Larry Doby: A Life of Firsts and Seconds

Today’s post was written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, senior archivist at the National Archives in College Park, MD

A little over two years ago in 2018 Congress, by Public Law No: 115-322 (132 STAT. 4440-4442) enacted the  Larry Doby Congressional Gold Medal Act. Upon hearing about this, I thought about getting Larry Doby’s autograph at a spring training game in Tucson, Arizona, when I was in grade school. In the mid-1950s my father, who was stationed at Davis-Mountain Air Force Base in Tucson often took me to Hi Corbett Field to see my favorite baseball player, Larry Doby, a member of the Cleveland Indians baseball team. It was during one of the spring training games that I got Doby to sign my game program.  I obtained the autographs of other members of the Cleveland team, but having obtained Doby’s was my greatest thrill. During the following years, as I began to have new favorite players, Luis Aparicio in the 1960s and Jim Rice in the 1970s, I still followed Doby’s baseball career, which culminated in him being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Doby with uniform and baseball cap on, kneeling on one knee and looking in the distance
Larry Doby, centerfield for the Cleveland Indians, 1953. Baseball card by Bowman Gum

Lawrence Eugene “Larry” Doby was born in Camden, South Carolina, on December 13, 1923, and moved to Paterson, New Jersey, in 1938, where he became a standout four-sport athlete during high school. Doby in 1942 accepted a basketball scholarship to play at Long Island University (LIU)-Brooklyn. But first, he played baseball that summer for the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League under the assumed name “Larry Walker” to keep his amateur status. That year he played 23 games as a second baseman and batted .309.

That fall Doby enrolled in LIU, but shortly thereafter he transferred to Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia. There during the 1942-1943 basketball season, while averaging over 10 points a game, Doby helped the school’s basketball team to the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association championship. Then early in 1943, he became the first Black player to play in the American Basketball League, a forerunner of the National Basketball Association, as a member of the Paterson (New Jersey) team.

Doby hit .301 with the Eagles in 1943 and entered military service at the end of the season. He first served with the Navy at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Illinois, where he played with the Black baseball team. He maintained a .342 batting average against squads composed of white players, some of which featured major leaguers. He subsequently served at naval installations in Utah and California before spending 1945 at Ulithi Atoll in the Pacific.

b&w photo of US carrier ships lined up in the sea
Ships of the fighting fleet in the Ulithi Atoll, 12/1944 NAID 520666

After being discharged from the Navy in January 1946, Doby rejoined his Newark team, again as its second baseman. That year he batted .322, helping his team to the Negro League World Series title. More importantly, he caught the attention of Bill Veeck, owner of the Cleveland Indians, who desired to break the Major League color line.

1946 Roster of the Newark Eagles, including Larry Doby (blackpast.org)

After the 1946 season Doby traveled to Puerto Rico to play winter ball with the San Juan Senators. During that winter season he had one of the top batting averages in Puerto Rico at .358 and was second in home runs with 14.

Doby began the 1947 season with Newark while Jackie Robinson, who had spent 1946 in the minor leagues, broke the Major League color line on April 15, when he played his first game in the National League as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Doby would not be far behind him.   

Doby was off to a great start at Newark, batting .354, when, during the first days of July he was signed to a Major League contract with the Cleveland Indians. After playing a game for Newark on July 4, Doby took a train to Chicago to join his new team that was beginning a series against the White Sox.

In the clubhouse on July 5 Doby as greeted with weak handshakes from most of his new teammates. Four of them refused to take his hand. Two of those turned their backs on him. Out on the field before the game only one player, future Hall of Famer Joe Gordon, would play pitch and catch with him.  During the game that day, when he became the first African American to play in the American League, Doby struck out pinch hitting. 

After the game, while his teammates went to one hotel, Doby was sent to a separate hotel that accommodated Black people.  During the rest of his career he continually faced segregation. Road trips were especially rough on Doby. Not only did he face boos and taunts wherever he played, opposing players also would not talk to or associate with him at first. On July 20, 1978, Doby recalled “Jackie got all the publicity for putting up with it (racial slurs). But it was the same thing I had to deal with. He was first, but the crap I took was just as bad. Nobody said, ‘We’re gonna be nice to the second Black.’”

Doby, during 1947 played little, usually as a second baseman, but sometimes as the team’s first baseman. He batted only .156 in 29 games. Many fans, sportswriters, and teammates had their doubts about his abilities. The next year would be a very good one for Doby.

During the 1948 season Doby became life-long best friends with former Navy Gunner’s Mate Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra. Berra, the New York Yankees catcher during a visit to Cleveland, struck up a conversation with Doby. That encounter made the front page of the newspapers, much as had the integrated lines in the South during the tour of the Freedom Train that year.

Both events were a reminder that Blacks and Whites could get along, and based partly on that belief President Truman on July 26, 1948, signed Executive Order 9981 (NAID 300009), desegregating the Armed Forces.

On the playing field both Doby and the Cleveland Indians had great success in 1948. Any questions about Doby’s abilities were put aside as Doby, now the regular centerfielder, batted .301 and helped lead Cleveland to the American League pennant and a World Series championship victory over the Boston Braves. During the World Series victory over the Boston Braves, Doby batted .318 and hit a home run, thus becoming the first African American to hit a home run in a World Series. After the game in which Doby hit his home run to secure the victory, a famous photograph was taken and distributed across the nation showing Doby and his teammate, the winning pitcher of the game, Steve Gromek, hugging, to celebrate the victory (seen here in an article from The Guardian).

