Doby, Lawrence Eugene (“Larry”)

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Doby, Lawrence Eugene (“Larry”)

(b. 13 December 1923 in Camden, South Carolina; d. 18 June 2003 in Montclair, New Jersey), first African American to play baseball in the American League.

Doby was born in a racially segregated area that was the winter home of wealthy northerners who brought their horses south to escape the cold. His grandfather, Burrell Doby, born a slave, appears as a sharecropper in the U.S. census of 1880, four years after federal troops withdrew from the region. By the time of his death, Doby’s grandfather owned twenty-three acres and had fathered eight children. One of his sons, David Doby, became a stable hand, spending part of the year in South Carolina and part in New York State. David Doby served in the U.S. Army during World War I and married Etta Brooks in 1922 but later left the family. Etta Doby moved to Paterson, New Jersey, to work as a maid, and Lawrence, who was then called Bubba, stayed in South Carolina with his maternal grandmother, Augusta Brooks. Doby came to believe that his name was Bubba Brooks.

Doby’s life changed dramatically in the summer of 1934. When his grandmother was institutionalized, his mother placed him with her married sister-in-law, Alice Lytelle Doby Cooke. In Cooke’s home, at the age of eleven, Doby learned his true name. Doby’s mother brought her son to Paterson in 1936, following the pattern of thousands of African Americans who brought their children north from the segregated South. Doby lived with friends of his mother’s while she worked as a live-in maid six days a week in nearby Ridgewood, New Jersey. Doby attended Paterson’s integrated but predominantly white schools. At Eastside High School, Doby excelled in football, basketball, baseball, and track, winning eleven varsity letters on state championship teams. After graduation from Eastside in June 1942, Doby enrolled on a basketball scholarship at Long Island University, then a national power in that sport. To prolong his deferment from military service, Doby transferred to all-black Virginia Union University and joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps with the hope of avoiding the military draft. The plan did not work, and Doby entered the U.S. Navy late in the winter of 1943.

For the first time as an adult, Doby found himself in a racially segregated setting. The navy recognized Doby’s athletic talent and assigned him to be a physical training instructor for new African-American sailors. While serving on the island of Ulithi in the South Pacific in October 1945, Doby learned that the Brooklyn Dodgers had signed Jackie Robinson to a contract to play for the Montreal (Quebec) Royals of the International League in 1946. Upon his discharge from the navy in January 1946, Doby resumed his professional baseball career, which he had begun with the Newark (New Jersey) Eagles of the Negro National League in high school, using the name Larry Walker to protect his amateur status. Doby married Helyn Curvy on 10 August 1946, and the couple had five children.

Doby joined the San Juan Senators in Puerto Rico for two months of winter baseball and then went to spring training with the Eagles in Jacksonville, Florida, to begin the 1946 season. The Eagles were one of Negro baseball’s premier teams. With Doby at second base and the future Hall of Famers Monte Irvin, Leon Day, and Ray Dandridge in the lineup, the Eagles defeated Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League in seven games in the 1946 Negro World Series. All eyes were on Montreal, however, where Robinson won the International League batting title with an average of .349 and seemed destined to play in the National League with Brooklyn in 1947.

In 1947 Doby led the Eagles to the first-half championship of the Negro National League. His fourteen home runs and .458 batting average were the best statistics in the league. On 4 July 1947, during a doubleheader at Ruppert Stadium in Newark, rumors surfaced that Doby would leave the Eagles to join the Cleveland Indians of the American League. In his final at bat for the Eagles, Doby hit a home run. Before the start of the second game of the doubleheader, Doby accepted gifts from his teammates. He then left the ballpark to board an overnight train to Chicago, where the Indians were playing the White Sox.

Doby met Bill Veeck, the president of the Indians, in the backseat of a taxi on the morning of 5 July 1947 and within hours had signed a contract for $5,000 to play for Cleveland. Doby then went to the Comiskey Park clubhouse to meet his surprised manager, Lou Boudreau, and his new teammates, whose reactions ranged from indifferent to resentful. With the Indians trailing with a 5–1 score in the seventh inning, Boudreau sent Doby to the plate as a pinch hitter. Thus Doby broke the color barrier in the American League just eleven weeks after Robinson had broken it in the National League. On a 2–2 pitch, Doby struck out, but he had joined Robinson as a pioneer in the civil rights movement in the United States.

