JockBio Classic
Baseball Hall of Famer Larry Doby


Baseball pioneer Larry Doby passed away at the age of 79 on June 18, 2003. A quiet, thoughtful man whose accomplishments were unfairly overshadowed by those of Jackie Robinson, he finally received his due in the late 1990s, when he was honored in ballparks around the country and elected to the Hall of Fame. After becoming the first African-American in the American League, he went on to slug 253 home runs and lead the Cleveland Indians to two pennants during an era that otherwise belonged to the New York Yankees. In his prime years (1948 to 1957), Larry was a feared clutch hitter who was regarded as one of the best all-around players in the game. This was one of the last interviews he granted.

Lawrence Eugene Doby was born on December 13, 1923 in Camden, South Carolina. His baseball talent came from his father who played semipro ball in the Palmetto State. Larry’s dad died when he was eight, and the family moved north to Paterson, New Jersey, when he was a teenager. Larry enrolled in Eastside High and became an all-state football, basketball and baseball player.


 
JockBio.com:

How important was baseball to you as a kid?

   
Larry Doby:

As Negro kids, we didn't have days for water skiing and days for beach parties, and outings and piano lessons. We had baseball, morning until night.



Larry Doby Exhibit

 
JockBio.com:

When you were growing up and playing ball, did you ever have any dreams of a career in the big leagues?

   
Larry Doby:

I don't think any African-American thought that he would be a part of Major League baseball, because there was no representation in baseball when I was a kid.


In 1941, Larry accepted a basketball scholarship from Long Island University. The following summer, he played second base for Abe and Effa Manley’s Newark Eagles of the Negro National League. The records do not list a "Doby" on the roster, but someone named Larry Walker had a nice year for the team. Like many college athletes, he used an assumed name to protect his amateur status. The following year, Larry transferred to Virginia Union University, and set his sights on a career in teaching and coaching. He had been promised a job back at Eastside High, and looked forward to working in the community.

World War II put those plans on hold, as Larry enlisted in the Navy after a second season with the Eagles. Being a sports star in an integrated area of the northeast did not prepare him well for what he encountered in the military. He found himself in a segregated unit, a rung beneath the white soldiers—some of whom he had captained or played against in high school and college. While stationed in the South Pacific, Larry did manage to keep his baseball skills sharp, and added more muscle to his already-impressive frame. Still, the thought of a career on the diamond seemed remote so many miles from home.

   
JockBio.com:

When did the possibility of playing in the majors first enter your mind?

   
Larry Doby:

The first time most of us who were playing in the Negro leagues started thinking about an opportunity to play Major League baseball was when Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson for the Montreal club.


Larry Doby & Bob Feller,
1949 Ebony


   
JockBio.com:

Did it ever occur to you that you would be the next African-American major leaguer after Robinson?

   
Larry Doby:

No, I had no idea.

   
JockBio.com:

Where were you when you heard about the signing?

   
Larry Doby:

I was in the South Pacific in the Navy on a little island called Ulithi. There were two Major League players on the island at the time, Mickey Vernon and Billy Goodman. We used to go out and throw batting practice for each other. Both of them gave me encouragement because they said that they thought I had enough ability to be a Major League player.

 


When Larry returned to the States in 1946, he signed a $500/month contract with Newark. Looking like he had never left, he had himself one heck of a year, batting .341 and finishing one homer behind league leader Josh Gibson. Along with Monte Irvin, Larry led the Eagles to the Black World Series, where they beat Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Monarchs. He started fast in 1947, and was hitting over .400 when the fateful call came from Cleveland.

Though Rickey was hailed as the man who broke down organized baseball's color barrier, Indians boss Bill Veeck had come close to doing so several years earlier. Appalled by the game's double standard and intrigued by the untapped talent pool in black baseball, he hatched a plan to buy the floundering Philadelphia Phillies and turn them into a Negro league All-Star squad. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis recognized Veeck's scheme, and saw that the team was sold to someone else, but the Cleveland owner had started the ball rolling. By the time Robinson was playing in a Dodger uniform, Veeck was already eyeing stars like Larry and Paige.


Larry Doby, 1952 Bowman
 
JockBio.com:

What were the circumstances surrounding your signing with the Indians?

   
Larry Doby:

Bill Veeck thought that there was an opportunity for me with the Cleveland Indians. He had scouted me in 1946 and signed me in 1947. They had a foot-high notebook that had everything I'd ever done in my life from the time I was born. Bill went on to explain all the things you can and can't do. There were a lot more "can't-do's." I signed on July 3, 1947. My first game was two games later.


 

Al Rosen, Luke Easter
& Larry Doby,
1953 The Sporting News
JockBio.com:

What obstacles did you face from teammates after you joined the club?

   
Larry Doby:

When I walked into that clubhouse on July 5, 1947, I got a lot of resentment from a lot of teammates. But after a period of time they got an opportunity to judge me for who I was and not the color of my skin. They got a true picture of me—not a picture of what someone told them them. I think that's one of the biggest things that happened in baseball, that we were able to integrate and judge for ourselves what kind of character these people had. You wish that the entire world would be involved in athletics because then you would know what it is to have communication and association.

