Baseball should honor Larry Doby, another pioneer in integrating the sport
On July 5, 1947, the unassuming 22-year-old joined the Cleveland Indians and played at Comiskey Park, the first Black player in the American League. Every July 5, AL players should wear his No. 14.
Seventy-five years ago, on a cloudy day in Comiskey Park, Larry Doby stepped out of the shadows into an exclusionary world. On that day — July 5, 1947 — the unassuming 22-year-old Paterson, New Jersey native joined the Cleveland Indians (now Guardians).
Only 24 hours earlier, Doby had hit a home run in his last at-bat for the Newark Eagles in the Negro Leagues, whose plucky existence emanated from apartheid in America’s pastime.
Doby’s contract had been unexpectedly sold for $10,000 by Newark owner Effa Manley to Bill Veeck, Cleveland’s maverick owner. With no clue what lay ahead, Doby took a cab to Comiskey with Veeck. He started the game on the bench, surrounded by Chicago plainclothes policemen. In the seventh inning, Doby was called to pinch-hit, and struck out.
So began his enduring niche in history as the first Black player to integrate the American Leagues. Yet his legacy remains in the shadows, if not near-obscurity.
Eleven weeks before Doby’s debut, Jackie Robinson had broken baseball’s color barrier when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, the first Black player to compete in the modern major leagues. Robinson would emerge into a civil rights icon, a larger-than-life hero whose No. 42 is now retired by every major league team.
Yet Doby, who died at 79 in 2003, is baseball’s forgotten racial pioneer. If Robinson’s “great experiment” made integration a fact, Doby’s profile in courage made it a sure thing. It’s time Major League Baseball finally recognizes — as it belatedly recognized the Negro League as a major league one year ago — Doby’s immeasurable contributions in forging racial equality.
Every American League player should wear his No. 14 every July 5.
Robinson’s book “I Never Had It Made” could’ve easily been about Doby. He endured the same pressures and vulgar racism, also barred from his team’s hotels and restaurants. When Doby joined Cleveland, several teammates refused to shake his hand. Opponents spat on him. Veeck received 20,000 hate letters for signing Doby, who played in segregated Washington, D.C. and St. Louis, and throughout the South during spring training games.
Doby remembered bench jockeys yelling, “You’re not supposed to be in this league. You’re supposed to be in that bush league with that other n—.” The racism even extended to his wife, Helyn, who could not get her newborn baby a drink of water in a Tucson hotel.
Robinson and Doby had strikingly similar backgrounds. Both were four-sport standouts, served during World War II, attended college, played briefly in the Negro Leagues. They spoke often during their first year in the majors. Yet Doby’s travails were significantly overshadowed by Robinson’s, who played in New York City, the epicenter of baseball during the post-war era. Doby was a quiet man, a marked contrast to Robinson’s brash outspokenness.
Yet his grace and dignity impacted racial progress almost a decade before the civil rights movement. As Ebony magazine noted in its May 1949 issue, “Although Robinson pioneered in the majors, probably Doby has been a more important factor in sending club owners into the chase for Negro talent.”
Doby — who was also the second Black manager in baseball history, for the Chicago White Sox — scarcely received proper acclaim as a racial pioneer or for his on-field excellence. He was a seven-time All-Star who averaged 27 homers a year over a decade in Cleveland. Still, it took nearly three decades before he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
One of Doby’s proudest moments in baseball came in 1948, the same year President Harry Truman banned segregation in the armed forces. After becoming the first Black player to hit a home run (and win) a World Series for Cleveland, Doby was joyously embraced by teammate and winning pitcher Steve Gromek. The photo of a white man hugging a Black man appeared in newspapers across the country, sparking outrage in many quarters. To Doby it was a picture of acceptance.
“That’s what America is all about, or what it’s supposed to be about,” he said years later. “I think I feel as good about that photograph as anything.”
Doby was born in the segregated south, but his worldview emerged growing up in a mixed neighborhood in Paterson in the late 1930s and ‘40s. He captained his integrated high school teams, where his fondest athletic memories came playing at nearby Hinchliffe Stadium.
An original Negro Leagues ballpark built in 1932, Hinchliffe is now undergoing a major renovation to restore its former communal glory. The project will also include a small museum to honor Doby, the city’s hometown hero.
Long overdue, Major League Baseball should do the same, to indelibly honor Jackie Robinson’s partner in the integration of baseball.
Dave Kaplan, the founding director of the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center, is an adjunct professor at Montclair State (New Jersey) University. Joseph Thomas Moore is an emeritus professor in history at Montclair State and the author of Larry Doby’s biography, “Pride Against Prejudice.”
The Sun-Times welcomes letters to the editor and op-eds from readers. See our guidelines.