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Doby: The forgotten trailblazer

Doby: The forgotten trailblazer

The young black kids of Lacoochee, Fla., gathered in the street to play ball on a summer day in 1947. Picking up their wooden bats and putting on their leather mitts, each one took the name of their favorite Major League player.

One child announced he was "J.R." Another was "Jackie." A third was "Robby." And one even went by the moniker "Jack Man."

Young Jim Grant, however, had a different name in mind -- one that served as no variation of Jackie Robinson, the first player to break baseball's color barrier.

"I came along," the man now known as "Mudcat" recalled, "and said, 'I'm Larry Doby.'"

Time stopped.

"They're all looking at me like, 'You are who?'" Grant said with a chuckle.

Then, like now, Doby's name didn't easily register in the consciousness when it came to recognizing baseball's trailblazers.

Even today, 60 years after Doby became the second black Major Leaguer and the first black in the American League by donning the uniform of the Indians in a game against the Chicago White Sox, his impact on the sport often goes unrecognized.

"I have been at dinners in New York, where it all first happened, and Larry was an afterthought," said Grant, who later played alongside Doby with the Indians in the late 1950s. "Sometimes his name wasn't even mentioned when we were celebrating Jackie, and Larry was sitting there in the audience.

"When the introduction was made, it was just, 'And now we have Cleveland Indians outfielder Larry Doby.' There was more to it than that!"

Yes, quite a bit more.

His early years

Born on Dec. 13, 1923, in Camden, S.C., Doby migrated north to Paterson, N.J., when he finished grade school.

His mother had moved to New Jersey because wages were better in the North. But the attitude toward young blacks like Doby was little better than in the South. Sure, Doby could play on his high school baseball, basketball and football teams, but he'd do so while enduring the racial inequalities that reflected the times.

"One of the interesting things about segregation in the North is that being on these different high school teams, on a Saturday, you'd get together with the football, baseball or basketball team and go to the movies," Doby said in a Showtime documentary about his life. "They would go downstairs, and I would go upstairs. African-Americans couldn't sit downstairs in the movies."


"I was in the South Pacific, and I heard on the radio that [Jackie Robinson] had signed with [the Dodgers]. It's amazing how many guys were very happy about that situation, because there would be opportunities for the rest of us."
-- Larry Doby

Undeterred by prejudice, Doby established himself as a star athlete in Paterson before joining the Newark Eagles in 1942. He was 17. He quickly emerged as one of the more exciting players in the Negro Leagues. But World War II interrupted his baseball career. He spent two years in the Navy.

It was during that time Doby spent in the Navy that an event occurred which would reshape the hopes and dreams of blacks around the country. In 1946, Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey signed Robinson to a contract and assigned him to the Montreal Royals, where he would begin his professional career.

"I was in the South Pacific, and I heard on the radio that Jack had signed with Montreal," Doby once said. "It's amazing how many guys were very happy about that situation, because there would be opportunities for the rest of us."

At the time, Doby had no way of knowing the next big-league opportunity for a black player would be his.

Coming to the Majors

In 1946, Bill Veeck bought the Indians. Veeck was a man whose life in the baseball is best remembered for his flair for theatrics. He hired the rubber-faced Max Patkin, known as the "Clown Prince of Baseball," as a coach for the Tribe; he used midget Eddie Gaedel as a batter during his ownership of the St. Louis Browns; and he introduced the game's first "exploding scoreboard," complete with sound effects and fireworks displays, while in charge of the Chicago White Sox.

But Veeck was also one of the first executives to take a hard look at integration. Shortly after taking over the Indians, he hired boyhood friend Bill Killefer to scout the Negro Leagues.

After Robinson debuted with the Dodgers on April 15, 1947, Veeck stepped up his efforts to find a black player for the Indians. Upon consultation with Killefer and black sportswriter Wendell Smith of The Pittsburgh Courier, Veeck settled on Doby.

