A Tip of the Cap

Maybe Lawrence Eugene Doby was destined to be overshadowed.
In the course of his thirteen-year major-league career, he batted .283, hit 253 home runs and led the American League in homers in 1952 and 1954.

But because he played in the golden era of Mantle, Mays and Snider, Larry Doby's heroic exploits in center field for the Cleveland Indians went largely unnoticed. Except in Cleveland.

On October 9, 1948, Doby became the first black player to hit a home run in the World Series, and it wound up winning game four, 2-1. He batted a healthy .318 in that Series, the highest of any Indians regular, and his team defeated the Boston Braves four games to two. Cleveland hasn't won a world championship since. In 1949 he became the first black American League All-Star.

But because Doby came through the door second--because he followed the great (and far flashier) Jackie Robinson across the big-league color line eleven weeks after Jackie broke in with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947--he has long been regarded as a footnote to American social history.

Doby once hit a shot so far out of Washington's cavernous Griffith Stadium that the ball landed on a roof across the street. An angry mother, the story goes, called the Senators office to complain. "You'll have to stop it," she said. "Someone from your stadium just threw a ball onto our house and woke up my children. Now I can't get them back to sleep."

But for more than three decades, the people who vote baseball players into the Hall of Fame have been blithely snoozing away when it comes to Larry Doby. Last week, the Veterans Committee finally punched his ticket to Cooperstown--36 years after fellow pioneer Robinson made the trip.

The wrong has now been righted. As usual, it took much longer than it should have.

With that in mind, let's visit the shadows for a moment.
Larry Doby was born December 13, 1924, in Camden, South Carolina, and moved with his family to Paterson, New Jersey, in 1938. At East Side High School he lettered in baseball, basketball, football and track. Just weeks before graduation, he played his first professional baseball game with the Newark Eagles. At Yankee Stadium, no less. Under the alias (no kidding) "Larry Walker."

Five seasons later Doby was hitting .458 as the second baseman for those same Eagles, with fourteen home runs and 35 runs batted in, when Cleveland Indians president Bill Veeck--ever the innovator--picked up his contract for $20,000. On July 5, 1947, Doby became the first black player in the American League, the second in the majors, and the first black to jump directly from the Negro Leagues to the parent club without a stop in the minors.

When he got to Cleveland, some of his teammates refused to shake his hand.
Doby biographers point out that almost none of the publicity--or the careful grooming--that surrounded Robinson's signing by Branch Rickey in Brooklyn made its way west to Ohio. "Just remember," Veeck is said to have told the 23-year-old infielder, "they play with a little white ball and a stick of wood up here just like they did in your league." Just in case, though, Veeck had three bodyguards standing by.

There was plenty to learn. In the first years of baseball integration, black players were regularly insulted, brushed back and beaned (Denver Bear Curt Roberts was once hit four times in as many at-bats), and Jim Crow laws kept them separated from their teammates at spring training in the South--all the way through 1959, Doby later revealed.

In 1947 Doby played in just 29 games and hit only .156, and at season's end he had another major hurdle to leap. Indians coach Bill McKechnie told him he should learn to play the outfield. So he read Tommy Henrich's book on that subject, moved to center field and became a seven-time All-Star. That's not all. Following the 1947 baseball season, he signed up with the Paterson Panthers of the American Basketball League and became its first black player, too.

In 1948 he batted .301 and went on a .400 tear in the midst of his club's stretch drive to the A.L. pennant. While playing a new position, no less. Indians fans may remember player-manager Lou Boudreau's .355 batting average in 1948 and the great pitching of Gene Bearden, Bob Feller and Bob Lemon more vividly than they remember Doby, but without him they would never have gotten to the Series.

Honored by the citizens of Paterson after the Indians' win, he said: "I'm not much of a speaker, but I know how to say thanks."

In later years Doby served as community-relations director for the New Jersey Nets, and in 1978 he became baseball's second black manager when he took the reins of the Chicago White Sox for half a season.

Still, shadows obscure him.
"Doby neither enlarged his myth nor subordinated himself to a cause," biographer Joseph Thomas More says of him. Instead, he played hard, conducted himself with faultless dignity and earned his place as one of the most popular Cleveland Indians of all time--with teammates and fans.

Before the inevitable death of the Negro Leagues, he even suggested that young white players play there for the seasoning--and to build the gate. That would have been something to see, wouldn't it?

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