- 1B, 2B, SS, OF, CF, LF, RF
- December 13, 1923
- 6' 1"
- 180 lbs
- Major League Debut:
- 7-05-1947 with CLE
- Hall of Fame:
Just as Buzz Aldrin will always be remembered as the man who set foot on the moon after Neil Armstrong, Larry Doby has the fortunate, yet, unfortunate distinction of being the first African American to play in the major leagues after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947. Though he was the American League’s first black player, breaking into the big leagues barely three months after Robinson’s historic call-up, Doby’s legacy will forever be obscured by that of his legendary predecessor.
That such is the case is tragically unjust, not only because Doby put up numbers that compare favorably with those of his NL counterpart, but more so because he had to suffer the same harsh treatment that Robinson faced, without receiving any of the publicity and subsequent acclaim. Doby weathered these indignities and hardships with inspiring grace and class, and thrived in spite of the turmoil, becoming a seven-time All-Star and one of the American League’s most feared sluggers. A half-century after he first blazed a trail for black American Leaguers, Doby was finally inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1998.
Larry Doby was born on Dec. 13, 1923, in Camden, South Carolina, though his family relocated to Paterson, NJ not long after his birth. The son of a semipro baseball player, Doby starred in three sports at Paterson’s Eastside High School before entering Long Island University. Having spent much of his youth in the integrated northeast, Doby was unprepared for the discrimination he would face in the world beyond. When he was inducted into the Navy in 1944, Doby was shocked and humiliated when he was segregated from the white inductees, many of whom he had known from the sandlots and ball fields of his youth.
After completing his military service, Doby joined the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues as a second baseman. In 1946, the left-handed slugger batted .341 and, alongside future Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, led the Eagles to the Negro League Championship. In doing so, he attracted the attention of Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck. Like Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, Veeck was determined to defy baseball’s unwritten rule barring black players. Following Rickey's lead, Veeck signed Doby to a major league contract in 1947. After struggling in a mere 29 games that year, the young outfielder distinguished himself the following year with a .301 average for an Indians team that won 97 games and the AL pennant. But it was in the World Series that year that Doby broke out as a bona fide star, leading the team with a .318 Series average and crushing a game-winning, 400-foot home run off Boston Braves ace Johnny Sain in Game Four. The Indians went on to defeat the Braves in six games, capturing their first World Series title in almost 30 years.
The next year, Doby made the first of his seven consecutive All-Star appearances. Throughout the 1950’s, he excelled as one of the game’s most consistent run producers, and as one of its most formidable sluggers. Doby had perhaps his finest season in 1954, topping the American League with 32 homers and 126 runs batted in, and leading his Indians to a then-record 111 regular-season victories. In the World Series that year, the heavily-favored Indians squared off against the New York Giants. It was in this series that Doby unwittingly played a supporting role in one of baseball’s most famous plays. With the score tied 2-2 in Game 1, Doby walked to lead off the eighth inning, before advancing to second base on a single by Al Rosen. Vic Wertz followed with a booming drive to right center, a shot so deep, so certain to drive in Doby with the winning run, that Doby didn’t even bother to tag up before charging home. He had good reason to be so confident: the Giants’ young center fielder had been playing way too shallow to make a play on a ball hit so deep. Unluckily for Doby and the Indians, Willie Mays proved to be no ordinary center fielder, and the spectacular catch he made on Wertz’ drive has become one of the most famous plays in baseball history. Doby scrambled back to second base, just ahead of Mays’ powerful throw, and never scored. The Indians lost that game in extra innings and, unable to overcome the shock of that Game One loss, were swept by the Giants in four games. Doby averaged over 100 runs scored and 100 RBIs a season over the course of his 13-year career, which also included stints with the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers.
After retiring in 1959, he became only the third major leaguer to play in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball League. He also later became a coach for the Indians and the Montreal Expos. In an ironic echoing of his groundbreaking achievement almost 30 years earlier, in 1978 Doby followed Frank Robinson as the second African American to manage in the major leagues when he took over as manager of the Chicago White Sox. In a further ironic twist, the man who hired him for the White Sox job was the same man who first brought him into major league baseball all those years ago – Bill Veeck.
Though one author once derided Doby’s place in baseball history as being akin to that of “the second man to invent the telephone”, the end of the twentieth century saw a reappraisal of the critical role Doby played not only in the game’s history, but in our country’s history as well. When he was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1998, Doby viewed his legacy not through the prism of statistics, but rather in terms of what his experience could teach others about tolerance and unity. Before he passed away in 2003, Doby reflected on one of his favorite memories from his playing days: I hit a home run off Johnny Sain to help Steve Gromek win [Game 4 of the 1948 World Series], and in the clubhouse the photographers took a picture of Gromek and me hugging. That picture went all over the country. I think it was one of the first, if not the first, of a black guy and a white guy hugging, just happy because they won a ballgame. Larry Doby’s greatest contribution to baseball was not just to demonstrate that black players could play the game, but to prove that blacks and whites, and people of all races, could play the game together.