Martin Luther King Jr. and Major League Baseball will forever be intertwined. Today, as we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it’s hard to imagine that Dr. King would have found the same footing to help America integrate itself without the likes of Jackie Robinson and the Cleveland Indians Larry Doby before him.
On July 5, 1947, less than three months after Jackie Robinson in the National League, Larry Doby broke the American League color barrier.
Doby didn’t have the benefit of the preparation that Branch Rickey had given Jackie Robinson. That’s not to say that Robinson’s road was easy. We know that it wasn’t. But Rickey was studious and meticulous in his vision for finding the right player to break the color barrier in the National League. Bill Veeck didn’t take quite the same approach.
Bill Veeck signed Doby on July 2, 1947, sat him down and told him not to react to fans and to umpires. ‘Don’t do anything physical in retaliation unless it involves hitting a baseball.’ That was it. He played two days later. Jackie Robinson had been hand-picked years before, signing with the Dodgers in October 1945, and played in the Dodgers minor league system OUTSIDE of the United States, in Montreal. After 1947, Robinson received the media attention, while Doby took the brunt of the same racial attacks, without any of the support or media attention that Robinson received. Two guys in Doby’s corner were manager Lou Boudreau and second baseman Joe Gordan:
“Now, I couldn’t believe how this (cold treatment from the Indians team during his first year) was. I put on my uniform and I went out on the field to warm up, but nobody wanted to warm up with me. I had never been so alone in my life. I stood there alone in front of the dugout for five minutes. Then Joe Gordon, the second baseman who would become my friend, came up to me and asked, ‘Hey, rookie, you gonna just stand there or do you want to throw a little?’ I will never forget that man.”
Rickey made sure to align Robinson with the rest of the organization. Rickey made sure all the minor league managers and major league coaches saw him play, to see how talented he was. Coaches and managers aren’t stupid. If a kid can play, they aren’t going to care about his color. Robinson was a superstar at UCLA. During his days in the minors, Rickey even went so far as to help train Robinson in how to deal with potential racial issues.
Doby had two days.
How did Doby respond? He struggled that first season, unlike Robinson, who was the National League Rookie of the Year. He had five hits in only 32 at bats, and only saw time in 29 games. But he was the same trailblazer that Robinson was, without that plan in place.
The Indians brought in Tris Speaker during Spring Training of 1948, to teach him how to play center field. Speaker, rumored to have been a former member of the Klu Klux Klan for years (speculated, but NEVER verified), became Doby’s biggest advocate.
And, in 1948 and beyond?
Branch Rickey continued to integrate the game, adding Roy Campenella in 1948, and then Don Newcombe in 1949. While Bill Veeck also continued to sign players, Doby was virtually on his own after his signing, for many years. But that didn’t stop him from becoming great.
Doby became the first black ballplayer (along with Satchell Paige) to become a World Champion in his first full season. He hit a key home run (the first World Series home run by an African-American ballplayer) that gave the Indians a 2-1 victory in Game 4 of that series, and the Indians took a 3-1 series lead. He went to the All-Star game 7 times, joining Robinson and Newcombe as the first black ballplayers to play in an All-Star game. He led the league in home runs twice, with 32 in 1952 (first time a black player led the Majors) and 1954. In 1952, Doby led the league in runs scored with 104, and during the 1954 season he led the league with 126 RBI (first time a black player led the AL). In 1950, he led the league in OBP, and in 1952, he led the league in slugging. Much like Robinson, the New York Yankees were roadblocks to the Indians and World Series acclaim, finishing second to the Yankees four times.
Doby retired in 1959, and he should have been a first year ballot Hall of Famer. Instead, Doby had to wait 39 years, and was inducted in 1998. Robinson was inducted in 1962, on his first ballot.
And even then, Doby was gracious in pointing out that without Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson, it’s likely that Doby wouldn’t have been given his shot as early as 1947.
In the coming years, the Indians would continue to be at the forefront of integrating the game of baseball. While Minnie Minoso became a fixture in Chicago, it was Bill Veeck that signed him to play for the Indians in 1948. In 1949, he would play in nine games, becoming the first black Latino player in the history of the league, according to several sources. Veeck also signed Mexican born Bobby Avila, who later became the first Mexican-born player to lead the American League in hitting.
In the years that followed Doby’s playing career, Martin Luther King Jr. recognized all of the trailblazers in Major League Baseball, including Larry Doby. In a conversation with Don Newcombe, just weeks before he was assassinated, King gave credit to his fore-bearers, including Larry Doby.
“You’ll never know how easy you and Jackie [Robinson] and [Larry] Doby and Campy [Roy Campanella] made it for me to do my job by what you did on the baseball field.”
As a baseball fan who has enjoyed watching the Indians over the years, I do think often of Larry Doby. Not only can you see his imprint at Progressive Field in the form of a statue, but you can see it on the field, every day. On the Indians 40-man roster, there are players from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Taiwan, Cuba, Venezuela, South Korea, and the first ever player from Brazil. And while I realize that somewhere, someone might read that list and say, “he forgot about the United States.” No I didn’t. Almost every corner of our country is represented as well, along with every shape and color.
You see, after Robinson and Doby, baseball has long been at the forefront of not only allowing every culture through it’s doorway, but embracing every culture. The greatness of the game, for me, comes in the magic that happens every day once you walk through those turnstiles, where we can enjoy a game that embraces everyone. And while the rest of the world, including our country, tries to figure things out, perhaps, today, on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, we can remember what Larry Doby said during his Hall of Fame speech in 1998.
“You know, it’s a very tough thing to look back and think about things that were probably negative, because you put those things on the backburner. You’re proud and happy that you’ve been a part of integrating baseball to show people that we can live together, we can work together, we can play together, and we can be successful together.”
Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and thank you Mr. Doby for the part that you played in the long, continuing march towards equality.