Doby, Larry (1923—)

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Doby, Larry (1923—)

African-American baseball player Larry Doby was an unlikely Civil Rights pioneer. Unlike Major League Baseball's first Black player, Jackie Robinson, Doby was "shy, quiet, and unassuming"; he'd grown up in integrated Patterson, New Jersey, attended predominantly white Long Island University and lived a life far more sheltered from the stings and arrows of racial prejudice than the vast majority of African Americans. Yet it was Doby, even more than Jackie Robinson, whose courage and determination helped transform Major League Baseball into a national pastime for people of all races. In 1947, Doby became the first African-American player in the American League; he was also the first player to jump straight from the Negro Leagues to the majors. He later integrated Japanese baseball in 1962 and went on to become the sport's second Black manager and one of its first African-American executives. However it was in his role as the second Black player in baseball that Doby had his most significant impact on professional athletics. His Major League debut demonstrated to the American public that Jackie Robinson's entrance into white baseball was not a publicity stunt and that Black players were destined to become permanent fixtures in Major League Baseball.

When integration-minded Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck sought to sign a Black player in 1947, the Newark Eagle's Doby appeared to be the obvious choice. The twenty-two year old Doby, a former high school football and basketball star, led the Negro National League with a batting average of.458 and thirteen home runs. He was the top Black prospect who had not already signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers (After Jackie Robinson's successful debut, the Dodgers had acquired several other talented African Americans for their minor league clubs). Veeck, unlike the Dodgers' general manager Branch Rickey, was determined to integrate his organization from the top down. On July 5, 1947, he purchased Doby's contract from the Eagles for $10,000. Three hours later, he sent the surprised young athlete onto the field as a pinch hitter against the Chicago White Sox. This courageous decision, coming without warning, drew 20,000 letters of protest from irate fans.

Doby's sudden entrance into the majors relieved much of the pressure on the Dodgers' Robinson. Both men faced extraordinary pressures that first season, including open hostility from teammates and opposition players, and they formed a close relationship that endured through their lifetimes. Upon Doby signing, Robinson stated, "I no longer have the feeling that if I don't make good, it will kill the chances of other Negro players." Doby's debut opened the way for three more Blacks to enter the majors within a month and made it clear that baseball was on a permanent course toward integration. His presence on the Indians also contributed to the more general cause of Civil Rights for African Americans when Washington's exclusive Hotel Statler, formerly whites-only, permitted Doby to room with his team.

After a rough first season in which he batted only.156 in a limited thirty at-bats, Doby found his stride and became one of the game's marquee figures. In 1948, he batted an impressive.301 with 14 homeruns and 65 runs batted in. He led the Indians to a victory over the Boston Braves in the World Series, becoming the first African American to play on a World Series Champion team. He later led the American league in home runs in 1952 and again in 1954. When he retired after thirteen seasons with the Indians, White Sox, and Detroit Tigers, he had a formidable career batting average of.283 and 253 lifetime homeruns. For these achievements, he was elected to Base-ball's Hall of Fame in 1998.

Long after Major League baseball had fully integrated, Doby continued to be a pioneer among Black athletes. In 1962, he became one of the first Blacks to play professional baseball in Japan. He returned to the United States and served in several administrative jobs with the Montreal Expos, Indians, and White Sox. He became the Indians' manager in 1978—after Frank Robinson, the second African American ever to manager a Major League club. He later returned to executive duties as a special assistant to Dr. Gene Budig, the President of the America League. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s—when Blacks were welcome on the baseball field and in the stands but not in the front office—Doby continued to push for expanded opportunities for African Americans.

After Jackie Robinson's death, the "Silk City Slugger" became a living symbol of the early Civil Rights movement. He is indisputably the most popular player in the history of the Cleveland Indians and, along with later Black stars Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, continues to be one of baseball's chief attractions at special events and Old Timers' games.

—Jacob M. Appel

Further Reading:

Boundreau, Lou, with Ed Fitzgerald. Player-Manager. Boston, Little Brown, 1952.

Frommer, Harvey. Rickey and Robinson: The Men Who Broke Baseball's Color Barrier. New York, Macmillan, 1960.

Moore, Joseph Thomas. Pride Against Prejudice: The Biography of Larry Doby. New York, Greenwood Press, 1988.

Tygiel, Jules. Baseball's Great Experiment. New York, Oxford, 1997.

Veeck, Bill. Veeck—As in Wreck: The Autobiography of Bill Veeck. New York, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1962

Young, Andrew "Doc." Great Negro Baseball Stars and How They Made The Major Leagues. New York, A. S. Barnes, 1953.