Indians

More on Baseball’s Integration, the Tribe’s Larry Doby and Beyond

Larry Doby Jackie Robinson

Here and elsewhere, Indians outfielder and race pioneer Larry Doby was celebrated. A deserving man who graces Cooperstown and who is now honored by a statue at Progressive Field, Doby nevertheless appears likely to remain an underrated figure.

Cleveland, at least, has finally begun to appreciate Doby’s experience in baseball. But when the Indians signed him, how was the process of racial integration playing out, for the team with which he broke the American League color barrier?

A great resource in researching this topic is The Integration of Major League Baseball, a Team by Team History (Rick Swaine, 2009). Much more than merely a documentation of dates of signings, the book ventures into the question of “why” as it shares the “who,” “what,” “when,” and “where.” The Indians chapter filled in several gaps in my understanding of the evolution of the Indians’ desegregation. It also gave me pause in some instances, as I weighed the author’s premise and considered whether I agree.

Swaine’s introduction to the book documents segregation throughout baseball history, and his first chapter sets up the rest of the tome, mostly focusing on one team per chapter. He notes the pressure weighing on baseball to integrate.

Satchel Paige led a wave of Negro leagues stars that emerged in the 1930s, as the Great Depression faded into history. The entire country knew of his ability and of his penchant for showmanship. The author notes the other major Negro leagues stars of the years preceding WWII; many of them were considered the black baseball version of white baseball stars: Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard were Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. “Cool Papa” Bell was Ty Cobb. And so on. Exhibitions between black and white teams heightened fan interest, as well.

Blacks’ excelling in other sports — and in non-sports endeavors — broke down lingering questions over athletic and other various abilities. Blacks’ moving in great numbers from the rural South to urban areas in the North created a fertile ground for black-run city newspapers to editorialize in favor of racial equality.

Major league tryouts for black ball players were held from time to time in those years, but they would prove to amount to a sham. Interestingly, the Cleveland Indians were reported to have announced in 1942 that they would hold a tryout for a threesome from the Cleveland Buckeyes (who played their home games in League Park): Sam Jethroe, Parnell Woods, and Eugene Bremmer. That ended up not happening. 1943 was when Bill Veeck later stated he’d planned to purchase the St. Louis Browns, and stock them completely with black ball players (he said before the deal could be completed, the National League lined up another buyer).1

This was during the war years. Ironically, it was an era partly noted for a lack of available players.2 The Indians’ Paul O’Dea, a heralded product of the local sandlots, played for the team with eyesight in only one eye. (As a rookie, he’d leaned around the edge of the batting cage during BP and was nailed by a foul ball.) The Browns featured a one-armed outfielder, Pete Gray. The Cincinnati Reds’ bench included a deaf outfielder, and the Washington Senators had a pitcher with an artificial leg. Plenty of old and overweight players filled major league rosters, as did some who were as young as fifteen years old. This added to the patent absurdity that blacks were not allowed to compete.

Of course, black men were honorably serving the country during the war as well, in large numbers. And that was a huge factor in their cause gaining public momentum for entering big league baseball. The sentiment had grown strong enough to counter the infamous, staunch opposition led by the influential periodical, The Sporting News. And when baseball commissioner (and perhaps the final major roadblock to integration) Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis died in 1944, the stage was set for Branch Rickey to find the best candidate to become the first black player in the major leagues.

Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

The author Swaine details Rickey’s search for the first black major leaguer. Jackie Robinson emerged as the best prospect, with his combination of playing ability, “educational background, strength of character, morals, and experience in the spotlight.”34

Robinson was assigned to the Dodgers’ minor league Montreal Royals. He produced immediately, and dominated throughout his season there. In 1947, amidst a controversy involving manager Leo Durocher,5 Rickey brought Robinson to Brooklyn. The second baseman continued to hit, and field his position, like an All Star. He’d win the inaugural National League Rookie of the Year award.

Eleven weeks after Jackie Robinson’s major league debut, Larry Doby was signed by the Cleveland Indians.

I’ve always been under the impression that owner/general manager Bill Veeck carefully chose Doby in a scaled-down version of Rickey’s singling out Jackie Robinson. (We do know that Veeck would school Doby in the importance of restraint while playing). However, Rick Swaine does not agree. The author does acknowledge Veeck’s outstanding baseball acumen, in addition to his love of marketing and promotion. But the book indicates there was no real plan to identify an ideal candidate; it states Veeck simply ordered a search for the best ballplayer. In a contrast to Robinson, once signed, Doby was immediately rushed to the major league Indians. Apparently, Swaine does not subscribe to the notion that this was purposeful (eg. the better to expose the young player to as few new ‘white’ ballparks as possible). He argues that Doby was not well known, and played positions in which the Indians already excelled (Joe Gordon played second base, and player/manager Lou Boudreau played shortstop).

Furthermore, Swaine points to Veeck uncharacteristically keeping Doby’s debut low-key. He didn’t advertise it, and Doby’s first appearance was on the road, in Chicago. He surmises that Veeck was motivated by securing his place in history, and “Doby was the first to come to his rather short-spanned attention.” That’s way too harsh, in my opinion. At least Swaine posits that nobody but Veeck would have signed the older, colorful Paige, which was a great boost to the integration movement.

But the author claims the only reason Veeck’s approach worked out was the vast amount of skilled talent in the Negro leagues.

While Doby’s skills would assert themselves, it was not immediate. In his first year, mostly as a pinch hitter, he hit .156 and struck out 11 times in 32 at bats (strikeouts were much more taboo then, vs. today). For 1948, Doby and his sensitive, introverted personality were ticketed for the minor leagues. With the help of coach Tris Speaker, he began to excel, starting out in right field with the Indians. Halfway through the season, he was playing so well that he was moved to center field.

