Larry Doby had the double challenge of becoming the second African American player to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier as a player and as a manager.
Doby, a seven-time All-Star, hit .283 with 253 home runs and 969 RBI in his 13-year career in the major leagues. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998 after selection by the Veterans’ Committee.
Born in Camden, S.C. on December 13, 1923, Doby experienced loss at the age of eight years old when his father died. His father, a semipro baseball player, drowned in an accident. Doby’s introduction to baseball came through the used of broom sticks for bats and tin cans for balls. When he turned 14, he moved to Patterson, N.J. to be reunited with his mother.
He was an athletic star in high school and was offered a basketball scholarship to attend Long Island University. At the age of 17, he received a tryout with the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues. He joined the Eagles and played under the name of Larry Walker to protect his amateur status. According to AP reports, his first game came at Yankee Stadium.
His career in the Negro Leagues was interrupted by two years of service in the Navy.
He continued to play baseball in the Navy and heard the announcement to Jackie Robinson had signed with the Dodgers over Armed Forces Radio. Doby left the Navy in 1946 and played a season in Puerto Rico before returning to the Newark Eagles.
Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck tried to integrate baseball in 1942 but the effort failed. He told a reporter he was hoping to integrate the Indians’ roster and the reporter told him about Doby. Scouts in the Indians organization agreed and Veeck signed Doby. He also decided to keep Doby with the team instead of sending him to the minor leagues..
Toby joined the Cleveland Indians on July 5, 1947, 11 weeks after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
”It was tough on him,” said Bob Feller, a Hall of Famer and teammate of Doby with the Cleveland Indians. “Larry was very sensitive, more so than (Jackie) Robinson or Satchel Paige or Luke Easter or some of the other players who came over from the Negro Leagues. He was completely different from Jackie as a player. He was aggressive, but not like Jackie was.”
Doby was slowly introduced to fans that season and played in just 29 games that first season, collecting just five hits in 32 at-bats. The next season, he began to make his mark, hitting .301 with 14 home runs and 66 RBIs.
Robinson and Doby took their roles of being baseball pioneers very seriously. In the “Autobiography of Baseball,” Doby talks about how he would call talk to Robinson and discuss the issues the two were facing.
“Jackie and I talked often… maybe we kept each other from giving up,” he was quoted as saying in a Los Angeles Times article in 1974.
“The only difference [was] that Jackie Robinson got all of the publicity,” Doby was quoted as saying. “You didn’t hear much about what I was going through because the media didn’t want to repeat the same story. I couldn’t react to (prejudicial) situations from a physical standpoint. My reaction was to hit the ball as far as I could.”
When Bill Veeck took over the ownership of the Cleveland Indians, he offered some advice to Doby.
“He sat me down and told me some of the do’s and don’ts,” Doby was quoted as saying in an AP article. “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.”
Doby was signed by the Indians when he was 22 years old and two years later he hit a home run in Game 4 of the World Series. He hit .318 in that series and reports say to 10,000 greeted him — both white and black — when he returned to Patterson, N.J., after the season.
Some of Doby’s career accomplishments:
- He led the American League in home runs in 1952 and 1954, hitting 32 in each season. In 1954, he led the league with 126 RBI.
- In 1949, he joined Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe as baseball’s first black All-Stars. He played in six straight All-Star games.
- Doby ended his major league career in 1959 with the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox. He played briefly in Japan and he later coached with the White Sox, Indians and Expos. In 1978, he became the second black manager in the major leagues (following Frank Robinson).
- He was the first player born in South Carolina to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
- He also worked for the commissioner’s office and he worked with the NBA’s New Jersey Nets as director of community relations.
- Doby and his wife, Helyn, had five children. She died of cancer in 2001.
In an interview in the Houston Chronicle, Doby looked back on his career in baseball and the fight for racial equality.
“After you look back at the progress that’s been made and the minorities involved in baseball, you can’t think about the bad things that happened to you in ’47,” Doby said. “It was all worth it. Baseball has come a long way. If I had something to do with it, I’m proud. My only hope is that this whole world would have come as far as baseball.”
On July 3, 1994, his No. 14 was retired by the Indians — 47 years after he broke the color barrier.
Doby died on June 18, 2003 in Montclair, N.J. after a long illness. He was 79.
Sources: Historic Baseball & AP obituary; Autobiography of Baseball
For more on Larry Doby: