These Men Changed Baseball: Larry Doby
Jackie Robinson integrated baseball. He deserves every bit of praise that has been heaped upon him because of that fact. However, the world did not magically become a wonderful, perfectly integrated place in the middle of April of 1947. Other people still fought and suffered to build upon that first step. One of those, the man who integrated the American League, was Larry Doby.
Doby was born in South Carolina in 1923, and his family soon moved to northern New Jersey. He grew up in Paterson, New Jersey. After starring in high school, Doby joined the Negro Leagues’ Newark Eagles, the local team, at age 17. He played with the Eagles for two seasons, then he spent 1944-1945 in the Navy. He returned to Newark in 1946, leading the team to that season’s Negro League Championship as its star second basemen. That team would produce three of the men who would break baseball’s color line, Doby for the Indians, Hank Thompson for the Browns and Giants, and Monte Irvin for the Giants (with the same first game as Thompson.) Doby and Irvin scored the tying and winning runs off of Satchel Paige in the 8th inning of Game 7. After Robinson began playing for the Dodgers, Indians owner Bill Veeck signed Doby. He debuted on July 5, 1947, becoming the second African-American major leaguer in the 20th Century. The Indians lost to the White Sox, 6-5.
Doby’s first season was rough. Unlike Robinson, who arrived at age 28, Doby was only 23. He had spent zero time in the minor leagues, though he of course had played high level baseball in Newark. He changed position, from second base to center field. For the season, Doby recorded 5 hits in 33 plate appearances. He learned. In 1948, Doby was an integral part of the Indians world championship team. For the season, he hit .301 with 14 home runs in 121 games. In the World Series, he was even better. Doby hit .318 with a home run in 22 at bats. He led the team in batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, hits, home runs, and walks. There was no World Series MVP in 1948, but he would have likely contended for the award with pitchers Gene Bearden and Bob Lemon if it had existed.
Doby continued to improve. He led the AL in OBP in 1950, home runs in 1952 and 1954, runs in 1952, RBI in 1954, and SLG in 1952. He came in second in the MVP voting in 1954, losing to Yogi Berra by 20 points, 230 to 210. After the 1955 season, Doby became a nomad, getting traded to the White Sox, then to the Orioles, then back to the Indians, on to the Tigers, and finally concluding back with the White Sox in 1959. He played in 21 games for the eventual AL pennant winner, then retired after not making the World Series roster. He last appeared on July 26.
Then Doby had to wait. He became the second African-American manager in 1978. His number was retired by the Indians in 1994. In 1998, the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Veterans’ Committee finally elected Doby to Cooperstown, more than 50 years after he integrated the American League. Doby’s career is more nearly complete than Robinson’s. At most, Doby lost 3 seasons (1942, 1943, and 1946) to segregation. How much impact the racism and bigotry of the day had on his performance can never be quantified. Nevertheless, Doby persevered, sticking up a lifetime OPS+ of 136, good for 95th all time. Fortunately, he did live to see his Hall of Fame induction. Doby passed away in 2003 and was eulogized by then President George W. Bush thusly:
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 he will be missed. As the first African-American player in the American League, he helped lead the Cleveland Indians to their last World Series title in 1948, became a nine-time All-Star and was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998. Laura joins me in sending our condolences to Larry’s family during this difficult time.
Though it is not Thanksgiving, we should all remember what Larry Doby sacrificed to make the game of the baseball and this world a slightly better place.