Veeck acted quickly. On July 1, he offered Effa and Abe Manley, owners of the Newark Eagles, $10,000 for Doby's services, with $5,000 more on the table if the Indians kept him. The Manleys accepted, and, four days later, Doby joined the Indians in Chicago.

Pay particular attention to that time span. Four days. Not four months or even four weeks. Four days.

Doby's arrival, therefore, was a stark contrast to Robinson's. For Robinson had been groomed for the biases and bigotry he'd endure in the Major Leagues. He played a full season in the International League and sat through strategic discussions with his family and Rickey.

"Jackie had a year to prepare for his coming, and he was also in the media capital of the world," said Larry Doby Jr., Doby's son. "So there was a big magnifying glass upon Jackie and his teammates and everything else. But in the Midwest, in Cleveland, that wasn't the case."

Like Robinson, teammates didn't greet Doby warmly. On Doby's first day with the Indians, player-manager Lou Boudreau introduced the 23-year-old infielder to his teammates. Some of them refused to shake Doby's hand or half-heartedly accepted his offer.

That day -- July 5, 1947 -- Doby made his first Major League appearance. He pinch-hit in the seventh inning with the Indians trailing the White Sox, 5-1. Baseball lore, which Veeck instigated, tells a story of Doby striking out with three awkward swings and then sitting dejectedly on the bench. The legend has it that second baseman Joe Gordon came up after Doby and swung and missed at three straight pitches, then sat on the bench next to Doby and joined him in putting his head in his hands.

It's a touching story. Unfortunately, it's not a true story. For one, Doby actually fouled off the second pitch he swung at. Secondly, Gordon was on third when Doby came to bat.

Gordon did, however, become Doby's closest friend on the team from that first day. When Doby first took the field to warm up, none of his teammates would toss the ball around with him -- until Gordon stepped forward.

"It meant a lot to me," Doby once said, "and it taught those other people something, as far as relationships are concerned."

Hard, cold times

But Gordon was one of the few white players who looked past Doby's color. In addition to staying in separate hotels and eating in separate restaurants on the road, Doby endured the racial epithets from fans and the hate-fueled actions of some Major Leaguers, said Russell Schneider, a retired sportswriter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Schneider, who became a close friend of Doby's in the 1970s, once tapped Doby's memory about his initial exposure to the Majors.

"I remember asking Doby, 'How bad was it?'" Schneider said. "He said, 'It was every bit as bad as Jackie went through, but Jackie had already gone through it, so I had no publicity.'"

Schneider asked Doby what his worst experience was.

"He told me a heck of a story," Schneider said. "He said, 'I slid into second base one day early in that season. The shortstop tagged me and, as he was getting up, spit tobacco in my face.'"

For years, Doby refused to say who the shortstop was. "Before he died [in 2003], he finally told me who it was and told me I couldn't write it," Schneider said. "And, of course, I haven't. But I know who it was, and I was really surprised, because the shortstop who allegedly spit tobacco juice in Doby's face, I had always thought was a pretty good guy."

Finding his place

Doby's first season, aside from its historical significance, was largely unmemorable. He appeared sparingly for Boudreau's Indians, getting just five hits in 32 at-bats over 29 games, all of which were played at either second base, shortstop or first.

"Larry Doby came up as a second baseman," said Hall of Famer Bob Feller, a pitcher on the '47 Indians. "When he came to the ballpark in Chicago in 1947, he had two left feet and 10 thumbs and couldn't play second base. Besides, we had a pretty good second baseman by the name of Joe Gordon. [Doby] also couldn't make it as a first baseman.

"But Larry was a very good hitter, he was fast and he had a good arm."

Mindful of that speed and arm strength, Boudreau sent Doby into that winter of '47 with instructions to be prepared to compete for the starting job in center field the following spring.

The pressure of learning a new position for a team on which his roster spot was not ensured might have been the best thing to happen for Doby.

