Failing to honor Larry Doby on Jackie’s day is an injustice

Larry Doby was given less than 24 hours’ notice that he would be the one to break the color barrier in the American League. On the morning of July 5, 1947, Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck announced at a press conference that he had purchased Doby’s contract from the Newark (N.J.) Eagles, and Doby made his major-league debut as a pinch hitter that very same day. He struck out — as he did many times that first season, when he was ill-prepared by Veeck and, at 23, too young and inexperienced to make the giant leap from the Negro Leagues to Major League Baseball.

“Doby survived against far greater odds and obstacles than those facing Jackie Robinson,” Terry Pluto wrote in his book Our Tribe. “Most of us don’t know that. Most of us just know that Larry Doby was the second African-American to play major-league baseball. Because he was second, it was supposed to be easier.”

As they remained for most of the sport’s history, the National League and American League were separate entities in 1947. The two leagues operated independently, with different schedules, different ballparks and different sets of franchises; they did not face each other on the field in regular-season games. So when Doby made his debut 11 weeks after Robinson had made his, he gained the same distinction Robinson had. Each was the only black ballplayer in his league.

In the 81 days that passed between Robinson’s first major-league game on April 15 and Doby’s first on July 5, America did not miraculously forget how to hate a man because of the color of his skin. The Ku Klux Klan wielded just as much evil influence in the spring as it did in the summer. Rest rooms marked with signs that said “colored” in April still carried those same humiliating signs in July. More than once, Doby has wondered why people thought breaking the color barrier was easier for him than it had been for Robinson. “What would have changed?” Doby has often asked. “I signed 11 weeks after Jackie did with Brooklyn. We still have problems with race today; why would it have been different in 1947?”

Yet tonight, as MLB pauses for its annual tribute to Robinson, the trials that Doby endured and the legacy he left on the sport are seemingly forgotten. Every player in the majors, regardless of league, honors the anniversary of Robinson’s Dodgers debut by wearing Jackie’s number 42. No player — not even on the Cleveland Indians — wears Doby’s number 14.

This clumsy oversight, amid an otherwise well-presented commemoration of a historic milestone, heaps more injustice on the courageous fight against injustice that it attempts to celebrate.

Commissioner Bud Selig established “Jackie Robinson Day” in 1997, when he marked the 50th anniversary of Jackie’s rookie season by announcing that every MLB team would retire Robinson’s number in his honor. At the time, Doby was still waiting to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. He finally got the call from Cooperstown the following year — another stark contrast to Robinson, who was enshrined in his first year of eligibility.

In an interview with Bob Costas that aired on MLB Network this morning, Don Newcombe recalled that not long before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. died, he told Newcombe that the trails blazed by Robinson, Brooklyn teammates Newcombe and Roy Campanella, and Doby had made King’s role in the civil rights movement a bit easier to play. That’s right — none other than Martin Luther King appreciated what Doby did in his league as much as what the three Dodgers pioneers did in theirs.

So why is it so easy for the baseball world to forget this guy?

“Our society likes to focus on who’s first,” Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan wrote in tribute after Doby’s death in 2003. ” … I had numerous conversations with Larry over the years, … and he told me he went through exactly what Jackie went through, and maybe worse.”

After Doby played his final game, in 1959, he faded into the background. Little was heard from him until 1975, when Doby again had the misfortune of being second to a Hall of Famer named Robinson. Again it was the Indians who broke a color barrier, when they chose Frank Robinson to become the first African-American manager of a major-league team. Veeck, again, made Doby the second, when he named Doby to replace Bob Lemon as manager of the Chicago White Sox during the 1978 season.

The Ken Burns documentary “Jackie Robinson,” which aired this week on PBS, offers other reasons why history has accorded Robinson so much greater stature than Doby. When Robinson’s career as a baseball player ended, his second career as a civil rights crusader began. In retirement, he wrote strongly worded columns in newspapers, made eloquent speeches on behalf of presidential candidates, and marched alongside Martin Luther King. His greatest contributions to the nation are not as an athlete but as a powerful voice for desegregation, freedom, fairness, equal opportunity and human dignity.

Outside the sports arena, Jackie Robinson’s legacy stands apart. But Doby was vitally important to the cause of racial integration in professional baseball. And in terms of on-the-field achievement, he and Robinson had comparable careers.

Robinson finished with a higher batting average (.311 to .283), but Doby hit at least 20 home runs in eight straight seasons. Robinson, who never hit 20 home runs in a season, led the National League in stolen bases twice and in batting average once. Doby led the American League in homers twice and in RBI once.

