On April 15, 1947, the game of baseball changed forever when Jackie Robinson became the first black professional baseball player to play in Major League Baseball when he debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson faced physical abuse on the field, received death threats from opposition from baseball fans across the country, and suffered similar incivilities that all black citizens faced traveling in the Jim Crow South and other parts of the country at the time.
Despite forces inside and outside of baseball conspiring against him, Robinson excelled as a player and went on to compile a Hall of Fame career. Robinson helped establish the idea in white America that the black athlete could not only play toe-to-toe with their white counterparts in America’s Pastime, but they could excel and prove to be some of the dominant faces of the sport if given the opportunity.
However, Jackie Robinson was just the first player to break the color barrier. Perhaps some detractors thought Robinson was an outlier? There was no way to convince these critics and bigots with one athlete alone. There needed to be more athletes to break that color barrier and break the stigma that black baseball players couldn’t play alongside their white counterparts.
Enter Larry Doby, a 6-foot-1-inch centerfielder and second baseman from Camden, South Carolina. Born on December 13, 1923, Doby spent his young years in the care of his grandmother, Augusta Moore, due to his father traveling due to work and his mother’s strong attachment to her own mother.
When Doby was eight years old, his father David died in a fishing accident. After a tumultuous four years, where he moved frequently and was cared for by his aunt and uncle, Doby and his mother moved to Patterson, New Jersey. In Patterson, Doby began to take after his father, who was a semipro baseball player in his day, and started playing and developing his own baseball skills near his house, at the Newman Playground and on Twelfth Avenue. Doby would go on to letter in baseball at Paterson Eastside High School as well as lettering in three other sports, earning a total of 11 varsity letters overall.
Even before graduating high school, Doby assumed the name of Larry Walker and began playing second base in the Negro Leagues for the Newark Eagles. He was a star in the league and team owners offered him $300 at the time to play between high school and college.
Doby was eventually drafted into the Navy during WWII, and the mandated racial segregation he experienced while in the military left a deep impression on him. Luckily for him, Doby’s outstanding physical condition in part allowed him to become a physical education instructor while stationed at Camp Robert Smalls, the black division of the Great Lakes Naval Training Station right outside Chicago.
In 1945, when Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a contract to play baseball in Montreal, Doby came to the realization that playing baseball in MLB now seemed like a possibility.
“My main thing was to become a teacher and coach,” Doby said. “But when I heard about Jackie, I decided to concentrate on baseball. I forgot about going back to college.”
After being honorably discharged from the military in January 1946, Larry rejoined the Newark Eagles after a few months, where they would go on to win the Negro Leagues World Series that year. Doby was an All-Star that year and his skills on the field and at the plate were big reasons why they beat the juggernaut Kansas City Monarchs to win the championship that year.
With Doby riding high after his championship season and his reputation as a star ballplayer emerging, Bill Veeck, owner of the Cleveland Indians, took notice of the budding star. Veeck had been eager to integrate the American League, so he devised a plan to sign Doby and have him join Cleveland right after the 1947 All-Star break. After playing the first half of the season with the Eagles, Cleveland purchased his contract, and Larry Doby became the second black professional baseball player to debut in MLB on July 5, 11 weeks after Robinson debuted.
Even though he debuted after Robinson in the sport, Doby’s teammates didn’t give him a warm welcome. They refused to talk to him and even averted their eyes from his sight as he made his entry to the clubhouse at Comiskey Park.
“I knew it was segregated times, but I had never seen anything like that in athletics,” Doby said in a 2002 interview. “I was embarrassed. It was tough.”
Doby even had to go to the Chicago clubhouse to get a first baseman’s glove since none of his teammates were willing to offer him one.
“It was 11 weeks between the time Jackie Robinson and I came into the majors. I can’t see how things were any different for me than they were for him,” Doby said.
It wasn’t until the 1948 season that Doby won a starting job in Cleveland’s outfield and blossomed into a star. In 121 games that season, Doby hit for a .301 average and was 35 percent better as a hitter than the league average according to OPS+. In October of that year, Doby became the first black player to hit a home run in the World Series to help Cleveland win Game Four 2-1 and allow his team to take a lead of three games to one in the Series.
After the game, a photo was taken of Larry Doby and Cleveland pitcher Steve Gromek. The photo featured the two sharing an embrace and smiling from ear-to-ear. This became one of the most famous photos in baseball history, symbolizing Doby’s acceptance as a member of the team and an erosion of racial division.
From 1949 to 1955, Doby earned an All-Star selection every year, finished in the top ten in the American League MVP voting in 1950 and was runner up for the award in 1954. In 1952, he led the American league in slugging percentage with .541, home runs with 32, and runs scored with 104. In 1954, Doby was a force to be reckoned with for Cleveland, leading the American League in home runs with 32 and runs batted in with 126. That year he played in a career-high 153 games, showcasing stellar defense in center field, only committing two errors all season, and finishing second in the league in putouts.
Doby was traded to the Chicago White Sox after the 1955 season to which Chicago’s manager Marty Marion said that Doby’s addition to the club was “the end of the search for a No. 4 hitter.” He added, “This guy used to murder us when we played Cleveland. Last year, I definitely felt that, when we could get him out, we could handle the Indians. But we couldn’t.”
Doby was a force for Chicago during that season, smashing 24 home runs and driving in 102 runs. This prompted White Sox owner Charles Comiskey to say, “Larry Doby, he’s our guy. You know, when we dealt for Doby, we weren’t worried about Larry. We knew he’d come through.”
Although his power waned over the next few years, Doby was a productive hitter through the 1958 season. He posted an OPS+ of 127 in 1957 and 130 in 1958 with a Wins Above Replacement of 2.2 wins in 1957 and 1.5 wins in 1958.
After his playing days ended, Doby got the chance to manage the White Sox in 1978, becoming the second black manager in major-league history, taking over for Bob Lemon who was fired during the season. Doby finished the season with a managerial record of only 37-50 in his only season as a manager in his career.
In 1997, Doby’s number 14 was retired on the 50th anniversary of his major-league debut. He became just the fifth Cleveland player to have his jersey retired, joining Bob Feller, Earl Averill, Mel Harder, and Lou Boudreau. At his celebration, Hank Aaron said to Doby, “I want to thank you for all that you went through, because if it had not been for you, I wouldn’t have been able to have the career that I had.”
The next year, Doby was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee. Larry Doby holds a special place in MLB history as the second black ballplayer to break the color barrier and the first to do so in the American League.
Even though most history books focus on Jackie Robinson’s contribution to making professional baseball a more fair and equal sport, Larry Doby and those who followed him helped solidify the path that Robinson started. Larry Doby followed up Robinson in spectacular fashion, carving out a Hall of Fame career of his own.
Due to his contributions to the sport, the game of baseball can truly be considered America’s Pastime today, a game where everyone is judged by their contributions on the field, not by their appearances or background.
For the information in this article, the author consulted baseball-reference.com and sabr.org.