"His first year, I'm sure, was eye-opening in a lot of different ways," Doby Jr. said. "But those experiences -- good, bad and ugly -- he didn't have time to reflect on them. He had just that offseason to switch to a new position and try to win a job."

Doby, of course, won that job. And his performance in 1948 was instrumental in the Indians' run to their second World Series title.

In his first full season in the Majors, Doby hit .301 with 14 homers and 66 RBIs. And on Oct. 9, in perhaps the most significant game of his career -- Game 4 of the World Series against the Boston Braves -- he delivered the game-winning home run off Johnny Sain.

Tribe starter Steve Gromek pitched a gem in that 2-1 victory, allowing just a run on seven hits over nine innings. But he knew he had Doby's homer to thank for the win. In the joyous Indians clubhouse after the game, with the Tribe one win away from capturing the Series title, Gromek pulled Doby in for a bear hug, the two teammates beaming with delight.

A photographer captured the moment on film. The resulting photograph is perhaps the most telling artifact of the racial parity that would, very slowly but surely, permeate not just baseball but all professional sports.

That offseason, when Gromek returned to his hometown of Hamtramck, Mich., one of his old friends gave him the cold shoulder, offended by the sight of Gromek hugging a black man.

Gromek reportedly told the man the simple truth: He was Doby's teammate and friend, and the two shared a moment of celebration on one of the most exciting days of their respective baseball careers.

"Something that always made my father feel good about that picture was it was two people showing emotion," Doby Jr. said. "When he found out people gave Steve [guff] about it and he said, 'That guy helped me win a World Series game,' he loved it."

The picture hung in Doby's house for the remainder of his life. His son called it his father's most cherished memento.

A star is born


"Remember Larry Doby as a very historical figure. Remember him to the point where you tell your children about him. He was able to withstand the hatred and the segregation. He was proud of his African-American history and proud to represent the black community."
-- Jim "Mudcat" Grant

From 1949-'55, Doby went on to play his way onto seven straight All-Star teams. In 1954, he finished second in the AL MVP voting when he led the league with 32 home runs and 126 RBIs.

That he was able to put up such numbers while withstanding the racist abuse that so often surrounded him was a testament to Doby's skill, said Al Rosen, a teammate of Doby's with the Indians.

"Talent will tell," Rosen said. "Your talent speaks for you on the field. You're going to break down barriers, and Larry did that."

Grant, who not only got to play with his boyhood idol but who also roomed with him in 1958, after Doby had been traded to and then reacquired from the White Sox, said he learned a great deal from Doby about how to handle the adversity that came with being a black player.

"He carried it like a gentleman," Grant said. "My mother always said, 'Strength is being able to take the blows.' Larry had strength.'"

And he showed it. Rosen remembered a moment before one of the Indians' World Series games against the New York Giants in 1954 when he saw Doby's physical will tested. Doby had pulled a hamstring, and the injury was taped up.

"In those days, they didn't have the medical aides they do today," Rosen said. "When they took the tape off, it was just a mass of bloody mess. The tape just pulled the skin away. But he kept playing. That gives you an idea of the type of person he was from the inside out."

The quiet man

Those who knew Doby best say he could sometimes be a difficult person to figure out. Unlike Robinson, who was outspoken and at ease with the media and teammates alike, Doby was an introvert.

"When he was playing and even after that, he was sometimes a quiet person who kind of kept his emotions close to the vest," Doby Jr. said. "I think that was misinterpreted as him being sullen or moody or something like that. But he was under a strain that only one other person felt in that situation."

Doby Jr. said his father tried to do the best he could do to succeed. That was his way to answer the naysayers and bench jockeys and anyone else who didn't treat him well.

"He and Jackie had the same goals in mind," Doby Jr. said. "They just went about achieving those goals in different ways."

Rooming with Doby on the road gave Grant a unique perspective into the inner workings of the man he grew up emulating.

So when the question was posed to Grant as to whether Doby was bitter about the way his role in the integration of baseball went underappreciated or unnoticed, Grant had an answer.

