby been so overshadowed for so long? After all, he endured the same overt and covert abuse as Jackie Robinson (Doby was the first big league African-American in the parks he played in). Being the second black major leaguer certainly had a lot to do with it. Some say the press may have felt they’d already written the story of the color barrier being broken. Also, Jackie Robinson first arrived on the national stage in the media capitol of New York, while Larry Doby did not.

In hindsight, perhaps as much of a reason for Doby’s relative obscurity was his personality. He was sensitive and he internalized his feelings. However, one might be careful before considering this a negative. It was part of the entire package that appealed to Bill Veeck and others. The traits of humility and determination that caused Doby to accumulate scars under the burden of the stress he was forced to tolerate caused others to consider him a worthy candidate to further the cause of baseball’s “noble experiment;” the racial integration of the Great American Pastime.

Triva Question Answer

Tito Francona (father of the Indians’ current manager). He enjoyed a career year after being acquired by Cleveland general manager Frank Lane in the ’59 Doby trade.

  1. 1949 was also the first year ever that blacks made the major league All Star teams. Of course, Jackie Robinson probably deserved the honor in 1947 when he won the inaugural N.L. Rookie of the Year award (an award now named after him). []
  2. What a fascinating time for Cleveland sports — and I’m not even talking about the championships won by the Indians, Browns, Barons — and Negro league Buckeyes. Just consider Bill Veeck’s innovations in baseball and Paul Brown transforming professional football. And, both helping to integrate their respective sports. []
  3. All time great center fielder and Tribe World Series hero Tris Speaker was an Indians coach in 1948, and tutored Larry Doby on his defense. The pairing of these two is pretty interesting, since conventional opinion seems to be that Speaker may have been racially bigoted as a younger man. []
  4. Love the Browns names in the photo, above the lockers. Lou Groza. []

  • Harv

    You’re right, he absorbed the identical abuse as Robinson, and by fans/players/coaches who couldn’t reach Robinson in the other league.

    I think Doby is less publicized mostly because it’s hard for the public and the media to absorb two historic dramatic stories that unfold simultaneously on parallel tracks. It’s easier to go with the very first, the somewhat better player, the who played in the bigger media market (even then). Not sure it was a personality issue, that Robinson was so much more outgoing or engaging than Doby, especially in those trying first years.

    We should also recognize this in the sabermetric age: all those pre-integration stats are fatally flawed for comparative use. The majors had locked out much of the finest talent in the country. That includes Ruth’s HR record, Bob Feller’s 130+ wins before integration, whatever.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Well done and appreciated.

  • mgbode

    We agree completely and wholeheartedly here.

  • Mike

    I often wonder if Doby was first and Robinson was second if Doby’s legacy would have been remembered as Robinson’s is now. I also wonder if Marion Motley and Bill Willis’s Legacy’s would be more prominent if they played for the New York Giants as opposed to the Browns.