Happy Larry Doby Day. It isn’t an official day anywhere, but it should be. Today marks the 66th anniversary of Larry Doby breaking the American League color barrier. This was just three months after Jackie Robinson did the same in the National League. While Jackie Robinson is justifiably praised for his remarkable efforts with a day in his honor (April 15) that is celebrated league-wide, his jersey number retired league-wide and even a Hollywood movie entitled ’42’, Doby doesn’t get the same praise from anywhere outside Cleveland. Larry Doby has always been in Robinson’s shadow despite his outstanding feat and incredible career. Larry Doby deserves a day of his own. At least.
Larry Doby began his career as a professional baseball player at the age of 18 as the second baseman for the Newark Eagles in the Negro League on July 2, 1947. Three days later, on July 5, he was in Cleveland, breaking the color barrier for the American League. He was named the starting second baseman for a second game of the double header the next day and went 1-4 from the plate. That would be his only start of the year. He played sparingly his rookie season racking up just 33 at bats in 29 games. Thanks to Hall of Famer Tris Speaker, Doby converted to centerfield in the spring of 1948. Speaker, the once rumored Ku Klux Klan member, became Doby’s advocate and showed zero signs of prejudice.
Former Plain Dealer sportswriter Hal Lebovitz covered the 1948 Tribe for the Cleveland News. He apparently said several times that Speaker was the key to Doby becoming the seven time All Star he was. Doby had the athletic ability but he needed someone to be on his side and Speaker was just the person for the job. With Speaker’s help, Doby-then 24 years old- stepped into a starting role at centerfield and hit .301/.384/.490 with 14 home runs and helped lead the Tribe to 97 wins, and a World Series victory (the first since 1920) against the Boston Braves. During that series, Doby hit a home run in Game 4 which won the game for the Indians.
That next season was when Doby’s All Star Streak began. That season is when he began to develop into one of the league’s best powerhouse hitters. In 1950 he led the league in on-base percentage at .442, and OPS at .986. Two years later, he led in slugging percentage at .541, wins above replacement with 7, home runs with 32, and runs scored with 104. In 1954, he led again in home runs with 32, and in RBIs with 126, and finished as a runner up to Yogi Berra for the AL MVP. That 1954 season is what helped the Indians win 111 games, and the AL pennant. After the 1955 season, Doby was traded to the White Sox, although that would not ve his last stop, but never had another season like he did while he was in Cleveland.
After his playing career in America and Japan, Doby later went on to coach the Expos, Indians and White Sox. He became the game’s second black manager after Frank Robinson when he replaced the fired Bob Lemon in Chicago. He finished that season 37-50.
He first appeared on a Hall Of Fame ballot in 1966. He received jist 2.3% of the vote from the Baseball Writers Association of America, and received just 3.4% the next year. After 1967, he fell off the ballot. The Indians didn’t retire his number until 1994 and it took until 1998, 39 years Doby’s retirement, for voters to elect him to the Hall of Fame-via the Veterans Committee.
Larry Doby passed away in 2003 at the age of 90, and never got a chance to be appreciated like Robinson. Today, should be his day. Doby went through virtually the same violent racism that Robinson faced. The AL was segregated just like the NL was, opposing benches would curse and degrade him, and even his own teammates treated him with coldness including first baseman Eddie Robinson who refused to shake Doby’s hand,. After enduring all that, Doby thrived in the Majors and earned All Star status for seven straight seasons (1949-1955). “The only difference was that Jackie Robinson got all the publicity, You didn’t hear much about what I was going through because the media didn’t want to repeat the same story.” Doby was quoted as saying after his jersey retirement.
As the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Bill Livingston wrote after Doby’s death;
“Robinson was the first, and would be remembered throughout baseball, with his number (42) retired at every ballpark in the majors on the 50th anniversary of his rookie season. Doby was the pioneer who did not get primacy of place, but who endured the same privations of race. Outside Cleveland, he is probably not a household name. More is the shame.”
Doby did get to relish in one notable first. After his World Series home run in 1948, he was photographed hugging Steve Gromek, the winning pitcher. This picture made newspapers and magazines around the country. It is believed to be the first picture of a black ballplayer and a white ballplayer embracing. It hangs in Cooperstown to this day.
Larry Doby’s statistics only tell the story on paper. Many have been knowns to say that his inner turmoil was such a constant drain on him that he was never able to realize his full potential. If Larry had come up just a little later, when things were just a little better in the outside world, he might very well have become one of the greatest players of all time.