Doby, Lawrence Eugene ("Larry")

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DOBY, Lawrence Eugene ("Larry")

(b. 13 December 1924 in Camden, South Carolina), baseball player who became the first African American to play in the American League when he joined the Cleveland Indians in 1947.

Doby was the only child of David Doby, a stable hand and semiprofessional baseball player, and Etta Brooks, a domestic. Doby saw little of his father during his childhood because David Doby went north to work as a groom. His mother also went north, to Paterson, New Jersey, to work as a domestic, leaving her son in the care of his maternal grandmother and, later, his father's sister and her husband. Doby completed the eighth grade at Mather Academy, a Methodist mission school for African-American children, in 1938.

That summer he visited his mother in Paterson, and she insisted that he stay there and attend Eastside High School. Eastside was well regarded academically and had a strong sports program. Doby, a quiet, reserved young man, was one of about twenty-five African-American students in the school. As a superb athlete, he was popular with students of all races. In his four years at Eastside, Doby won eleven letters in baseball, football, basketball, and track and earned All-State honors in the first three sports. During high school Doby played basketball in a recreational league as well as on the school team. In summer he played with three semiprofessional baseball teams, including the well-known African-American team Smart Set. Among his teammates on the Smart Set was Monte Irvin, another African American who integrated organized baseball in the late 1940s.

Doby was offered a basketball scholarship at Long Island University in Brooklyn, New York, after his high-school graduation in 1942. He also signed to play professional baseball as an infielder with the Newark (New Jersey) Eagles, who finished in third place in the Negro National League (NNL) that year. To protect his amateur standing at Long Island University, he appeared with the Eagles as Larry Walker. Late in his freshman year, Doby transferred to Virginia Union College, an African-American institution in Richmond, and played on its basketball team. He rejoined the Eagles for the 1943 season but was drafted into the U.S. Navy in the spring. The United States had been plunged into World War II by a Japanese aerial assault on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and young men were being called to serve in the segregated armed forces. Doby was assigned to the African-American boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Training Station near Chicago. After basic training, he became a physical training instructor and played on the baseball and basketball teams that represented the African-American sailors at Great Lakes.

As the end of World War II neared in the late summer of 1945, Doby was stationed on a tiny coral island in the South Pacific. There he heard a radio report that Branch Rickey, the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers (later the Los Angeles Dodgers), had signed an African-American player named Jackie Robinson to play with the Montreal Royals, the top Dodgers farm club, in 1946. "Then I felt I had a chance to play Major League baseball," Doby remembered. He was discharged from the navy in January 1946 and almost immediately went to Puerto Rico for two months of winter baseball. He rejoined the Newark Eagles as their second baseman and earned a place on the NNL's All-Star team. Doby, a power-hitting left-handed batter, posted a batting average of .341 as the Eagles easily won both halves of the NNL's pennant race and beat the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League, four games to three, in the Negro World Series.

On 10 August 1946, Doby married his high school sweetheart, Helen Curvy, in Paterson. They had five children. Mrs. Doby died of cancer in July 2001.

In 1947 Doby had played only forty-one games with the Eagles when his rights were sold to the Cleveland Indians and stepped over the color line, debuting as a big leaguer on 3 July, eleven weeks after Robinson had integrated the National League by joining the Dodgers. Bill Veeck, the colorful and innovative president of the Indians, paid Effa Manley, the co-owner of the Eagles, $10,000 for Doby plus an additional $10,000 if Doby made the team. He did, although he was not yet a star. The six-foot, one-inch, 180-pound Doby batted only .156 in thirty-two at bats as a pinch hitter and occasional infielder. Worse, only Joe Gordon, the Indians second baseman, went out of his way to welcome Doby to the club. Some teammates refused to shake hands with him. Opponents and fans booed and shouted insults at Doby. A shortstop spat on him as he slid into second base, and he was frequently the target of fast balls thrown at his head.

In 1948 the Hall of Famers Tris Speaker and Bill McKechnie converted Doby into a center fielder, and his considerable talent became evident. Doby batted .301 in 121 games with fourteen home runs. Over his thirteen-year career in the Major Leagues with the Indians, Chicago White Sox, and Detroit Tigers, he batted .283 and slugged 253 home runs. He led the American League twice for homers (with thirty-two both years) and once for runs batted in (126). He was named to the league's All-Star team six straight years (1949–1954).

After retiring from the Major Leagues at the age of thirty-seven, Doby played for two years with the Chunichi Dragons in Japan's Central League. Later he became a batting coach for the Montreal Expos and Chicago White Sox and was briefly the Sox manager in 1978. For several years he was the director of community relations for the New York Nets basketball team and special assistant to the American League president. In 1998 Doby was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Doby's playing statistics did not match those of the game's top players, but his importance as a pioneer in the integration of baseball was rivaled only by that of Jackie Robinson. His old mentor Veeck had assessed Doby's career in 1962: "If Larry had come up just a little later, when things were just a little better, he might very well have become one of the greatest players of all time."

The best source on Doby is Joseph Thomas Moore, Pride Against Prejudice: The Biography of Larry Doby (1988). Doby is the subject of a chapter in Bill Veeck's entertaining memoir, written with Ed Linn, Veeck—As in Wreck (1962). His record in African-American baseball is covered in Dick Clark and Larry Lester, eds., The Negro Leagues Book (1994), and James A. Riley, Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (1994). Doby's record in the big leagues is cited in the fourth edition of The Baseball Encyclopedia (1979), and the John Thorn et al., eds., Total Baseball, 6th ed. (1999).

Robert W. Peterson