 
JockBio.com:

What kind of treatment did you get from opponents when you broke in?

   
Larry Doby:

Once, as I slid into second base, the guy playing shortstop spit on me. But I walked away from it. I knew the racial remarks were from people who were prejudiced or who wanted to disturb me. I wasn't going to let them upset my play, so I didn't think too much about them.


 
JockBio.com:

What societal obstacles did you have to overcome when you began with the Indians?


Larry Doby, 1954 Dan Dee

   
Larry Doby:

During that time our country was segregated and, of course, hotels wouldn't allow me to sleep there and restaurants wouldn't allow me to eat there. Some taxis wouldn't pick you up. Those were normal circumstances where prejudice was concerned in the 1940s. You had to adjust, because they weren't going to open up all these places for you right away.

 
JockBio.com:

Do you view yourself as an important figure in the Civil Rights movement?

   
Larry Doby:

Mr. Robinson and I got the opportunity to play Major League baseball before the Civil Rights movement.



Unlike Robinson, Larry had to fight his way into the starting lineup. The Indians had a superb team, and in 1947 there was no opening waiting for the rookie to step in. Veteran Joe Gordon was ensconced at second base, and player-manager Lou Boudreau was the shortstop. Relegated to pinch-hitting duties, Larry hit a meager .156, and played only six games in the field.

A tough rookie year was made easier by Veeck, who took Larry under his wing and became almost a second father to him. The Tribe owner had no doubt Larry would succeed, but recognized that he could be derailed by off-the-field annoyances. When Veeck heard that 10 players had refused to shake Larry’s hand when he joined the team, he worked to remove most of them from the Cleveland roster.

The following spring, Larry was given a chance to win an everyday job at a position he had never played: centerfield. Thanks to a crash course administered by Hall of Famer Tris Speaker, he grew accustomed to tracking fly balls almost immediately, and by the middle of the year he felt right at home. The Indians won the pennant in a dramatic playoff, and Larry finished his first full big-league campaign with a .301 average, 14 homers, and a team-high nine triples. In Cleveland’s World Series win over the Braves, he topped the club with seven hits and belted a home run that won the pivotal fourth game.

In 1949 Larry made his first of six straight trips to the All-Star game. Joe DiMaggio, long the league's preeminent centerfielder, was beginning to decline, and Larry was poised to supplant him. Over the next few years he did just that, pacing the AL in homers in 1952 and 1954 (when he also won the RBI crown), and leading the league once each in runs, slugging and on-base percentage.


Larry Doby, 1955 Red Man
 
 
JockBio.com:

Who were some of the more memorable players of your era?

 
 
Larry Doby:

I played against some great players. You had a pitching staff in Detroit with Hal Newhouser and Dizzy Trout, great pitchers in Chicago, you had the New York club with Reynolds, Raschi, Ford and Lopat, and you had the Washington Senators, with Walt Masterson and Sid Hudson. We were lucky enough to be involved in some great pennant races while I was in Cleveland. We played against guys like Williams, DiMaggio and Mantle.


Minnie Minoso & Larry Doby,
Philco ad
 
 
JockBio.com:

Who were some of your favorite teammates on the Indians?

 
 
Larry Doby:

The fellows I'll never forget were Jim Hegan, Bob Lemon and Joe Gordon. Those three people, in the very beginning, I found to be very friendly and good people. You hold nothing against those who were bad, but you certainly think of the fellows who treated you like a human being.


In his prime, Larry was not only the American League's premier centerfielder, but one of the top 15 or 20 of all time. He did everything a ballplayer was supposed to do, under the pressure of playing for a perennial pennant contender. In his twilight years, Larry was dealt to the White Sox, where he supplied power to an otherwise punchless lineup. After two years in Chicago, Larry found himself back in an Indians uniform, this time as a part-timer. He split the 1959 season—his last in the big leagues—with the Tigers and White Sox. A broken ankle kept him out of the World Series that year.

After a brief stint in Japan, Larry returned to the U.S., and never strayed far from the game he loved. He reappeared in a Major League uniform in 1971, when he was signed as a coach by the Montreal Expos. After working briefly for Cleveland, he was hired by his old boss and friend Veeck, who had purchased the White Sox. In 1978, Larry became the second African-American manager in history. In his later years, Larry worked as a special advisor to baseball.


Larry Doby,
1988 Pacific Legends
 
 
JockBio.com:

Who would you consider to be the greatest baseball player you ever saw?

   
Larry Doby:

I'd have to name a few people. Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige and Buck Leonard when I played in the Negro leagues. As for the majors, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Roberto Clemente and Hank Aaron were all great. For me to single out one player that was better than all of the is hard. I'd probably have to put Willie Mays in that category.


Larry Doby, 1994 TWilliams
   
JockBio.com:

Do you sometimes wish that you were a ballplayer now instead of 50 years ago?

   
Larry Doby:
Not really. Though it's nice to see what's happening as far as athletes are concerned—to be able to make some good money. I look back and see how far this country has come because of the integration of baseball. I think that if the country itself had progressed as much as baseball has progressed, we wouldn't have a lot of the problems we have.
     
 

 

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