"Bitter is not the right word," he said. "Because when we all came into the league, we were in a segregated state of being. If you let the bitterness seep into what you were trying to do and competing out in the field, you weren't going to be a success. You were going to think about quitting. I wouldn't say he was bitter, but he was certainly disappointed."

Grant said Doby would show his disappointment only in private. He would throw a couch against a wall or pace around the room in the few moments where he let his emotions get the best of him.

In public, however, both Doby and Robinson knew they had to portray a smoothness that belied their circumstances. They knew baseball's traditionalists would view them, simply, as lucky to be in the big leagues and that they had no reason to complain. So both men hid their frustrations from the public at large.

"In the meantime," Grant said, "they were getting knocked down at every turn."

End of the road

In 1959, Doby's playing days ended when he was besieged by a back injury. The White Sox, who had acquired him from the Detroit Tigers early in the season, sent him home.

Rather than settle into a life of quiet retirement with his wife, Helyn, whom he married in 1946 and had five children with, Doby continued his playing career in Japan before serving as a scout and a coach for the White Sox and the Montreal Expos.

In 1974, he re-joined the Indians as a coach, and it's Schneider's claim that some people in the organization -- team president Ted Bonda, in particular -- viewed Doby as a manager-in-waiting, with Ken Aspromonte serving as a sitting duck.

But when Aspromonte was fired after that '74 season, the newly acquired Frank Robinson, not Doby, became the first black manager in Major League history in 1975.

Three years later, Doby was a coach for the Veeck-owned White Sox, a bumbling club that was going nowhere in the standings. Veeck decided a managerial switch was in order. He pushed out former Indian Bob Lemon and replaced him with Doby. So it was that Doby became the game's second black manager, once again finishing behind a man named Robinson.

Given the general lack of talent he had to work with, Doby didn't have much success in what remained of that '78 season. The Sox went 37-50, and Doby, too, was fired by Veeck when the season was over.

That was Doby's only chance to manage and his last direct association with a Major League team.

"I'm convinced that if he had a decent team, he'd be a decent manager," Schneider said. "The only problem that I would say he ever had was he was just too quiet and introverted. He was not outspoken or outgoing enough. I think that was typical of a guy who had been kicked around."

Life after baseball

Doby's quiet demeanor dictated that he didn't openly tout his achievements. So when his playing days were over, his legacy had a way of fading over time.

By the time baseball celebrated the 50th anniversary of Robinson's breaking of the color barrier in 1997, 31 black and Hispanic players -- Robinson included -- had been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Doby, owner of a .283 career average, 253 home runs and 970 RBIs, wasn't one of them.

"Everybody I'd meet just assumed he was in the Hall of Fame," Doby Jr. said. "A lot of times, I wouldn't even say anything to them, because I didn't want to get into the whole thing."

Privately, Doby thought '97 was his best chance to get into the Hall, given the attention the league was placing on the anniversary. But it didn't happen.

That same year, however, The New York Times ran a front-page story on Doby's life and career that shifted the focus toward the man who came in second. The following year, Doby got his call to Cooperstown.

To many, it was an honor that was overdue.

"He was a great, All-Star center fielder and a Hall of Famer," Feller said, before adding in a matter-of-fact tone, "Larry Doby was a better ballplayer than Jackie Robinson."

And yet, despite the opinions of Feller and those who closely followed the life and career of Doby, who died at his home in Montclair, N.J., on June 18, 2003, he is often lumped in with the Buzz Aldrins of the world.

Grant, for one, thinks that's a shame. And he hopes that, 60 years after he first blurted out the name "Larry Doby" to the amazement of his friends on the streets of Lacoochee, people will find a way to remember a man who, like Robinson, did his part to change the face of baseball.

"Remember Larry Doby as a very historical figure," Grant said. "Remember him to the point where you tell your children about him. He was able to withstand the hatred and the segregation. He was proud of his African-American history and proud to represent the black community."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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