Unlike Robinson, who had full-time status with the Dodgers, owing to the careful planning of the president and general manager Branch Rickey, Doby sat on the bench for most of the rest of the 1947 season. He batted only .156 in thirty-two times at bat and played in the field only six times. While living in segregated housing in Tucson, Arizona, during spring training in 1948, Doby began a new career as an outfielder. When the legendary player Satchel Paige became Doby’s roommate and teammate in July 1948, Doby’s skills in center field and his batting average improved. After Labor Day in 1948, Doby batted .396 to lead Cleveland to a season-ending tie for first place with the Boston Red Sox. In the first playoff game in American League history, Doby hit two doubles and scored a run as Cleveland scored a 6–3 victory to win the pennant.

Doby played a significant role in the World Series against the National League champion Boston Braves. Cleveland won the fourth game of the series 2–1 as the result of Doby’s home run, the first to be hit by an African American in the World Series. A photograph taken in the clubhouse after the game captured Doby and the winning pitcher, Steve Gromek, embracing. Its publication in newspapers the following day marked the first time a black and a white major league baseball player, both in jubilant smiles, appeared together in the nation’s press. The photograph became Doby’s most prized baseball memento, whereas Gromek went home to the disapproval of his friends in Hamtramck, Michigan.

Doby went on to a thirteen-year, 1,533-game career in the American League. He compiled a lifetime batting average of .283 with 253 home runs and 970 runs batted in while playing for Cleveland, the Detroit Tigers, and the White Sox. In 1952 Doby led the league in runs scored, home runs, and batting percentage. In 1954, the year the Indians lost the World Series to the New York Giants in four games, Doby led the league in home runs and runs batted in. In 1955 Doby set the league record at that time for outfielders by playing in 158 straight games without committing an error. From 1949 to 1954 Doby played in six consecutive All-Star games. He made the 1955 All-Star team but did not play. In his final season in 1959, after again enduring segregated quarters in spring training, this time with the Chicago White Sox in Florida, Doby played in only twenty-one games.

Doby’s mark on baseball and on history was not over when he stopped playing in the American League. In 1962 Doby became the second former major league player, after Don Newcombe, to play professional baseball in Japan, with the Chunichi Dragons of Nagoya. An injured ankle, however, forced Doby’s retirement as an active player after only one season in Japan. After serving as the first base coach with the newly formed Montreal Expos of the National League from 1969 to 1976, Doby twice became a prospect for major league manager: with the Expos and with the Cleveland Indians. After the Indians in 1975 named Frank Robinson as the first African American to manage a major league team, Doby again joined Bill Veeck, who had become the owner of the Chicago White Sox. Doby became a coach for the White Sox in 1977 and, at mid-season in 1978, replaced Bob Lemon as the manager, becoming the second African American to manage a major league team. After the season ended, Veeck, hoping to increase attendance, replaced Doby with Don Kessinger, who had been a popular shortstop with the crosstown rival Chicago Cubs.

In recognition of his career as a player, coach, manager, and racial pioneer, the National Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York, inducted Doby into membership in 1998. Before Doby died, Montclair State University awarded him an honorary doctorate, the state of New Jersey named a highway in his honor, and the Cleveland Indians retired his number. The city of Paterson erected a statue of Doby in Eastside Park, where Doby had first demonstrated his athletic skills as a high school student, and named the park’s baseball field after him.

The Dobys had been married almost fifty-seven years when Helyn Doby died in 2001. Doby himself died of cancer on 18 June 2003 in Montclair, New Jersey, and was cremated. Unlike the charismatic and fiery Jackie Robinson and the comedic Satchel Paige, Doby preferred to be “plain me,” playing the game and conducting himself in a quiet manner that nevertheless helped to break down America’s racial barriers.

For information about Doby’s life and career, see Joseph Thomas Moore, Pride against Prejudice: The Biography of Larry Doby (1989). Particular aspects of Doby’s career are described in Andrew Sturgeon Nash Young, Great Negro Baseball Stars, and How They Made the Major Leagues (1953). John Thorn and Pete Palmer, eds., Total Baseball, 3rd ed. (1993), has a section on Negro League players and contains complete statistics on African Americans who played in the major leagues. Obituaries are in the New York Times (19 June 2003) and Jet (7 July 2003).

Joseph Thomas Moore