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?
When he cleared the final hurdle last week, Doby was customarily modest. "You think about some of the changes that have happened in baseball," he said. "It's a feeling of struggle in the past. It's a feeling of a certain amount of relief. It's a great feeling."
It must be. In 1948 there were just four black players in the big leagues--Robinson and catcher Roy Campanella of the Dodgers, Doby and the ageless mound legend Leroy "Satchel" Paige of the Indians. (That year, by the way, Paige, reputed to have pitched for some 250 baseball teams in his endless career, retired the only two batters he ever faced in World Series play.) By 1959, when the notoriously bigoted Boston Red Sox finally put Pumpsie Green into a game as a pinch runner, all major-league teams were finally integrated.
That was the year Larry Doby retired, at the age of 39.
Somehow the fates still seem to be lined up against him. Last summer the Indians honored Doby with a tribute night on the fiftieth anniversary of his debut in the American League, and he was named honorary captain of the American League All-Star Team. But he was unable to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before game three of the World Series at Jacobs Field on October 21. Days earlier, doctors had found a cancerous left kidney. They removed it on October 24.
The next big day in his life comes July 26 in Cooperstown, on the shadowed shores of Lake Otsego, where he will be inducted into the Hall of Fame. What'll you bet the man still knows how to say thanks? Of course, it's all of us who really should be saying it to him.
Nothing but net.
That's what the nation's college hoops junkies have been seeing again this March--to the consternation of their spouses and the delight of the nation's divorce lawyers.
After conferring with the distinguished (if TV-addled) members of the Westword Basketball Committee, the view here is that the NCAA men's trophy will return for the umpteenth time to the state of North Carolina--thanks to the Dean Smith-less North Carolina Tar Heels (two votes) or to Coach K's Duke Blue Devils (one vote).
No surprises there, despite the fact that one committee member happens to be an enthusiastic Arizona graduate. Meanwhile, no one here likes Kansas to win the thing.
Dark horses to reach the Final Four? Among them, our crack hoops students have come up with South Carolina (23-7), Michigan (24-8), Kentucky (29-4), Maryland (19-10), Clemson (18-13), Murray State (29-3), St. John's (22-9) and College of Charleston (24-5).
Players to watch? Defending champ Arizona's Mike Bibby, son of Henry. And (the people's choice), Eastern Michigan point guard Earl "The Squirrel" Boykins, who was the nation's second leading scorer at 26 points per game, despite standing five-feet-four and a fraction. The Squirrel and company look for big-time respect in the first round of the East Regional when they face--inspired matchup--Michigan State.
As for lowly Prairie View, a 13-16 club which catches 34-3 Kansas in the first round of the Midwest Regional, this 36-point underdog has the same chance of prevailing as Saddam Hussein has of being invited to share the Lincoln Bedroom with Monica Lewinsky.
And go, Rams. Colorado State's twelfth-seeded women's team (23-5) plays fifth-seeded Drake (25-4) in the first round of the Midwest Regional. You know what happens when a twelve meets a five, don't you? Upset city.
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