Forgotten Heroes: Larry Doby

Forgotten Heroes: Larry Doby

On April 15, 1947 in Brooklyn, New York, the
great Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier and became the first African-American in 67
years to play in the Major Leagues. (Yes, Robinson was not the first, as is often
stated.) Less than three months later, on July 5, 1947
in Cleveland, Ohio, Larry Doby became the second African-American ball player break
the color barrier, and the first on an American League team. Although history tends to forget Doby’s
much-less hyped debut and subsequent stellar performance, his life, career, and path to
the majors were just as interesting and courageous as Robinson’s. As Dave Anderson wrote in a 1987 New York
Times article, “In glorifying those who are first, the second is often forgotten … Larry
Doby integrated all those American League ball parks where Jackie Robinson never appeared. And he did it with class and clout.” Records point to Larry Doby being the grandson
of Burrell Doby, a South Carolina native who was born into slavery in 1852. There are few other records (if any at all)
of Burrell Doby until the US Census of 1880, where he appears as a freeman and a sharecropper
in a town near Camden. It was around this time when he and his wife
gave birth to David Doby, Larry’s father. Through David’s childhood, the Dobys were
one of the more successful black families in the region. As a teen, David worked as a stable hand and
later joined the Army to fight in World War I, serving for five months before being honorably
discharged. After the war, David again groomed horses,
but in his free time he took up another hobby – playing baseball. He was good too, playing semi-pro ball and
according to Richard DuBose who was involved in black baseball for over a half century,
David was “the greatest hitter I ever saw.” David met Etta Brooks, his soon-to-be-wife
and mother to Larry, through baseball as well. David, walking through town, spotted Etta
smacking a long home run in a game on the street in front of her parents’ house. It seemed Larry got the baseball genes from
his parents. Lawrence “Larry” Doby was born on December
13, 1923 in Camden, South Carolina at Etta’s mother’s (known as “Miss ‘gusta”)
house. Given the nickname “Bubba,” Larry lived
with his grandmother when his parents separated. He still saw both parents, but that changed
when “Bubba” was eight. In 1931, David Doby drowned when he fell out
of his fishing boat. The rough few years continued when “Bubba”
was forced to move in with an Aunt and Uncle when Miss ‘gusta fell ill. He eventually moved with his mother to Paterson,
New Jersey where he began to excel at sports. At Paterson Eastside High, Larry (shedding
his childhood nickname) was a three-sport star in football, basketball, and baseball. At his school, there were only a few African-American
students and he had just one as a teammate (in basketball). While in high school, Doby was known as a
hard-worker, mild-mannered, and quiet. He was also a star, helping the school win
multiple state championships, including one in football (Larry played wide receiver). Upon winning, the team was invited to play
a game in Florida, but the tournament hosts told them that Larry could not play due to
the color of his skin. The team, in a show of support, refused to
play the match. During the summers, Larry played semi-pro
baseball and basketball, thriving in the former (he was an unpaid substitute in basketball
for the Harlem Renaissance). He graduated and earned an athletic scholarship
at Long Island University to play basketball under legendary coach Claire Bee. He never played college baseball because the
famed Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues signed him to play for $300 (about $4200 today) in
1942. Attempting to preserve his amateur status
and keep his future options open, he played under a fake name, “Larry Walker.” With the country at war, Larry joined the
US Navy in 1943 and was assigned to be a physical education instructor. He bounced around stateside, before being
sent overseas to the Pacific Island of Ulithi. He loved baseball, but saw more of a financially
secure future as a teacher or coach so planned to pursue that after the war. However, when in October of 1945 Jackie Robinson
signed a contract with the Montreal Royals of the International League, it became more
plausible that Larry could earn good money – major league money – playing pro ball. Said Larry years later, “Growing up in a
segregated society, you couldn’t have thought that that was the way it was gonna be. There was no bright spot as far as looking
at baseball until Mr. Robinson got the opportunity to play in Montreal in ’46.” He was honorably discharged from the Navy
in January of 1946 and went back to play for the Newark Eagles. There, he was again the star, along with future
Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, on the team that won the Negro League World Series. Doby could hit, field, and run. Plus, at only 23, he was young – a good
six years younger than Jackie Robinson. It was no surprise to anyone that he was the
top candidate to be the second African-American in that era to get a shot at the Majors. Major League Baseball was ready for change,
especially since former baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis had died in 1944. Mean, bullying, and unabashedly racist (not
to mention sexist, banning 17 year old Virnett Beatrice “Jackie” Mitchell from the Major
and Minor Leagues, voiding her contract in the process, after she struck out Babe Ruth
and Lou Gehrig back to back on just six total pitches), Landis was a most ardent opponent
to integration. And as commissioner, he was the boss. So, when he died and Happy Chandler took over
as commissioner, things could only get better. Even though Chandler was a Southerner – he
was a former Kentucky Senator – he was relatively progressive. Chandler approved Robinson’s contract in
1947 and explained that Robinson’s service to his country in the War was enough for him-
“If a black boy could make it on Okinawa and Guadalcanal, he could make it in baseball… I don’t believe in barring Negroes from
baseball just because they are Negroes.” Chandler would go on to be the governor of
Kentucky in the late 1950s, where he forced the public schools there to integrate. Bill Veeck, the unique owner of the Cleveland
