Doby No. 2 behind the famous No. 42
Good-natured Hall of Famer followed in Robinson's footsteps
CLEVELAND -- He was a man of firsts who is best remembered for being second.
He was a modest man, whose diamond exploits and dignified temperament outside the lines have been best appreciated with the passage of time.
Now, as Major League Baseball prepares to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the sport's color barrier on Sunday, no one is more deserving to be remembered alongside the Brooklyn Dodgers star than fellow Hall of Famer Larry Doby.
The first black player in the American League and a seven-time All-Star outfielder who helped lead the Indians to their last World Series title in 1948, Doby's place in baseball and American history must never be taken for granted.
"Doby can't be overlooked. The fact that he was able to come in and perform so well reaffirmed the notion that African-Americans could play in the Majors," said Jules Tygiel, a history professor at San Francisco State University and a leading scholar on baseball's integration movement. "Owners looked at Robinson and said, 'Well, he's exceptional. There aren't many like him.' But bringing in a Doby, who's a young player, made it very clear that there's a vast talent pool that's waiting to be tapped. He advanced everything."
This is hardly lost on today's players, particularly those honoring Robinson Sunday by donning his No. 42 jersey.
"We need to let everyone know he was the first guy in the American League," said Cleveland ace C.C. Sabathia, born 57 years after Doby, who died in 2003 at age 79. "Not taking anything away from Jackie Robinson, because he changed the world. But Larry Doby deserves the recognition, too."
And while Robinson indeed changed the game's landscape, Doby's historic emergence in many ways came with greater challenges. Whereas Robinson was brought up in the Dodgers' farm system, Indians owner Bill Veeck grabbed Doby straight from the Negro Leagues' Newark Eagles.
At 23, five years younger than Robinson was at the time of his debut, Doby came to Cleveland without a dash of Minor League experience and into a less-than-welcoming clubhouse. Less than two years removed from a stint in the Navy, the Negro Leagues' most heralded young player was in the big leagues and carrying the weight of an entire movement.
Any struggles also would come without the press Robinson received. Indians legend Bob Feller likened Doby to astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon.
"The media didn't want to repeat the same story," Doby said later.
Yet as the first black player in the American League, Doby blazed a similar path, enduring many of the same racial taunts from spectators, the often more subtle but cutting racism from many teammates and opponents, the loneliness of eating separate meals in separate hotels. On his first day in the Tribe's clubhouse, manager Lou Boudreau took Doby from locker to locker, introducing him to his new teammates.
"Some of the players shook my hand, but most of them didn't," Doby told The New York Times. "It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life."
Yet by all accounts, the easygoing Doby never let society's ills embitter him.
When stadium workers at a 1948 exhibition game in Columbus, Ga., reportedly refused to allow Doby entrance through the player's gate behind home plate, the man simply shifted his route. Never mind that this was the player's gate and Doby was in full uniform. The "colored entrance" was in center field, a worker told him.
Doby naturally brushed it off.
"People who judge others based on the color of their skin have more problems than I do," Doby once said.
His answers, like Robinson's, came on the field.
The sweet-swinging second baseman-turned-center fielder became a seven-time All-Star over his 13-year career. In 1948, his first full season in the Majors, Doby hit. 301 and helped lead the Tribe to a World Series title. In a six-game victory over the Boston Braves, Doby batted .318 and delivered the game-winning homer against Boston's Johnny Sain in Game 4.
Veeck's historic move quickly proved a grand success.
"All of these millions of Americans seeing Doby take them to the World Series, that has a ripple effect," said Rob Ruck, a professor in baseball history at the University of Pittsburgh. "Baseball at that point is still the American pastime, still an arena in which we attribute ability as the most important factor. In a sense, it's through sports that African-Americans enter into mainstream society. The symbolic importance of this [early success] is great."
Doby went on to hit .283 with 253 home runs and 969 RBIs in a career that continued through 1959. He appeared in six straight Midsummer Classics and hit more than 20 homers for eight straight seasons in an era when the long ball was a scarce commodity.
In Robinson's shadows, Doby established himself as one of the game's finest outfielders for the better part of a decade.
This success also made it easier for Doby to feel a sense of belonging in the team's fabric, to open up his light-hearted personality in the clubhouse.
"A very good teammate. He could take a joke and be humorous," Feller said. "He was not sullen or emotional. He was just a good human being."
Some Indians, contrary to the prejudiced brush so often broadly applied to that 1947 team, even saw this immediately.
After one of Doby's strikeouts at the beginning of a largely disappointing start to his big-league career, he dejectedly sat with his head bowed in the corner of the dugout. Joe Gordon saw this. And up next, the club's second baseman struck out on three pitches, diving wildly at the final strike. Gordon then sat next to Doby and hung his head.
"I never asked Gordon then if he struck out deliberately," Veeck would later say. "[But] after that, every time that Doby went out on the field, he would pick up Gordon's glove and throw it to him. It's as nice a thing as I ever saw or heard of in sports."
Following his playing days, Doby went on to become the second African-American to manage in the Majors with the White Sox in 1978, spent time in the Indians' and Expos' front offices, and finished his career working in the Commissioner's Office in New York.
Yet it was only in his final years, as historians and writers delved deeper into the racial history of baseball, that Doby would get his recognition
His No. 14 was retired by the Indians in 1994. And in 1998, Doby was finally elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee. His induction speech was pure Doby.
He said it was still "very tough" to think about some of the negative aspects that came with being a trailblazer for black ballplayers. So "you put those things on the back burner," he said. What he remembered that day in Cooperstown is a legacy of hope.
"You're proud and happy that you've been a part of integrating baseball to show people that we can live together, work together, play together, and we can be successful together," Doby said.
Never forget: Larry Doby changed the world, too.
David Briggs is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.