Second place finishers in America are suckers. And so are those who make the story of history less simple than it needs to be. This happens sometimes in America. Those who don’t come first or don’t do things a certain way get lost. They disappear.
- Scoop Jackson on Larry Doby
Every April, Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day to recognize a talented man of tremendous character who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, taking the field for the National League’s Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. Pregame ceremonies are followed by entire rosters donning the number 42 (Robinson’s number, now retired throughout the Major Leagues) on their jerseys for the afternoon. In April of last year, Robinson’s story received the Hollywood treatment for a new generation of fans with the film, “42.”
But what about number 14?
Less than three months after Robinson’s debut, on July 5, 1947, another talented ballplayer was the first to integrate the American League. His name was Larry Doby. And unlike Robinson, he didn’t have a year in the minors to prepare. The contract was signed on July 3rd; after playing the first game of a doubleheader for his previous team, the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League, on Independence Day, Doby came to bat as a pinch hitter for the Cleveland Indians on the 5th of July, 67 years ago.
Once again, it was Bill Veeck, then-owner of the Indians, thumbing his nose at the status quo and bringing Doby into the fold. “A couple of players made their objections known; I found faraway places to send them,” Veeck later wrote.
Doby didn’t have the immediate impact Robinson did, as the Brooklyn second baseman hit .297, led the NL in steals and took home the Rookie of the Year award. To use Veeck’s words, Doby was a “complete bust,” playing out of position and logging only 32 at-bats. But Veeck knew Doby’s immense talent, and the following spring training, Doby found a new home in center field. He batted over .300 and was a major contributor to the Indians’ 1948 World Series win, one that came at the expense of the Boston Braves.
Doby went on to have a very successful career. More than just the first man to integrate the AL, Doby eventually logged eight twenty homer seasons (leading the league twice) and eclipsed 100 RBI three different times (winning the RBI crown once). The seven-time All-Star was a featured player on some powerful Cleveland teams of the late 40′s and early 50′s. And while leg injuries prevented him from posting the counting stats of other stars of his day, Doby’s patient approach at the plate would have been loved by today’s analysts: he had six seasons with more than 90 walks; combined with his powerful stick, Doby led the league in OPS+ on two separate occasions.
Veeck seemed to think Doby could have been even better, had he not been forced to confront the ugly racism that accompanied his status as a trail blazer. “It was a very real and bitter and gnawing battle for Larry,” Veeck wrote. “He had suffered such a shock that he was possessed by the idea that he had to fight the battle for integration for his kids…so that they would never be bruised as badly as he had been.”
While Robinson was deservedly lauded for his tenacity and accomplishments on the field, Doby somehow escaped much of the attention, despite laboring through the same trials. He didn’t reach the Baseball Hall of Fame until 1998, more than 50 years after his debut and 32 years after Robinson’s enshrinement.
Despite the number of times he was passed over in the re-telling of baseball’s integration story, Doby remained respectful of Robinson’s legacy and humbled by the recognition he did receive.
In an era where players frequently highlight perceived slights, either on behalf of other players, their own teammates or management, Doby’s legacy stands as one of excellence, perseverance and humility.
Short of a movie or a day celebrating his achievements, that’s one way of saying Larry Doby was one of the all-time greats. Of any game.
Baseball-Reference.com. “Larry Doby Statistics and History.” http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/d/dobyla01.shtml
Berkow, Ira. “Larry Doby: He Crossed the Color Barrier, Only, He Was the Second.” The New York Times. 23 February 1997.
Jackson, Scoop. “Eleven Weeks to Irrelevance.” ESPN Page 2. 13 July 2007.
Veeck, Bill with Linn, Ed. “Veeck – as in Wreck.” G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 1962.
Wikipedia. “Larry Doby.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larry_Doby