No matter the event, contest or issue, second place finishers are rarely remembered, and for a while that was the fate of Larry Doby, who came behind the great Jackie Robinson’s historic barrier breaking moment in Major League Baseball. On July 5, 1947, several weeks after Robinson played his first game in the MLB on April 15, Doby donned the uniform of the Cleveland Indians (now Guardians) as the first Black player in the American League. He later will have another second place honor behind Frank Robinson, as a Black manager.
He may have been a second place finisher in these two significant events, but in many respects he was first class, and that began on December 13, 1923 in Camden, South Carolina where he was born Lawrence Eugene Doby. Doby was a triple threat, all-state athlete in high school in Paterson, New Jersey, and accepted a basketball scholarship from Long Island University. But when the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues signed him as a player, the 17-year-old began his professional baseball career. One again he was second, only this time as a second-baseman.
Doby had signed the $300 contract as Larry Walker to protect his amateur status since he would be entering college that September. On one memorable occasion during his first season against the legendary Josh Gibson and pitcher Ray Brown of Homestead Grays, Doby recalled an encounter with them. “My first time up,” he began, “Josh said, ‘We’re going to find out if you can hit a fastball.’ I singled. Next time up, Josh said, ‘We’re going to find out if you can hit a curveball,’ I singled. Third time up, Josh said, ‘We’re going to find out how you do after you’re knocked down.’ I popped up the first time after they knocked me down. The second time, I singled.”
This was in 1942 as World War II intensified and Doby joined the U.S. Navy. By 1945, he was stationed on an island in the Pacific Ocean when he heard that Robinson was playing for the Montreal Royals of the International League and thus on his way to the majors. Doby made a great impression on the Navy team, so much so that his future teammate Mickey Vernon, then with the Washington Senators, wrote a strong letter to the owner of the Senators, insisting that, if the league were ever integrated, Doby should be a prime candidate. Upon being discharged from the Navy in 1946, that summer Doby married Helyn Curvy.
Doby’s sensational return to the Eagles was highlighted by his performance in the Negro World Series in 1946 where he hit .372 with one home run, five RBIs, three stolen bases. He, along with Monte Irvin, were often discussed as the first of Black players to break the color barrier. “I never dreamed that far ahead,” Doby replied when asked of such a possibility. “Growing up in a segregated society, you couldn’t have thought that that was the way it was going to be. There was no bright spot as far as looking at baseball until Mr. Robinson got the opportunity to play in Montreal in ’46.”
After four years of military service he resumed playing with the Eagles, and with his teammate Monte Irvin starred as the Eagles won the Negro League World Series. When Bill Veeck, the owner and president of the Indians, signed Doby to play for his club, the former Negro League all-star achieved a major league first, going directly from the Negro Leagues to the major leagues (Robinson began his journey with the Kansas City Monarchs and then the Montreal Royals before arriving to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers.)
Doby would acquire another distinct first, one he shared with the immortal pitcher Satchel Paige, as the first African American performer to win a World Series championship with the Indians in 1948. When he made his debut with the Indians, Veeck hired two plainclothes cops to accompany him to Comiskey Park in Chicago. Doby recounted those first moments. “I walked down the line, stuck out my hand, and very few hands came back in return. Most of the ones that were cold-fish handshakes, along with a look that said, ‘You don’t belong here.’” Only Joe Gordon, the team’s second baseman, engaged Doby in conversation and playing catch.
They became lifelong friends. Another defining condition was the housing arrangement for Doby that relegated him to separate quarters from his teammates. He often had to stay at hotels in the Black community.
It was not until Doby hit a massive home run during an exhibition game against the New York Giants that he removed doubts about his ability to play in the major leagues. That year, according to Joseph Moore in his biography of Doby, “He played in 121 games and hit .301…with 14 home runs and 66 RBIs.” All of this despite suffering all kinds of racial insults on and off the field. Among his many remarkable moments, Doby was the first African American to hit a home run in a World Series game in 1948. Four years later, the slugging center fielder became the first Black player to lead either league in home runs. He compiled an impressive career with such statistics as a seven-time All-Star, five 100 plus RBI seasons, eight 20 or more home run seasons.
In 1978, Veeck who signed him to a contract in Cleveland, made him manager of the Chicago White Sox. In 1998 he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. For several years he worked in the administration of the New Jersey Nets basketball team.
When he died on June, 18, 2003, President George W. Bush commended him, noting that “Larry Doby was a good and honorable man, and a tremendous athlete and manager. He had a profound influence on the game of baseball.” And beyond we might add.