When Jackie Robinson took the field on Opening Day 1947, he made history as the first black man to break the colour barrier in Major League Baseball. Robinson’s incredible fortitude opened the door and began the long-overdue process of integrating the game.
This you know. The legend of Robinson’s story has been told and taught countless times.
What if I asked you about Larry Doby? If you stopped the average baseball fan on the street, would they know who Doby is? Would they be as familiar with Doby’s story as they are with Robinson’s?
They should be. Lawrence Eugene Doby was a pioneer.
Born in Camden, South Carolina in 1923 before moving to New Jersey as a teenager, Doby was playing professional baseball in the Negro Leagues for the Newark Eagles as a high-schooler, such was his prodigious talent. After serving with the navy in World War II, Doby returned to Newark to help his Eagles win the 1946 Negro World Series in an epic seven-game series. Little did Doby know that his future was being determined elsewhere.
Bill Veeck became owner of the Cleveland Indians midway through the 1946 season and had a history of bucking the status quo. An astute businessman with a fondness for equality and common decency, Veeck had been keen to add Negro League stars to the major leagues for years. When Robinson made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers and successfully broke the colour barrier in the National League, Veeck was ready to follow suit in the American League with his Indians.
Veeck instructed his scouts to identify the player with the best long-term potential. Whoever this man would be, he had to stick. Doby, coming off his championship success with the Newark Eagles, was the man tasked for the job. On July 5 1947, Veeck publicly announced the signing of Doby to the Indians for $10,000, eleven weeks after Robinson’s breakthrough in Brooklyn.
Robinson’s integration into the Dodgers’ system was fraught with adversity but he was the beneficiary of strategy and planning at least. Brooklyn team president and general manager Branch Rickey masterminded every detail of the plan to ease Robinson into white baseball. Robinson spent his first year with the club’s minor league team in Montreal, away from the bright lights of New York. Doby was not provided the same level of careful consideration, and was thrust onto the Indians’s roster and into the locker room immediately.
As a result of Doby’s sudden introduction, few were prepared, especially his new teammates. Thankfully Doby did not experience outright hostility but his white colleagues didn’t exactly roll out the red carpet either. Introverted by nature, Doby understandably kept to himself during the first weeks of his rookie campaign. There were times he would find himself a forlorn figure at the end of the dugout, isolated from his teammates. Doby almost always roomed alone on the road, and was even barred from hotels in certain cities. Of course, he had to contend with fans on a daily basis as well, whose “support” was not always complimentary.
Like Robinson, Doby experienced the full weight of history’s prejudice on his young shoulders.
Doby was still just 23-years-old. Suddenly he’s in an almost alien environment, alone in a sea of white faces, the “sole representative of his race in the American League,” said Jules Tygiel. Veeck had some advice for his new player: “Just remember that they play with a little white ball and a stick of wood up here just like they did in your league.”
Unfortunately, Veeck’s words of comfort did little to console Doby, who was obviously struggling with the magnitude of the transition. This immense pressure was most visible on the field. Doby was used sparingly over the course of 1947, and rarely at second base, the position he had held in the past. Doby finished the year with a .156/.182/.188 (BA/OBP/SLG) batting line over a measly 33 plate appearances, featuring in just 29 games, often as a pinch hitter or pinch runner. There were genuine concerns he wouldn’t be back in Cleveland for 1948.
However, Doby’s quiet nature belied his spirit and indomitable resolve. He would not let his rookie performance define him.
With the Indians possessing great strength in the infield, it was suggested to Doby he learn the outfield. The club felt his talents could be better utilised in the vast green pastures of the cavernous Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Doby read the book How to Play the Outfield by Yankees legend Tommy Henrich and worked extensively with Indians Hall of Famer Tris Speaker on the intricacies of defensive play. Doby picked up enough tips to break camp with the team, against all odds.
1948 proved to be an enormously successful year for both Doby and the Indians. He quickly took control of centre field and solidified it as his own. With his place on the team finally established, his performance at the plate flourished. He ended the season hitting .301/.384/.490 with 14 home runs and 66 RBI, for a 134 wRC+ and 4.5 WAR (per Fangraphs). Down the stretch Doby became one of the club’s most important hitters, slashing .375/.466/.568 for the final month, carrying the Indians to the postseason.
The Tribe pipped the Red Sox to the American League pennant and faced the Boston Braves in the World Series, where Doby continued to shine. Over a classic six-game series, the Indians emerged as champions, with Doby pacing the title-winning Indians with a .318 batting average.
One moment from the series encapsulated the amazing progress Doby and the Indians had made. Cleveland took a convincing 3-1 series lead after a closely fought victory in game four, where Doby’s third inning solo home run was the difference. Doby’s deep smash to right field was the first homer of the entire series and sealed a 2-1 win for the Tribe. The Indians’ starting pitcher Steve Gromek was ecstatic for his teammate, and celebrated in front of the gathering press with a beaming smile and giant hug for Doby. The next day that famous photo of the two players, one black, one white, was on the front page of every newspaper’s sport section across the country. Doby reminisced, “America really needed that picture, and I’m proud I was able to give it to them.”
After bringing a title to the Indians, Doby continued to excel. The next season he began a stretch of seven consecutive All-Star appearances and would record MVP consideration in three of those seasons. He finished runner-up for the award in 1954, when he led the AL with 32 home runs and 126 RBI, as the Indians won another pennant.
Doby enjoyed nine enormously successful seasons in Cleveland but was traded to the White Sox for the 1956 season. He returned to the Tribe mid-season in 1958 but found himself traded again a year later to the Tigers, for Tito Francona, father of current Indians manager Terry Francona. Doby dabbled in coaching and management with the White Sox after his retirement from playing.
In 1993 Doby had his famous number 14 retired by the Indians and was deservedly inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1998. Sadly, Doby lost his battle with cancer in 2003 and passed away at the age of 79. The Indians chose to immortalise him in bronze in 2015, when his statue was erected at Cleveland’s Progressive Field, just beyond the centre field gates.
On and off the field, Doby helped pave the way for the African-American players who followed him. His performance and professionalism throughout his career was exemplary, and together with Robinson the pair helped change the game.
So it is a shame Doby is often remembered as the man who came second.
Second to Jackie Robinson breaking the colour barrier. Second to Frank Robinson in becoming the first African-American manager. Second in the MVP vote in 1954. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
And yet, in the hearts of Indians fans, he will forever finish first.
To us, Larry Doby was second to none.
Ash Day is covering the Cleveland Indians throughout 2020 as part of the growing team of writers at Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @AshDay29