Today is the 65th anniversary of the debut of Larry Doby, the first African-American player in the American League and the second in Major League Baseball. He came up three months after Jackie Robinson, so he was largely overshadowed by Jackie. But he was a spectacular player in his own right, a deserving Hall of Famer who made seven straight All-Star teams from 1949-1955 while playing in a league that was much more white, and much slower to integrate, than the National League.
Why was the American League so much slower to integrate? Racist owners and executives are a big part of it. Boston’s Tom Yawkey and New York’s Del Webb and Dan Topping were notable for their lack of enthusiasm at integration. According to Roger Kahn, as quoted in Rick Swaine’s “The Integration of Major League Baseball,” Webb used to brag that his construction company had built Japanese internment camps during World War II. Each team’s first black ballplayer was a backup: Boston’s Pumpsie Green, who backed up the remarkably error-prone Don Buddin, and New York’s Elston Howard, who first backed up Yogi Berra but later became an
All-Star MVP and a nine-time MVP All-Star when he was moved to the outfield and allowed to play full time.
Swaine’s book covers the entire period of integration from 1947-1959, and it makes clear that integration was a long, painful process. Some teams signed black players whom they didn’t promote for years, or had no intention of promoting, as a gimmick or public relations stunt. Some teams integrated and then became resegregated, losing their black players and then remaining all-white for a significant period thereafter. This was true of the other team to integrate in 1947, the St. Louis Browns, who brought up Hank Thompson and Willard Brown and cut them both by the end of the year. The Browns remained all-white until 1951, when they brought in the 44-year old Satchel Paige, who had already played for the Indians.
Larry Doby was no gimmick. As Swaine writes, he literally played
against the White Sox the day he signed, appearing as a pinch hitter on July 5, 1947, two days after Cleveland GM Bill Veeck and Newark Eagles owner Effa Manley negotiated his $15,000 purchase price. As John McMurray of SABR writes, Doby began playing for the Eagles when he was still in high school, and to hide his true age he played under an assumed name: Larry Walker. Seriously.
Manley, Veeck, and Doby are all now in the Hall of Fame, and a big reason for that is what they did on July 5, the day that all three of them integrated the American League. However, it was not an auspicious debut. The 23-year old struck out in his first plate appearance and only batted .156/.182/.188 in 32 at-bats that year. It was really more of a cup of coffee than a rookie campaign.
But the next year, 1948, he thoroughly proved his worth, hitting .301 with 14 homers and a .396 wOBA. He was the fourth-best player on the Indians’ championship squad, behind Joe Gordon, Ken Keltner, and MVP player-manager Lou Boudreau, and he was arguably their best player in the last World Series the franchise has ever won. He hit .318 in the fall classic, and his solo shot in Game 4 proved the deciding factor in that game. Sadly, Doby would only play in one other World Series, as his team was famously swept by Willie Mays and the Giants in 1954, and Doby barely raised a peep, hitting two singles in 16 at-bats in the series.
As it did for so many others, Jackie Robinson’s 1945 signing gave him the hope that playing the major leagues could be his career. Doby had been drafted into the Navy, where he served as a physical education instructor, and he was considering going back to Virginia Union College once the war ended. Before Jackie signed, he thought he would teach or coach, Doby said. “But when I heard about Jackie, I decided to concentrate on baseball. I forgot about going back to college.”
He continued to play with the Newark Eagles, who won the Negro Leagues World Series in 1946, beating Satchel Paige’s Kansas City Monarchs. As McMurray notes, that’s when Bill Veeck took notice. Veeck signed Doby in 1947, and Paige almost exactly a year later, in July 1948. (Paige was 41, but he immediately made his presence felt, starting seven games and relieving in 15 others, notching three shutouts and one save, and posting a 6-1 record with a 2.48 ERA (61 ERA-).)
The Indians traded Doby after the 1955 season, when he was 31, and most of his best years were behind him. He had two good years with the White Sox, then injury-plagued part-time stints with the Indians, Tigers, White Sox, and Nagoya Dragons of Japan. He coached after that, and fittingly became the second African-American manager in baseball when he managed the White Sox for part of the
1948 1978 season. But it was a poor team, and he never received another chance after going 37-50 with the team. (Doby is not alone. There are relatively few African-American managers in baseball history, and extremely few who have had any longevity.)
Jackie Robinson’s integration didn’t end segregation or racism in baseball. Only time could do that, and the overwhelming achievements of a generation of talented and graceful men who endured vicious hatred. Doby’s achievements on the baseball field and off the field are often overshadowed by those of Robinson, who came first by three months. But this was half a century before interleague play: for half the fans in baseball, Larry Doby was the first black man they ever saw playing a major league game. And he was one hell of a player.
There’s a nice postscript to the anniversary. The Indians used this anniversary as an opportunity to honor Doby by renaming one of the streets around their stadium: in honor of the team he played for in the Negro Leagues, Eagle Avenue will become Larry Doby Way.