Larry Doby was one of the leading sluggers of the 1950s, a seven-time All-Star who entered the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998.
Yet he's also the answer to a trivia question that stumps even many avid baseball fans: Who was the first black player in the American League?
Everyone celebrates Jackie Robinson's feat inbreaking baseball's color barrier on April 15, 1947. But few seem to realize that the second African-American MLB player, Doby, debuted with the Cleveland Indians only a couple ofmonths later, on July 5, 1947. In desegregating the American League, Doby endured many of the same taunts, injustices and struggles that Robinson faced.
“Jackie got all the publicity for putting up with it (racial slurs)," Doby told Jet Magazine in 1978."But it was the same thing I had to deal with. He was first, but the crap I took was just as bad. Nobody said, ‘We’re gonna be nice to the second Black.'"
Doby, who served in the Navy during World War II, was 23 and playing forthe Newark Eagles of the Negro National League when Indians owner Bill Veeck signed him. To keep Doby from facing pressure in the minor leagues, he came straight to Cleveland to make his MLB debut.
Years later, Doby, who died in 2003, recalledthat first game, when he was escorted by plainclothes detectives as security. But problems began even before thegame,when he met his new teammates.
“I walked down that line stuck out my hand, and very few hands came back in return," Doby toldJerry Izenberg of the Newark Star-Ledger. "Most of the ones that did were cold-fish handshakes, along with a look that said, ‘You don’t belong here.’
"I couldn’t believe how this was. I put on my uniform, and I went out on the field to warm up, but nobody wanted to warm up with me. I had never been so alone in my life. I stood there alone in front of the dugout for five minutes. Then Joe Gordon, the second baseman who would become my friend, came up to me and asked, ‘Hey, rookie, you gonna just stand there or do you want to throw a little?’
"I will never forget that man.”
Doby and Robinson talked often by phone that year, sharing their stories. While everyone has heard aboutthe struggles Robinson went through during that period, few realized Doby faced the same discrimination.
Part of the reason Dobyisn't celebrated the way many feel he should be for breaking the AL color barrier is because he didn't like to draw attention to himself for the feat. In his Hall of Fame induction speech, he noted,“You know, it’s a very tough thing to look back about things that were probably negative. (On a day like this one) you put those things on the back burner. You are proud and happy that you’ve been a part of integrating baseball to show people that we can live together, we can work together and we can be successful together.”
Doby, who played center field in the majors, finished his career with 253 home runs,970 RBIs and a .283 batting average. Hiscareer OPS (.876) is almost identical to Sammy Sosa's (.878).
In a strange coincidence, in 1978, he became the second black manager in the major leagueswhen he took over the White Sox in mid-1978; another Robinson, Frank, had been first to break that barrier, with the Indians in 1975.
After Doby's death, former MLB commissioner Fay Vincent penneda fitting tribute to him in a New York Times commentary.
"Larry's role in history was recognized slowly and belatedly," Vincent wrote."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 then later in 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."