On October 9, 1948, in the fourth inning of the fourth game in the World Series, a young man stepped up to the plate. His team, the Cleveland Indians, held a slim one run lead. The Indians held an equally slim one game lead. Before 82,000 people, the largest crowd ever to see a series game up till that time, and with no one on base and with two outs, the batter slammed the second pitch 420 feet over the right field wall. It proved to be the decisive run, providing a 2-1 win for the Indians. It also provided an overwhelming 3-1 lead in the series. Two games later the Indians shut out the Boston Braves on the road.
Larry Doby was the driving force behind the only Cleveland World Series Championship in the last half century. He also led the heroic drive to the pennant that year. In a race that came down to a playoff with the other Boston team, the Red Sox, Doby paced the team with a .396 batting average over the last 20 crucial games. His season average was .301.
Although Larry Doby had a stellar career in baseball–playing in six All-Star games, named to a seventh (1949-1955), playing in two World Series (1948 and 1954), home run leader in the American League in 1952, both the home run and RBI leader and runner-up to Yogi Berra for American League MVP in 1954, having the top fielding average of all full-time American League center fielders in 1954, and setting a major league record of 164 games without an error in 1954 and 1955 that stood for seventeen years–he will be remembered mostly as a quiet and proud pioneer. He became the second African-American to play major league baseball on July 5, 1947, following the much more flamboyant Jackie Robinson by only eleven weeks. He was the first African-American to play in the American League. Some years later he played another pioneering role, but again he was second. Following Frank Robinson, who was named manager for the Cleveland Indians in 1975, Doby replaced his old friend and former teammate, Bob Lemon, as manager of the Chicago White Sox in June of 1978.
Born in Camden, South Carolina in 1923, Lawrence Eugene Doby was the son of David and Etta Doby. David, a World War I veteran who worked in the horse industry as a groom, played baseball in his spare time and was known as a great hitter. Any influence on Larry’s baseball skills was indirect. David was away from home most of the time working in the North. Larry vaguely remembered his father playing ball but little else. David Doby died when Larry was only eleven years old. Etta also had little to do with Larry’s upbringing. She emigrated north to Paterson, New Jersey in search of work. Etta’s mother was in charge of Larry’s life during most of his early years, rearing him with strict discipline, regular church attendance, and reading and writing lessons before his formal education began. That changed when Larry’s grandmother began having mental problems, and Etta returned to move Larry into the home of her sister-in-law, where he lived for the next four years.
These few years living with the Cookes on Lyttleton Street in Camden were very happy and positive years for Larry. Residents still living there remember playing ball in the street in games where race did not matter (Robinson). His uncle, who was successful in construction, was a leader in the African-American community. Larry attended Mather Academy, where he had good teachers, heard lectures by Mary McLeod Bethune, and played organized baseball and other sports for the first time. He learned baseball from Richard DuBose, who was one of the best known figures in African-American baseball in the state for more than half a century. DuBose had also coached Larry’s father in the many games he organized. In 1938 Larry graduated from the 8th grade and his mother insisted that he move to Paterson to attend high school, where educational and economic opportunities were relatively greater for African-Americans. He never lived in South Carolina again.
Living with a friend of his mother in Paterson, Doby soon adjusted to a life that revolved around sports in the streets and in school. Only being able to see his mother on her one day off a week from domestic service, Doby never really had a family, but he found solace in sports. At the end of his high school career he had lettered in eleven sports and was an all-state performer in most of them. He began playing with the semi-professional and professional teams in both basketball and baseball. His talents were such that he even played a few games before graduation with the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League. He played under an assumed name since high school students weren’t allowed to play. Following graduation, he played the summer of 1942 with the Eagles, batting .391 in the 26 games for which records exist.
Doby began college in September of 1942, but his college career quickly ended with a draft notice. Ironically, he was stationed at Camp Smalls in the Great Lakes, a station named after a fellow South Carolinian, Robert Smalls, a hero of the Civil War. There his physical prowess earned him an assignment as physical education instructor and plenty of playing time with sports teams that represented the camp. He spent the last year of the war on a coral reef in the Pacific both unloading ships and organizing recreational activities for other servicemen.