Indians, had proposed integrating baseball in 1942, but was quickly turned down by Landis. After Robinson’s opening day with the Dodgers,
Veeck acted quickly. He intensely scouted the Negro Leagues and
between Doby’s skill set, temperament, and youth, he knew who he was going to sign. Veeck’s strategy was different than Branch
Rickey’s (the man who signed Robinson for the Dodgers), though. He didn’t want Doby to play in the minors,
but rather to start right in the majors- no small task. He also insisted on paying for Doby’s rights
from the Newark Eagles, ten grand (about $102,000 today), plus an extra five grand when he remained
in the majors for a month. Rickey never paid Robinson’s former team
a dime. On July 3, 1947, Veek signed Larry Doby to
a contract, but allowed him to play one more game with the Newark Eagles (where he hit
a home run) before taking a train to Cleveland. On July 5, 1947, Larry Doby joined his new
team and, just like as happened to Robinson, the reception wasn’t great. Several new teammates, including reportedly
Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller, turned their back to him and refused to shake hands. Doby stated of meeting his new teammates,
“I walked down that line, stuck out my hand, and very few hands came back in return. Most of the ones that did were cold-fish handshakes,
along with a look that said, ‘You don’t belong here.’” It wasn’t until second baseman Joe Gordon
tossed Doby a ball and asked him to play catch that the tension subsided somewhat and he
was allowed to take part in warm-ups. Gordon would go on to be Doby’s best friend
on the team for years to come. Doby didn’t start that game. In fact, he would start only one game all
season, but he did get to pinch hit, the first time striking out. His performance that season was not good,
no doubt hurt by lack of playing time (only given 33 plate appearances), being asked to
play a new position he’d never played before, being put directly in the Majors, and of course
all the while with death threats reigning down. He was also somewhat segregated from his teammates,
generally not even allowed to stay at the same hotel as the team. In the end, he batted just .156 with a .182
on base percentage and a .188 slugging in his extremely limited playing time. Despite calls from the media and some in the
community for Doby to be removed from the team, both he and Veek paid little attention. That season Jackie Robinson and Doby also
frequently spoke on the telephone to help keep each others’ spirits up. When the season ended, Doby found other ways
to spend his time than listen to criticism – he played basketball. He signed a contract with his hometown team,
the Paterson Crescents of the American Basketball League. He was the first African-American player in
the league and possibly the first in all of professional basketball. There was some question going into the 1948
baseball season as to whether Doby should even make the team, given his poor performance
the season before, but he quickly silenced the doubters, reportedly even hitting close
to a 500 foot home run during spring training. Once the season started, and with a lot more
playing time (121 games and 500 plate appearances), Doby showed exactly what he could do, batting
.301, with a .384 on base percentage and 14 home runs, all while reportedly playing an
outstanding center field. With this performance, he helped the Cleveland
Indians win 97 games, as well as earn a chance to play for the championship in the World
Series against the Boston Braves. In the Series, with the Indians up two games
to one, Doby belted a third inning home run that made the score 2-1 Indians. The score would hold and the Indians would
win, taking a three game to one series lead. After the game, a photo was published in newspapers
across the country of Larry Doby joyfully embraced by the starting pitcher of the game
and white teammate, Steve Gromek. It has since become famous. To many, the picture represented acceptance,
racial tolerance, and the spirit of friendship. To Doby, that embrace meant so much more,
“That was feeling from within, the human side of two people, one black and one white. That made up for everything. I would always relate back to that whenever
I was insulted or rejected from hotels. I would always think about that picture. It would take away all the negatives.” After the season was over, a parade was thrown
in Paterson in Doby’s honor. Shortly thereafter, he attempted to use the
extra earnings from the post-season to buy a house in a white neighborhood in Paterson,
but was denied thanks to a petition from certain members of the community that had so recently
thrown him a parade. In the end, it took intervention from Paterson’s
mayor before he was able to buy a house there. As good as he was in 1948, Doby would be even
better in 1949, earning all-star honors while belting 24 home runs and hitting .280 with
a .384 on base percentage. The next season he topped that by a good margin
hitting 25 home runs with a .326 batting average and a .442 on base percentage. He would become an all-star seven times, hitting
253 home runs over his impressive injury shortened 13 year career (ultimately being forced to
bow out after nagging injuries, and eventually an X-ray revealing significant bone deterioration
in his ankle). But Doby’s accolades didn’t end with his
playing career, or with baseball, for that matter. In 1978, Bill Veeck hired him to manage the
Chicago White Sox. Doby once again came in second- baseball’s
second African-American manager (Hall of Famer Frank Robinson was the first when he managed
the Indians with Doby as the first base coach.) In 1980, NBA’s New Jersey Nets hired Doby
to be their director of communications, a post he would remain in until 1989. Nine years later, Doby was finally elected
to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Larry Doby died of cancer on June 18, 2003. Upon Doby’s death, former MLB Commissioner
Fay Vincent perhaps said it best when he stated, Larry’s role in history was recognized slowly
and belatedly. Jackie Robinson, who broke the color line
first but in the same year, quite naturally received most of the attention. Larry played out his career with dignity and
then slid gracefully into various front-office positions in basketball and… baseball. Only in the 90’s did baseball wake up to
the obvious fact that Larry was every bit as deserving of recognition as Jackie.