Consider also that Doby put up his numbers despite a boss who didn’t set him up to succeed the way Branch Rickey did for Robinson. For Jackie’s first spring training in Florida in 1946, he could rely on support from black sportswriter Wendell Smith, whom Rickey had hired for that purpose, and Rachel Robinson, the only wife Rickey allowed to accompany the team to camp. That season, playing in more open-minded Montreal, where a woman graciously welcomed Rachel into her home, Robinson led the Dodgers’ Montreal Royals farm team to a league championship. With anticipation of Robinson’s promotion to the majors growing, Rickey moved the Dodgers’ 1947 training site from the segregated South to Cuba, where black and white players were already competing side by side.

Rickey was a deeply religious man who approached breaking the color barrier with the zeal of an abolitionist. He made Robinson’s success his personal mission, grooming him and counseling him for two years before Jackie’s first day in the majors. Veeck, on the other hand, was a showman, known for his creative promotional gimmicks. Some perceived the signing of Doby as nothing more than a publicity stunt designed to boost attendance at 80,000-seat Cleveland Stadium. And until the day he signed, Doby and Veeck had never met.

“Bill Veeck had good intentions. … But his planning stunk,” Pluto wrote in Our Tribe. “That is the real story behind the Indians and the signing of Larry Doby. It never should have worked.”

When Doby arrived in Chicago for his debut against the White Sox at Comiskey Park, he was not permitted to check in with the rest of the Indians at the Hotel Del Prado; instead, he stayed at a hotel whose location was described as “in the heart of Chicago’s Negro Belt.” He struck out six times in his first 13 plate appearances and finished his rookie half-season with only 32 at-bats in 29 games. Doby’s rare playing time came mostly as a pinch hitter or pinch runner. While Robinson was capping his rookie year by helping Brooklyn win the National League pennant, Doby was spending much of August and September sitting on the loneliest end of the Cleveland bench.

That winter, Doby played professional basketball, in a league that was a forerunner to the NBA. But he also read how-to manuals on playing the outfield, having been advised by coach Bill McKechnie that a switch of positions would improve his chances. Doby had been a middle infielder for Newark, but the Indians already had All-Stars at both shortstop and second base. One of them was shortstop Lou Boudreau, who doubled as the team’s manager. At preseason camp, Boudreau vowed to “keep Doby only if I feel quite sure that he can play regularly. I won’t have him sitting on the bench all year like he did last.”

Rather than staying with his teammates during camp, Doby lived with a local black family two miles from the ballpark because the Santa Rita Hotel in Tucson, Ariz. — to Veeck’s surprise — turned out to be segregated. Doby was not expected to make the major-league roster out of spring training in 1948. Some wondered if he had what it took to ever make the majors at all. But he stunned his own team by earning a start in right field on opening day.

On the first Sunday of the season, Doby struck out five times. As an outfielder he was a neophyte, and it showed. On July 28, a routine fly ball hit Doby on the head, and the two runs that scored on the error cost Cleveland the game. “It is difficult for a major-league outfielder to suffer a greater blow to his pride than to be hit in the head by a fly ball,” Boudreau wrote. “He might easily have cracked there and never been good again.”

Instead, Doby emerged as a star during a memorable four-team pennant race. In August, he went on a 21-game hitting streak. And over a four-day period in September, Doby belted two game-winning homers, one a grand slam and the other a ninth-inning shot. In the playoff game against the Boston Red Sox that determined the pennant, his two doubles helped the Indians win the tiebreaker 8-3. Doby capped his ascendancy in the Indians’ 4-games-to-2 victory over the Boston Braves, batting .318 for the series, including a 425-foot blast that decided Game 4.

Doby became the first African-American to lead his team to a World Series championship. His star rose so high that after the season, the Sporting News published an editorial that included this piece of unsolicited advice: “Today, Doby occupies the position that just a year ago was filled by Robinson. Doby … must realize that now he is the major-league bellwether of the Negro race.”

Last year, a statue of Doby was finally erected outside the Indians’ ballpark. With the Mets opening a series in Cleveland tonight, TV announcer Gary Cohen mentioned Doby in the opening of the broadcast, which included a shot of that statue in the cutaway before a commercial. Such acknowledgement, however, does not happen nearly enough. And the Indians — if not all eight franchises that played in the American League in 1947 — should be wearing Doby’s number 14 on “Jackie Robinson Day.”

Over the years, one man has been revered as a trailblazer much more than the other — even though they blazed essentially the same trail.

“What I remember most about Larry is this: He didn’t get the credit he should have gotten, but he never expressed animosity about it,” wrote Morgan, a former baseball commentator for ESPN. “He was never jealous of the adulation that Jackie received.”

Posted April 15, 2016

Bibliography

Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy, by Jules Tygiel, Oxford University Press (1983).

Our Tribe: A Baseball Memoir, by Terry Pluto, Simon & Schuster (1999).

Havana Hardball: Spring Training, Jackie Robinson, and the Cuban League, by Cesar Brioso, University Press of Florida (2015).

Tribute by Joe Morgan published on ESPN Classic website as sidebar to Larry Doby obituary by The Associated Press , June 26, 2003.

Video sources cited in text.