Every year on April 17th, the sporting community comes together to celebrate the trailblazing achievements of Jackie Robinson, the man that broke Major League Baseball’s colour barrier. We’ve always taken part, whether online or in our galleries. I even got a Robinson tattoo late last year, based on one of our shots from the archive!
Celebrations of Robinson are always necessary; he’s that important to the game. But there are some other ballplayers from his era who went through the same experience, that don't get the same love. The big one is Larry Doby, who came into MLB only three months after Robinson, and who broke the same barrier in the American League.
Many thought initially that Doby himself might be the first Black player in MLB, he was that good. Originally from South Carolina, Doby spent his high school years in New Jersey. He was a four-sport star and received a basketball scholarship offer, but decided instead to join the local Negro Leagues team, the Newark Eagles. His time there was shortened by wartime service in the Navy, but Doby still had a chance to play Josh Gibson:
My first time up, Josh [playing catcher] said, 'We're going to find out if you can hit a fastball.' I singled. Next time up, Josh said, 'We're going to find out if you can hit a curveball.' I singled. Third time up, Josh said, 'We're going to find out how you do after you're knocked down.' I popped up the first time after they knocked me down. The second time, I singled.
In 1946, the Eagles beat Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro World Series. Doby was a stand out, collecting 5 RBIs and 3 steals alongside a .371 average. It’s clear he, and other players like Paige and Monte Irvin, were the real deal, no matter what league they might be in. Even still, Doby wasn’t optimistic: “I never dreamed that far ahead. Growing up in a segregated society, you couldn't have thought that that was the way it was going to be. There was no bright spot as far as looking at baseball until Mr. Robinson got the opportunity to play in Montreal in '46."
But the call did come. Bill Veeck, the outside-the-box owner of the Cleveland Indians and later the White Sox, had his eyes on Doby. Unlike Jackie Robinson, who got a whole season in the Dodgers farm system to prepare for his MLB debut, Doby was kept with the Eagles until his time to start for Cleveland came. (Doby was actually the first to go directly from the Negro Leagues to MLB!) That day came: July 5, 1947. Veeck hired two police officers to protect his new, at-risk player, which they did, but most of Doby’s teammates wouldn’t even shake his hand upon first introduction.
The lack of preparation combined with the tepid response from his new teammates made for a sour cocktail, and Doby struggled; he had a .156 batting average over 29 games that season. But, given some time, the strong centerfielder made some noise. In ‘48 he put together a .301 average and snagged 66 RBIs in 121 games. Cleveland made it to the World Series that season, and Doby ended up as the team’s best hitter. He hit .318 overall, and in game four, became the first African-American to hit a home run in a World Series game. Back in the clubhouse after the final out, a photo was taken of Doby embracing with teammate Steve Gromek. According to Richard Goldstein of The New York Times, the photograph is "a signature moment in the integration of Major League Baseball.” Doby himself said “The picture was more rewarding and happy for me than actually hitting the home run. The picture finally showed a moment of a man showing his feelings for me." Cleveland would go on to win the series.
In 1950, Doby had his first of five seasons with more than 100 RBIs. He led the league with 126 in '54 and finished second in MVP voting. He was also an All-Star seven-straight times. In 1956, after nine seasons in Cleveland, Doby found himself on a new team in a new town: the White Sox, in Chicago. He had two more good seasons with the Pale Hose – crossing the RBI century mark one last time – before becoming increasingly affected by injuries. After bouncing between Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit (and Baltimore, for one Spring Training) to finish his 15-season MLB career, Doby contemplated minor league life with the AAA Toronto Maple Leafs, but injuries prevailed, and he retired.
The universe did have Canada in the cards for Doby; he became a scout for the Expos in 1969 and then moved into a coaching role a couple of years later. Just as Robinson did when playing with the AAA Royals, Doby fell in love with Montreal. Though not perfect, Canada felt welcoming and inclusive compared to much of the United States at the time. He spent five years with the Expos in total, but decided to move on for his career. “Please let everyone in Montreal know that I feel just like I’m leaving home,” Doby said at the end.
With the hopes of becoming MLB’s first Black manager, Doby went back to where he felt most established: Cleveland. He served as first base coach for a year with the expectation that he was next in line for the skipper’s spot. But when it did become vacant, Frank Robinson was chosen instead. Obviously Doby would have been happy to see a Black man finally become an MLB manager, but he was also deeply hurt by not being picked.
In the late ‘70s, Bill Veeck, now owner of the White Sox for a second time, came up big for Doby once again; he hired his former player as batting coach, and then, a season later, named Doby manager. “It's so nice to work for a man like Bill Veeck,” the new Sox skipper said. “You just work as hard as you can, and if the opportunity arises, you will certainly get the opportunity to fulfill your dreams.” He took that shot, becoming the second Black manager in MLB as a result. But, unfortunately, Doby’s time in the position didn’t last long – he got one partial season as skipper, putting a 37-50 record together in that time, and then Veeck moved him back to the batting coach role. You have to think that Doby deserved more time to bring the pieces together… that short spell would be his one and only.
After one last season coaching the Sox sluggers, Larry Doby left dugout life for good. He continued on in sport, though, becoming the (then-) New Jersey Nets’ director of communications and community affairs. In 1998, Doby finally made it to Cooperstown, and he received the news via a phone call from Ted Williams. “This is just a tremendous feeling,” Doby said. “It's kind of like a bale of cotton has been on your shoulders, and now it's off.”
Today, Doby isn’t the household name that Jackie or even Frank Robinson is – the curse of coming second – but he certainly deserves to be. Doby went through the same challenges and suffered the same hurt. What he didn’t get was the same support, but the man played great baseball regardless, and did what no Cleveland player has done since: lead the team to a World Series trophy. So go on and spread the good word, folks, Larry Doby is a legend.