Cleveland Indians Star Larry Doby: A ‘Quiet’ Legend
Perhaps Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, could understand what it was like for Larry Doby to be Major League Baseball’s second Black player. However, even that comparison falls short, Aldrin’s feat was greeted with cheers and ticker-tape parades, whereas Doby’s groundbreaking event met cold shoulders, boos and death threats.
On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first Black player in the MLB when he took the then field for the National League’s Brooklyn Dodgers. Doby became the league’s second Black player, and the first in the American League, when he made his appearance as a Cleveland Indian on July 5, 1947.
Doby had another first to his credit. While Robinson spent time playing for Brooklyn’s Triple-A club in Montreal before joining the Dodgers, Doby became the first player to go directly from the Negro Leagues into major league baseball.
Before signing with the Indians in 1947, Doby had spent most the decade playing for the Newark Eagles, where he had a high batting average, could hit with power, steal bases and was an outstanding defensive player.
For his first outing with the Indians, Doby joined the team in Chicago where Cleveland was scheduled to face the White Sox. The reception he received from his new teammates was less than welcoming, according to local baseball historian Isaac Brooks.
“As he was introduced to his teammates, the story is that at least two of them would not shake his hand. When it came to on-field practice they had Larry slated to play first base, none of his teammates volunteered to warm up with him,” Brooks said.
Doby’s teammates weren’t the only ones who didn’t embrace his arrival.
“The records show the Bill Veeck (the Indians owner) received over 20,000 angry letters, many of them using profane language that Doby was being signed by the team,” Brooks said.
Some teammates and fans warmed to him the following season, especially when Doby hit the winning home run in game four of the 1948 World Series, helping the Indians win the championship over the Boston Braves.
“Winning cures everything. When Larry hit that home run, all 81,000 people in Cleveland Municipal Stadium stood up and cheered, they didn’t care what he looked like,” Brooks said.
Doby’s career as an Indian really took off in 1949. He was not only one of the best players on the team, he was one of the finest in major league baseball.
“He had 10 years with the Indians. He was a five-tool ball player. He knew the game. He had speed. He could hit for average. He was on the All-Star team from 1949 until 1954. He led the league in home runs in 1952 and 1954. He was an excellent ballplayer,” Brooks said.
Brooks said there was a mistaken notion about how other black players would be treated after Robinson broke the color line.
“There were editorials written at the time that said once Jackie Robinson showed up the problem of integration in baseball was over. As we look at it, everything that is assigned to Jackie Robinson assumes that no one else went through that. Larry Doby and the 117 others who were in that grouping from 1947 to 1959, when all teams became integrated, caught a “word” I probably can't use in this broadcast. Keep in mind, these players, because of Jim Crow laws, were not even allowed to stay in the same hotels or eat in the same restaurants or use the same public transportation as their teammates,” Brooks said.
Doby remained with the Indians until 1955, when he was traded to the Chicago White Sox, before being dealt to the Baltimore Orioles at the end of 1957. Doby was shuffled between several teams, including the Indians again, before retiring in 1960. In 1962, he came out of retirement for a year to become one of the first Americans to play professional baseball in Japan.
Doby finished his baseball career as a scout, coach and eventually became baseball’s second Black manager when he took over the Chicago White Sox for the second half of the 1978 season. He also worked for the NBA’s New Jersey Nets and as a special assistant to baseball’s American League President Gene Budig in 1995. Doby was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998. He died in 2003, at 79, of cancer.
Throughout his life, Doby not only dealt with the racist hatred directed toward him, but the lack of recognition for what he went through since he was baseball’s second Black player, rather than its first. Doby endured those slights with an understated sense of grace and courage that was in line with his quiet personality, according to Brooks.
“Larry Doby’s approach was ‘let my play speak for me,’” Brooks said.
Saturday at 10:00 a.m., Brooks will discuss “Like Being The Second Person to Invent the Telephone- The Legacy of Larry Doby” in a free, Zoom program. Registration is required. This event is part of series of events being presented by a group of organizations, including the Community Cup Classic Foundation, the Josh Gibson Foundation and Lifeline Sports, marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro Leagues as well as the 75th anniversary of the Cleveland Buckeyes winning the Negro League World Series.