The Underappreciated Legacy of Larry Doby

This is Shakeia Taylor’s third piece as part of her April Residency at FanGraphs. Shakeia is an avid baseball fan and baseball history enthusiast. Her main interests include the Negro Leagues and women in baseball. She has written for The Hardball Times and Complex. She hosts an annual charity bartending fundraiser for Jackie Robinson Day, all of tips and raffle proceeds of which are donated to the Jackie Robinson Foundation. Though not from Baltimore, she’s still an Elite Giant. Shakeia can also be found on Twitter (@curlyfro). She’ll be contributing here this month.

A statue of Doby outside Cleveland’s Progressive Field.
(Photo: Erik Drost)

Larry Doby entered the league 11 weeks after Jackie Robinson’s debut, making him the second Black player in Major League Baseball. Ever. The second person to do something is often forgotten. This past weekend, MLB’s 30 teams celebrated Jackie Robinson Day, marking Robinson’s debut in 1947. No such day is designated to celebrate Doby’s career. Indeed, Doby’s legacy has often been overshadowed by Jackie’s, but it is one that deserves to be remembered on its own.

Lawrence Eugene Doby was born on December 13th in Camden, South Carolina. As is common for many born in that time, it is unclear precisely in what year he was born, 1923 or 1924. His birthday is listed differently depending on the source. In what this writer would like to think was the universe acting on his behalf, Larry’s father, David, met his future wife, Etta, while playing baseball on the street in front of her home. During his early years, Doby spent much of his time with his grandmother due to his parents’ marital issues. When Larry was eight years old, his father died. Four years later, Etta and her young son moved to Paterson, New Jersey.

In Paterson, Doby was a multi-sport athlete, achieving success in baseball, basketball, football, and track. He even played baseball for the Smart Sets, a Black semi-pro team, during summer breaks from school. As a senior in high school, he accepted a basketball scholarship at Long Island University-Brooklyn. But before he enrolled, at age 17, he joined Abe and Effa Manley’s Newark Eagles.

Many speculated during his Negro Leagues career that it would possibly be Doby, and not Jackie, who would break the color barrier. Jackie bested him by three months, but Doby circumvented the minor leagues entirely. Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck finalized a deal for Doby with Effa Manley, the Eagles’ business manager, on July 3, 1947. He paid her a total of $15,000 — $10,000 for taking him from the Eagles and another $5,000 once it was determined he would stay with Cleveland for at least 30 days.

Doby was regarded as “a Negro good enough to play major league ball,” writes Dr. Louis Moore in an article titled “Doby Does It! Larry Doby, Race, and American Democracy in Post World-War II America” from the Journal of Sport History. On July 5, with Cleveland on the road in Chicago, he made his debut against the White Sox in the first game of a doubleheader. In his only at-bat of the game, he struck out. Though he started the second game of the double-header, he would not start another the rest of the season. While good play is no guard against a determined racist — Robinson enjoyed a successful debut and still received terrible treatment from fans and players — Doby’s struggles brought out white opposition. Like Jackie, Doby wasn’t allowed to stay in the same hotels or eat in the same restaurants as his team. He was subjected to racial slurs from fans, opposing players, and even teammates. He was called “coon,” “jigaboo,” and “nigger.” Opposing players would spit in his face when he slid into second base.

Moore notes that,

[b]y the end of the year, his batting average dipped to a dismal .156, and many white fans claimed Doby did not have the goods. For whites, he became a symbol of the limitations of economic integration in post-World War II America. In other words, Doby took work away from a white man.

By all accounts, including his own, Doby took the racism he faced and channeled it into aggression on the field. He admitted that sometimes that aggression meant he swung too hard and missed a pitch. Despite his place in history, Doby felt lonely and isolated. “There’s something in the Bible that says you should forgive and forget,” Doby told the New York Post in 1999. “Well, you might forgive. But boy, it is tough to forget.” However, he was undeterred.

