My old Italian grandparents back in Youngstown, Ohio, used to have this little lawn jockey in front of their garage. It was maybe three, three-and-a-half feet tall–about the height of a tiny kid. It was one of the yardsticks I’d use to gauge how much I’d grown since the last time we visited. The little lawn jockey’s jacket was painted bright red. His pants were painted bright blue. His skin was painted midnight black. My grandparents and father told me his name was Doby.
When I was tiny, tiny–two or three–I’d forget his name and have to ask it again each time we visited. Doby seemed like it should be the name of a character in a book. When I was a bit older and learning to read, I wondered how the name was spelled. Dobie? Dobee? Doby? I can’t remember how old I was when I asked why his name was Doby. My father said he was named after a guy “who used to play for the Indians.” That was all he said.
I became an Indians fan as a kid, playing the game with my brother and watching games on TV. I knew the players, but I didn’t really know who Larry Doby was. In middle school, I learned that Jackie Robinson was the first African-American in the major leagues. I learned about how brave he was in the face of racist death threats, what a great player he was, what a hero he was. Larry Doby was mentioned almost as an afterthought. Kind of like, “Oh yeah, three months later, Larry Doby integrated the American League.” Larry Doby faced the same threats, criticisms, isolation, and challenges as Robinson, but because he came up just after Robinson, his name isn’t as well-known. He wasn’t the first, but he was the first in the American League. He was still alone.
I don’t know who named the lawn jockey Doby. Grandma? Grandpa? My father? They were a steel mill family who lived in the Italian-American section of Youngstown with my grandmother’s family during the Depression. Everybody worked at the mill. My grandfather worked at the Youngstown Sheet & Tube for 43 years. Somewhere along the line, they moved out of the crowded extended family household and into the suburbs. It’s a very typical story. Sadly, the attitude that says it’s okay to have a black lawn jockey, that it’s okay to flippantly name him after a black ballplayer, that one group of people is somehow lesser than another because of the amount of melanin in their skin is also a typical story of that time.
Larry Doby integrated the American League on July 5, 1947. He had an inauspicious rookie season, batting .156 in 33 plate appearances (29 games). He was a 23-year-old kid who walked into a locker room where some of his teammates wouldn’t even shake his hand. The next season, owner Bill Veeck made sure those guys weren’t playing for the Indians. And the next season, Larry Doby found his stride, batting .301 with 66 RBI. He batted .318 during the 1948 World Series, including hitting the game-winning home run in Game 4. The famous photograph of pitcher Steve Gromek (who got the win) hugging Doby in the locker room afterwards was the first time many Americans saw a white guy and a black guy hugging. It changed some minds.
I’d like to think that American society has evolved in the 64 years since Larry Doby integrated the American League. For one thing, the lawn jockey craze seems to have died out, so we’ve got that going for us. Racism still exists, but maybe we’ve started to recognize that the amount of melanin in somebody’s skin doesn’t mean diddly squat.
We celebrated America’s independence yesterday. Major league baseball marked Jackie Robinson Day on April 15. I think we ought to celebrate today as Larry Doby Day. I’m going to celebrate it by painting a lawn jockey in rainbow colors. Maybe I’ll name it “Bill Veeck.”