Most fans know that the Satchel Paige was Bill Veeck’s next black ballplayer signing. The flamboyant pitcher was thoroughly well known, but he was thought to be much too old (although nobody knew his age for certain). Critics (like The Sporting News) insisted Veeck was making a mockery of the game in pursuit of the almighty dollar. While it was true that Paige was a huge draw at the gate, he also was a key part of the 1948 Indians World Series team.

Bill Veeck was so encouraged by the success of Doby and Paige that the Indians’ system boasted 14 black players in 1949. Veeck didn’t only target young minority players, like Rickey; he also continued to pursue Negro leagues veterans. Unfortunately, while Doby continued to excel, Paige’s effectiveness waned in ’49. Several of the Tribe’s other (white) ’48 stars suddenly appeared to age, as well. New York Cuban outfielder (and future White Sox star) Minnie Minoso made his debut, but was sent back to the minors.

On this I definitely agree with Swaine: Jackie Robinson’s immediate success relieved other black players from absolutely having to be stars right away.

If Swaine blames Veeck for botching the Doby introduction to the public, he feels Luke Easter’s introduction was handled in a worse manner. Big Luke had been Josh Gibson’s successor as cleanup hitter for the Homestead Grays, and he began 1949 with Cleveland’s Pacific Coast League affiliate in San Diego. He was hitting tape-measure home runs, but was playing in severe pain with a cracked kneecap. By June, Veeck brought Easter to Cleveland for surgery. Six weeks later, the veteran Easter was playing for the Indians. His first season on the lakefront was marred by rust due to inactivity, and by difficulty in making the transition. It is noted that he became “the most booed player in the history of Cleveland Stadium.”6 Easter began to display his Ruthian-type batting ability for the Tribe in 1950.

Interestingly, Swaine calls Indians manager Lou Boudreau “one of the unsung heroes of baseball’s integration movement.” We do know that in 1947, Veeck had wished to replace Boudreau as manager (with Leo Durocher). So, Boudreau had no incentive to ‘go along’ with integration just to make his boss look good. And again, one of Larry Doby’s positions was shortstop- Boudreau’s position. It appears Lou Boudreau’s biggest issue with Doby was that he didn’t have a roommate in that first season-plus.7

Luke Easter and fourth-year veteran Larry Doby were the only black players in the American League in 1950 — the third year running that the Indians were the only AL team to boast minority players. (The Boston Red Sox would be the last league holdout- they didn’t sign their first black player until twelve years after Robinson and Doby burst on the scene. Notably, they were an awful ballclub in 1945, when they held one of baseball’s aforementioned “phantom tryouts.” They declined to seriously consider the players they’d worked out- one of whom was Jackie Robinson.)

Boudreau’s successor as manager, in 1951, was Al Lopez. He was hailed as a genius for his handling of pitchers. While the talent on the 1950s Tribe staffs would make any manager look good, the fact is his teams won the only two pennants the New York Yankees failed to win from 1949 to 1964. He won in 1954 with the Indians, and in 1959 with the Chicago White Sox.

However, Lopez had a bad reputation for managing black players. Doby called him a racist. Swaine notes that outfielder Al Smith made the big league club in 1953. He was perceived as a Lopez favorite, earning the nickname, “Little Bobo.” Even Smith allowed that Lopez was difficult to get along with. Vic Power, a flashy first baseman, had plenty to say about Lopez, even though he never played for him. He said the manager instructed pitchers to throw at black players’ legs since “their quick reflexes allowed them to avoid beanballs.” He said that when Lopez was in Chicago, he vetoed a trade for Power due to his bigotry. (By the way, Vic Power had called Lou Boudreau “a beautiful man.”)

An instance where Swaine opened my eyes a bit: I’d previously blamed the collapse of the late 1950s Indians on the mismanagement of the farm system by general manager/part owner Hank Greenberg (before Frank Lane arrived to briefly improve the team, then go absolutely trade-crazy).8 Swaine’s take was that the system was well stocked with black prospects during that decade, and Al Lopez failed to develop them. Some black players languished in the minors; some were misused; some ended up getting traded for lesser and/or older talents. And although Lopez was manager, and not the GM, he had enough political capital to be able to engineer and influence moves.

In the 1960s, the Cleveland Indians continued to demonstrate a difficulty in identifying and retaining talented black players. Figures such as Power, Luis Tiant, Mudcat Grant and Tommy Agee starred elsewhere after the Indians unloaded them. Often residing at the heart of such mismanagement during this era was the Tribe’s struggles in making payroll. So, concerning the Cleveland Indians’ player management activity at least, there was no longer a readily apparent difference between white players and black players. Viewed in the context of race relations in baseball in the Twentieth Century, it may be argued that this constituted a level of success.

  1. This assertion has been challenged, but appears to be true. []
  2. U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt had penned the famous “Green Light Letter” encouraging the continuation of major league baseball during the war. []
  3. Jackie Robinson had been a multi-sports star at UCLA, prompting his moniker, “the Jim Thorpe of his race.” []
  4. Here’s a good trivia question: Who was Rickey’s first choice to break the color barrier? Apparently, it had been Cuban shortstop Silvio Garcia. When the young Walter O’Malley was sent to sign him, he’d already been drafted into the Cuban army. []
  5. Durocher, who was said to enthusiastically favor Jackie Robinson, had just been suspended from baseball for associating with “unsavory characters.” []
  6. Of course, the Indians didn’t begin playing all of their home games at that venue until the year just prior. []
  7. The Cleveland Browns’ Paul Brown astutely paired up Bill Willis and Marion Motley as roommates, a year before Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby made their debuts. []
  8. Greenberg had a deal in place to move the Indians, so I’ll always be biased against him anyway. []