During 1950, Doby hit .326 for the season, homered 25 times, and lead the American League in on base percentage. In 1952, Doby lead the American League in runs scored, slugging percentage, home runs (32), thus becoming the first African American to lead either league in home runs. Doby led the American league in 1953 with 111 runs batted in. In 1954, he led the league with 32 home runs and 126 runs batted in.  During the All-Star game that year Doby became the first African American to hit a home run in an All-Star game. His efforts that year helped gain another pennant for the Cleveland Indians.  During the 1954 World Series against the Willie Mays-led New York Giants, Doby struggled, only getting two hits, as the Giants swept the Indians in four games. Despite this loss and his poor showing in the series, Doby finished second in the voting for the American League Most Valuable Player award, which was won by Yogi Berra.

Doby remained in the major leagues until 1959, finishing his career playing for the Chicago White Sox.  He played in the American League for 13 years, appearing in 1,533 games and batting .283, with 253 home runs and 970 runs batted in. During his major league career he was voted to seven All-Star teams and led the American League in home runs twice.

After his major league career ended, Doby played briefly in 1959 with San Diego in the Pacific Coast League and extended his career in 1962, by playing for the Chunichi Dragons in Japan, becoming the second African American to play in the Japanese leagues.

In 1968 Doby became a scout for the Montreal Expos, with hope of someday becoming a Major League manager. In 1970 he served as a minor league instructor and from 1971 to 1973 served as the Expos’ batting coach. His first managerial opportunity came during the winter 1970-1971 baseball season in Venezuela. He would end up managing various teams during five seasons of winter league baseball in Venezuela.

Doby in 1974 became the first base coach for the Cleveland Indians. At the end of the season the Cleveland manager was fired and many people thought Doby would be elevated to the manager position, thus becoming the first African American manager in the Major Leagues. This did not happen, as Frank Robinson was hired as the club’s player-manager, and baseball’s first Black manager.

In 1976, Doby returned to the Expos as their batting coach.  Bill Veeck, then owner of the Chicago White Sox, in 1977 hired Doby as the batting coach. When the manager, Bob Lemon, a former Indians’ teammate of Doby’s, was fired on June 30, 1978, Doby was promoted to manager, thus becoming the second African American manager in the American League. He managed the team the next four months, but his managerial contract was not renewed at the end of the season. However, Veeck retained Doby as the batting coach for the 1979 season.

After retiring from baseball in October 1979, Doby throughout the 1980s, served as director of communications and director of community affairs for the New Jersey Nets of the National Basketball Association. He also spent a lot of time with his Montclair, New Jersey neighbor and best friend Yogi Berra. They spoke nearly daily, either on the phone or in person. They hung out together at each other’s house and when their wives tried to find chores for them to do, they escaped to the local American Legion post to talk about baseball and the Navy.

In retirement, Doby received honorary doctorate degrees from Long Island University, Princeton University, and Fairfield University.

Slowly but surely, in the mid-1990s, the baseball world began recognizing Doby’s achievements and contributions. A writer on April 20, 1995 in The New York Times wrote “In glorifying those who are first, the second is often forgotten… Larry Doby integrated all those American League ball parks where Jackie Robinson never appeared. And he did it with class and clout.” Doby’s No. 14 was retired by the Indians in 1994 and in 1995 he was named special assistant to the American League’s president.  He threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the 1997 Major League All-Star Game played in Cleveland.

Finally, in 1998, Doby was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. It was Hall of Famer Ted Williams that called Doby to notify him of his selection.  In his induction speech on July 26, Doby said: “You know, it’s a very tough thing to look back about things that were probably negative. You put those things on the back burner. You are proud and happy that you’ve been a part of integrating baseball to show people that we can live together, we can work together and we can be successful together.” These remarks prompted the huge crowd to interrupt him with a standing ovation.

Also in 1998, Doby’s pal, Yogi Berra opened the Yogi Berra Museum Learning Center, where, after Doby’s death, Berra dedicated a wing of the museum to Larry Doby featuring memorabilia from his career and the Negro Leagues.

Doby died June 18, 2003, at Montclair, New Jersey. The following day, Major League Commissioner Bud Selig released a statement that read in part: “Like Jackie, he endured the pain of being a pioneer with grace, dignity, and determination and eased the way for all who followed.”  Former Major League Commissioner Fay Vincent wrote “Larry’s role in history was recognized slowly and belatedly. Jackie Robinson, who broke the color line first but in the same year, quite naturally received most of the attention. Larry played out his career with dignity…Only in the 90’s did baseball wake up to the obvious fact that Larry was every bit as deserving of recognition as Jackie.” Shortly after Doby’s death, President George W. Bush said: “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.”

stamp with drawing of Doby in a batting stance, wearing the Cleveland uniform
Forever Stamp of Larry Doby (USPS)

During the past decade Doby continued to be honored. In 2012, the United States Postal Service issued a first-class forever postage stamp depicting Doby at bat. A statue of Doby was placed outside the Cleveland Indians ballpark in 2015 and in December 2018, he was honored by Congress with the enactment of the Larry Doby Congressional Gold Medal Act. The Act stated that Doby was being award the Congressional Gold Medal “in recognition of his achievements and contributions to the American major league athletics, civil rights, and the Armed Forces during World War II.” Larry Doby often was first or second in the things he accomplished, and those accomplishments should be celebrated. But the totality of his life should also be remembered and appreciated.

2 thoughts on “Larry Doby: A Life of Firsts and Seconds

  1. Thank you so much for writing this article on Larry Doby! I have always felt like he has been overlooked in the integration of MLB. He deserves to be just as admired as Jackie Robinson!

  2. Thank you for writing this post showing Larry Doby’s accomplishments in spite of the racially charged situations that surrounded him. The photograph of Doby and Gromek brings me to tears with its genuine emotion, uncaring of the artificial construct of race.

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