65 thoughts on “Forgotten Heroes: Larry Doby”


    Played baseball in high school I was shortstop and first baseman. Always enjoyed playing baseball but can't stand watching it.

  • I feel like any inflation adjustment does not translate well, instead you could say how long it took for the median middle class person in that area or in that profession took to earn that much money, or how many acres of land in their employment area they could buy at the time with their annual salary, or the average cost of rent in that city at that time for a 1 or 2 bedroom apartment. I feel that would translate much better.

  • As always, excellent video. However, Bill Veeck, though his last name was spelled with a double "e" was pronounced "VECK." He was nicknamed, "The Human Wreck" to rhyme with his last name.

  • Hermione3 Müller says:

    hey simon, could you please, please ,please stop using background music. i cannot understand a word you are saying because of some bakcground tones that hit painful freuencies all the time, your voice is beautiful and does not need to be distorted by such noise.

  • Christel Headington says:

    The 2016 World Series, brought back many memories. One of which was The Indian's 1948 win, when i was 2 yr.s old. I sat on my father knee at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium. The only thing I really remember was cheering my little lungs out, for "DOBY DOBY". It was, for me a fun name to shout.(My younger sister said, I likely remember it because people around me made a fuss over an adorable little fan.) Unrelated note: Didn't Landis look a lot like Dustin Hoffman?

  • … a very good and informative video, thank you … there is Hope, as long as we don't forget the past with its changes (for better pr worse) …

  • Love how Simon rattles off those stats like he has a clue what they mean. I wonder if he gets coaching from Daven–"OK, Simon, this is really impressive stat. State it like you just found out that your newest channel earned its silver play button just two weeks after launching."

  • Stephanie Elizabeth Mann says:

    I can't begin to understand how difficult, and different it is for black/African-American people. It's good to hear of the successes but they must come with so much pain.

  • loxxxton poxxxton says:

    Damn! The Simon almost got this one past me. How does a so called American talk English and present so many channels at the same time? It ain't natural! Where is the Simon?