Discharged from the Navy in early 1946, Doby returned to professional baseball. He spent a winter season playing in Puerto Rico and then rejoined the Newark Eagles. There he played with some of the all-time greats: Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige (who would later be his roommate in Cleveland), Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe, both of whom would later play with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was not the top player in the league, but he was among the elite with a .348 batting average for the 1946 season. He helped lead his team to the Negro World Series title. The first half of the 1947 season Doby led the league with a .458 average. He did not finish the season–fate and Bill Veeck were about to change and challenge his life.
On July 3, 1947, after weeks of rumors, Larry Doby was told that he had been purchased by Bill Veeck’s Cleveland Indians. He made his playing debut two days later when he struck out pinch hitting, but barely missed on a line drive that was foul by inches. He received very limited playing time that first half season, appearing in only 29 games and batting 32 times, mostly as a pinch hitter.
The next year, the championship and World Series year, Doby came into his own. He was the first African-American to hit a home run in an All-Star game and was the first African-American to win a league home run crown. He is best remembered as a power hitter, who like other power hitters, did strike out a lot. In May of 1948 he hit what would have been one of the longest home runs in history, estimated at over 500 feet, had it not hit a loud speaker hanging high over the center field fence in Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. Almost exactly a year later he hit another home run over 500 feet. It cleared the scoreboard in right center field in the same ball park.
He should also be remembered as one of the best defensive center fielders in the game at the time, with a 164 game streak of flawless play in the field. On July 31, 1954, Doby made a catch that snatched a home run away by vaulting himself up the fence with his left hand while making the catch with his right hand, then falling back onto the field while hanging onto the ball. Dizzy Dean, who was broadcasting the game, declared it the greatest catch he had ever seen. In that year he led Cleveland to a record number of wins in the regular season, a record that stood till 1998 when the Yankees set a new mark.
After breaking an ankle while sliding into third base in 1959, Doby retired from baseball as a player. After an interlude of nearly ten years, which included briefly playing ball in Japan, running a business in Newark, and campaigning for Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 Presidential Campaign, Doby reentered professional baseball as hitting coach for the Montreal Expos in 1969. Thus began his second career. He proved to be a very effective coach with his ability to communicate with players and adapt instruction to their styles and abilities. His ambition was to be a manager, but no African-American had ever managed a major league team before. He nearly got the chance in 1975 with his old team, the Cleveland Indians. But the management chose Frank Robinson instead.
Three frustrating years later Doby was given a chance to manage. The opportunity came from the same man who had brought him into the white major leagues, Bill Veeck, who was then head of the Chicago White Sox. However, the opportunity was really only half a chance. Although Doby was able to improve the team’s performance, he did not have the players to win a pennant without a miracle. Most importantly to the owner, Doby did not improve ticket sales. Thus Veeck fired Doby and replaced him with a white manager whom he felt would draw in more of the White Sox’s mostly white fans. Doby then left baseball to work as director of community relations for the New Jersey Nets of the National Basketball Association.
For all his feats in baseball, perhaps his greatest achievement lay outside the statistics that are such a central part of the culture of baseball. Larry Doby, without the months of preparation that helped Jackie Robinson endure his ordeal, endured two ordeals of his own. The first involved his entry into a hostile world where many wanted him to fail, and the second was being ignored by history because he was not the first to enter that world. Doby endured both without complaint, never saying anything about Jackie Robinson that could be construed as even hinting at jealousy. He endured with quiet pride and great dignity. When he first joined the Indians, some players refused to shake his hand. Doby has refused to ever say who they were. He and his family were forced to live apart from the team in Spring training camp because of segregation rules. He often had to stay in separate hotel facilities and eat in separate areas from the rest of his teammates. In one instance, after being tagged out at second base, the opponent spit in his face. Doby walked away, not giving in to the evil of prejudice.
Late in life Doby finally began to receive the recognition he had quietly earned. In 1994 the Cleveland Indians retired the number 14 he had worn in the ten seasons playing there. The 1997 All-Star Game in Cleveland was dedicated to Larry Doby. He was honorary American League captain and threw out the first pitch for the game. About half a million dollars from the All-Star proceeds went to building a playground project in the city where he first played, the Larry Doby All-Star Playground. Finally, in July 1998, Doby was awarded a long overdue recognition, induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.