There are a number of myths that prevail throughout American history – George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, the idea that Abner Doubleday invented the game of baseball, and that Jackie Robinson is the first African American to play Major League Baseball. If that last one sounds more like reality than myth, you’re not alone in your thinking. Few people realize that Moses Fleetwood Walker was the first African American to play in the Major Leagues, from 1884 to 1889 (meaning that he was the first, and the last, prior to Robinson).
There are a number of likely reasons as to why Walker isn’t discussed more often. For starters, baseball in the 19th century was a very different game. Often, the “modern” baseball era is said to begin either in 1901 (with the start of the American League), or in 1903 (the year of the first World Series). If you take that into account, Robinson is the first African American player of the modern era. Another possible reason is that people like to think that Americans continually made progress over the years. The idea that we become more tolerant, more diverse as a society as time passes doesn’t mesh with the idea that we had an American institution that was integrated then re-segregated for nearly 60 years. This also dovetails with general American history at this point in time; the Reconstruction period was a more diverse period than the 1890s, or the early 20th century.
Even though this post is about Larry Doby and the anniversary of his first game with the Cleveland Indians, I couldn’t talk about him being the “second” African American in Major League Baseball without mentioning Walker (who spent most of his life in Ohio). This isn’t to discount the experiences of Robinson and Doby; both men experienced hardships and racism from fans and teammates. The fact that Walker played for 5 years almost 60 years prior, had no direct benefits to Robinson or Doby (who joined the American League roughly 11 weeks after Robinson played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers).
When baseball re-segregated in 1889, it did so by “gentleman’s agreement.” What this meant – there was no official decree that African Americans were banned from the league. The owners got together and decided that they would sign no more black players, except for ones already in the league. When Walker’s contract ended, he was never offered another one. This “gentleman’s agreement” persisted into the twentieth century; in 1942 Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis claimed that there was nothing stopping teams from signing African American players. At this point, members of the African American press immediately started to lobby team owners with the hope of convincing one owner to add a black player to his roster (the thought was if one team integrated, the others would fall like dominoes).
There was another reason that 1942 was a significant year – America was now fully involved in World War II. The Pittsburgh Courier, an African American weekly paper, started the “Double-V Campaign” which meant that they advocated victory in war and victory on the home front for African American citizens. Part of the argument was that as America was fighting to protect freedoms overseas, its own citizens were without basic rights. As soon as Landis made his declaration about Major League teams signing African American players, many black reporters leapt at the opportunity.
In Cleveland, the African American weekly Call and Post tried to convince Indians’ owner Alva Bradley to offer a tryout to three players from the Cleveland Buckeyes (a Negro League team in the city.) Of the three players – third baseman Parnell Woods, pitcher Eugene Bremmer, and outfielder Sam Jethroe – only Jethroe would eventually play in the Majors, becoming the oldest player to win Rookie of the Year honors with the Boston Braves in 1950. Bradley wasn’t interested in signing any of the players at that point in time; in fact, it would take a change in ownership before the Indians would add an African American player to its roster.
When Bill Veeck purchased the Indians in 1946, he had a reputation as a showman who liked to make a splash. When he decided to add an African American player in 1947, he claimed it was for altruistic reasons. While this is probably true, he also knew there were a number of other benefits – an African American player would probably increase the number of African American fans in attendance and it would draw attention to Veeck and the Indians, which was always a plus in Veeck’s book. The other issue that had to be taken into consideration was the fact that the Negro Leagues were a wealth of untapped talent. If a team were to sign the best Negro League players before other teams even considered integrating, they would be at a huge advantage.
So by the time that summer 1947 rolled around, Veeck was already scouting a number of Negro League players. Eventually he settled upon Doby, an infielder with the Newark Eagles and a World War II veteran. While Doby’s talents were obviously very important, owners/general managers looked for other qualities in their early integrators. They wanted young players (with the idea that they would be around longer), as well as players who were married, college educated or military veterans. The level of prejudice in America was so great at this point in time; teams wanted a model citizen when looking for their first African American player. Consider this – Larry Doby was actually told not to sign autographs for any white female over the age of 12. In an interview, Doby once said that he found it nearly impossible to tell the age of a young girl; therefore, he avoided giving autographs to women. This was due to the false stereotype in American society that African American men planned to prey upon white women.
Doby joined the Indians on July 5, 1947, meeting up with the team in Chicago as they prepared to play the White Sox. He struggled some during his first few months in the Major Leagues, but came back strong in 1948; he was also moved to the outfield at that point in time. One of Doby’s shining moments in the 1948 season came when he hit a pivotal home run in game 4 of the World Series, which the Indians went on to win 4 games to 2 against the Boston Braves. (He hit .301 during the 1948 regular season) Doby was actually joined in 1948 by a second African American player – the legendary Satchel Paige. A starting pitcher during his Negro League career, Paige pitched primarily out of the bullpen in 1948.
The legacy of Larry Doby lives on today, despite the fact that the number of African American players in the Major Leagues is near an all-time low. Doby entered the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998 as a veteran’s committee selection. Bill Veeck once claimed that without the pressure of being an integrator, Doby would’ve been an even greater player. Unfortunately, that is something we’ll never learn. Fans can be grateful that they had the opportunity to see Larry Doby play for the Indians, as well as Satchel Paige (even if the latter was for a much shorter period of time).
Shameless plug – if you’d like to read more about Negro League baseball history in Cleveland, and the integration of the Indians, be sure to check out my book Integrating Cleveland Baseball: Media Activism, the Integration of the Indians and the Demise of the Negro League Buckeyes. Occasionally I have some available at a discount if the price is too steep for you; plus it’s at a number of Ohio libraries, and available through Ohiolink.