Doby went on to have a successful major-league career. In attempt to make Doby more comfortable in his second season, Veeck removed five players from the team who had been “discourteous” to him. Doby played the outfield full time and batted .301, becoming a major contributor to Cleveland’s pennant victory. He was the first African-American to hit a home run in the World Series, a series that Cleveland went on to win. Doby ultimately became a seven-time All-Star and put together five 100-RBI and eight 20-home-run seasons. In 1978, the same man who gave him his shot as a player in the major leagues hired him to manage his Chicago White Sox, making Doby just the second African-American manager in major-league history.

Doby recalled in a 1997 New York Times interview:

When Mr. Veeck signed me, he sat me down and told me some of the do’s and don’ts. He said, ‘Lawrence’ — he’s the only person who called me Lawrence — ‘you are going to be part of history.’ Part of history? I had no notions about that. I just wanted to play baseball. I mean, I was young. I didn’t quite realize then what all this meant. I saw it simply as an opportunity to get ahead. Mr. Veeck told me: ‘No arguing with umpires, don’t even turn around at a bad call at the plate, and no dissertations with opposing players; either of those might start a race riot. No associating with female Caucasians’ — not that I was going to. And he said remember to act in a way that you know people are watching you. And this was something that both Jack and I took seriously. We knew that if we didn’t succeed, it might hinder opportunities for other Afro-Americans.”

In the summer of 2014, Cleveland unveiled a statue of Jim Thome before one was erected for Larry Doby. It was an act many Cleveland fans — and some baseball fans outside of Ohio — viewed as an injustice, not because Thome is undeserving, but because Doby’s should’ve come first. According to Moore, Doby was not just a symbol of hope for Clevelanders, or a good player, but a “reflection of the struggle for economic opportunities.” Black Cleveland residents were fighting for the passage of a Fair Employment Practice Committee law at the same time Doby joined the local ball club.

The FEPC was created after World War II by executive order. It was meant to be an organization in charge of ensuring that private companies that received government contracts for military work did not discriminate on the basis of color. But companies that failed to comply received relatively light penalties that only applied to military spending. Cleveland’s Black population had grown tremendously after the Second Great Migration, and the fight there centered around a desire for more FEPC legislation at federal, state, and local levels. After Doby was signed, local legislators agreed to support FEPC legislation and sent a letter to Veeck for his acquisition of the young outfielder. One could say Doby helped advance with the progress of civil rights in Cleveland both on and off the field.

An unsigned editorial that ran on page 14 of the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Friday, July 4, 1947 titled, “Pulling for Larry Doby” read:

President Bill Veeck of the Cleveland Indians made news again yesterday by buying the clever infielder, Larry Doby, from the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League. Veeck is the first American League owner to sign a Negro player. The Brooklyn Dodgers established the precedent by bringing up Jackie Robinson this year from Montreal. Manager Lou Boudreau, we believe, expressed the sentiments of Cleveland fans by saying that “creed, race or color are not factors in baseball success — ability and character are the only things that count. Negroes have risen to stardom in the other sports. If given the opportunity they will do so in baseball. Veeck deserves to be congratulated. The fans will be pulling for Larry Doby to make good.

“He said he never got booed in Cleveland,” Larry Doby Jr. told an interviewer. Not only was Cleveland important to Larry, but Larry was, and is, important to Cleveland.

Robinson broke the color barrier alone, but men like Doby joined the fight for acceptance and respect, and a place for those who would follow them. No telling of baseball’s story is complete until legacies like his are remembered. Larry Doby died of cancer in Montclair, New Jersey, on June 18, 2003. Despite being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998, he still doesn’t get the credit he deserves. “Jack and I had very similar experiences,” Doby told the Times in 1997. “And I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t want people to remember my participation.” It is essential to the health of major-league Baseball, even today, that we honor Doby’s wish.

Shakeia Taylor is a writer based in Chicago. Her work focuses on the intersection of Black culture and sport in America.

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5 years ago

Very nice piece