  • "Even though he was a southerner.."
    The idea that racism was a southern issue is a myth. In fact the North was every bit as racist and the worst race riots of the civil rights era took place in places like Detroit and Minneapolis. Cities in the North had defacto segregation. Even if it wasn't a law, segregation was the cultural norm and standard practice in housing communities and banks.

  • kirby march barcena says:

    It is quite sad that it took more than three decades for the MLB to give Larry the recognition that he deserves

  • loxxxton poxxxton says:

    Devan can dress the Simon doll up in as many jumpers and outfits but the cracks still show. LET THE SIMON BE FREE.

  • I know this story is not really about the sport but I have zero interest when it comes to baseball, football, basketball, lacrosse. Yeah I'm not from the US

  • Oddly enough African Americans make up less of the percentage of the MLB in recent times. In 1981 African Americans made up 18.7% of the league. Starting this year only 8.5%. There are several reasons given for this drop including that African Americans prefer action sports such as football and basketball and find baseball too boring.

  • All of the time when I want to watch to one of simons others clips that he references to, and says "link down below" It is never obvious which one of the many links to your other clips in the description he is talking about. Why not put "this is the mentioned link" or similar? Every time I look for the link, it is not there. Please use the description simons uses in the clip, e.g "the real first black man" as the description to the link? annoying! Where is the direct link? you always have links to clips that are not mentioned, but not the Only one he talks about.

  • William Christopher says:

    Simon, your amazing.  Im 72 and a American from Kansas, and I don't understand 1/2 of what you said about pro baseball

  • Yeah, he's not forgotten you fucking nonce. This is as if an American made a video on a cricket player. Fuck off and comb your hair.

  • BariumCobaltNitrog3n says:

    The only black player on his basketball team. Wow. Now many teams only have one white player and thank you Jesus for that.

  • One of favorites players. In high school I also tried to raise awareness of Larry's contributions to towards race equality. He was a good man

  • What an amazing man, how black people of his generation managed to remain graceful to bigots, still is inexplicable to me.

  • Steve Swangler says:

    great video Simon, just one quick note, it's Veeck as in wreck, (the title of his autobiography). Bill Veeck, jr. (his father was also involved in baseball) lost a leg in WWII, and as a club owner was known for his promotional antics, he once sent a little person in to pinch hit, drawing a walk. his unconventional ways, such as wanting to buy the Phillies in 1943 and stockpile the team with stars from the Negro Leagues, drew scorn from other mlb owners. hence he was basically an outsider but a better man than most of the jackasses in his profession.
    Judge Kennesaw Mountian Landis was a scumbag. and the more I learn of Bob Feller, while he had the utmost talent, he lacked basic decency. once after being beaten in a barnstorming game by Negro League players, Rapid Robert could not bring himself to credit the men who defeated him.
    unfortunately, with as much progress as we have made since Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby made their courageous debuts in 1947, our current situation shows how far we still need to go. we now have nearly an entire republican party that defends and supports a racist misogynistic subhuman in our white house. this has given the racist terrorists of our nation a platform and the guts to come out in the open. we may have thought we defeated racism, but hate is never defeated completely.

  • Simon, ya gotta do a piece on The Shaggs, an all-girl group from the late 1960's that Frank Zappa said was better than The Beatles and whose studio-recorded debut album Kurt Cobain said was his 4th all time favorite. It isn't what you might think. Trust me on this one…one listen to My Pal Foot Foot and you will no longer view music the same way.

  • Hi Simon, really enjoyed this video. There was another African American by the name of Satchell (apologies if the spelling is wrong). He was apparently better than The Babe. Hark at me an English guy interested in Baseball.

  • The Cleveland Indians observe Larry Doby Day every July 5th. I was at the game 5 or so years ago when they unveiled the statue of the man which now permanently resides at Jacob's Field. (I still refuse to call the park any other name.)

  • That's so awesome, I've never heard of Larry Doby until this video. What a brave individual. Speaking of forgotten and brave individuals I'd love to see a video about the "night witches" the female Russian bomber pilots that terrorized the Nazis throughout world war 2. How do you like that transition.

  • A minor technical error. Doby was selected for the Hall of Fame by the veteran's committee, not elected by the standard procedure. The honor is the same, the method is different.

  • Thanks for the video…
    Larry sounds like a great man with the wisdom that comes to those who overcome great hardship.
    Peace to all, from Australia.

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