As some of you may know, I’ve done a lot of research on the integration of baseball in Cleveland, and even wrote a book about the subject. Last year on the anniversary of Larry Doby’s first game with the Indians in 1947, I even wrote a blog post about integration throughout baseball.
I thought I’d shift focus a bit this year, to avoid repeating something I’ve already written, or that you could find elsewhere on the web. And speaking of elsewhere on the web, MLB historian John Thorn has a great piece up about Robinson on his blog “Our Game” today. He also mentions the late Jules Tygiel in the post; Tygiel’s book Baseball’s Great Experiment is an excellent account of Robinson’s experiences as an integrator and one of my all-time favorite baseball books.
Major League Baseball now honors Jackie Robinson each April 15, as all players don his retired #42 on their uniforms. In fact, #42 remains the only number retired for all teams, unless you held the number before the retirement (like Mariano Rivera). There’s very little acknowledgement of Doby on this day, nor of the fact that there were African American players in the majors prior to 1900. I know some people who are a bit annoyed with the commercialization now associated with April 15 (most teams probably have a few Jackie Robinson shirts for sale in their team shops today). While I think that’s a valid point, I’m just glad that Robinson and his role gather attention from fans on this date.
A lot of people forget that when Robinson and Doby made their debut, Americans were still seven years away from the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision. It would take more than 15 years before the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were passed, and before Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I have a dream…” speech. They were pioneers in an era where you still had separate water fountains and segregated seating on buses. They endured a great amount of hardship, just to play the game that they loved at the Major League level.
One thing I think it’s important to realize, especially in light of all of the fighting during the Indians-Royals game yesterday, is the fact that these African American players were asked to play to a different standard than the white players. For example, Robinson was told not to lose his temper on the field, and not to respond to any kind of jeers or taunts. Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, didn’t want Robinson labeled as someone with a bad attitude. So if he was hit by a pitch, for example, he was supposed to remain quiet, put his head down, and take first base. It didn’t matter if he was fairly certain it was intentional; he was supposed to ignore that fact and continue to play as if nothing happened. I can’t imagine how it would feel to take jeers and insults, players sliding into second with their spikes up, and pitchers throwing at you without ever appearing as if you were bothered by this.
These directions were not unique to Robinson; Doby was also told never to show a temper, or respond to white players that tried to antagonize him. However, there came a time that Doby reached his breaking point and retaliated against an opposing player. In 1950, Doby was hit by a pitch from Detroit pitcher Dizzy Trout and was very vocal in his displeasure. Doby was criticized by writer Gordon Cobbledick in the Plain Dealer for his response; Charles P. Lucas, executive secretary for the Cleveland branch of the NAACP responded in the African American newspaper the Call and Post and defended Doby. Lucas pointed out that white player Joe Gordon had been hit by a pitch recently and responded in a similar manner. It was unfair to say that Gordon had a right to be frustrated, while Doby did not get a chance to respond, according to Lucas.
There was always a fear that if African American players “misbehaved” they could get kicked out of baseball. This is three years after integration, when the number of African American players in the game were steadily growing, this was obviously still the fear. (Also remember that the final team didn’t integrate until 1959 when the Boston Red Sox added Pumpsie Green to their roster.) Baseball segregated itself in the late 19th century, so it’s fair to think that resegregation was a legitimate possibility. Lucas said that if African Americans were kicked out of the game at this point, both white and black fans would rebel. African American players were helping teams win games and championships – the Indians had just won their first World Series since 1920 with an integrated roster that included Doby and pitcher Satchel Paige. Many activists believed that baseball could be a starting point for integration in other aspects of society; if fans saw players on integrated rosters getting along with each other, and finding success on the field, it would prove that integration was beneficial. Lucas must have felt this point was already proven as far as Doby was concerned. Doby was one of the heroes of the 1948 World Series, and the Indians wouldn’t dare get rid of one of their star players. Lucas’s advice for the next time Doby was hit by a pitch: Don’t hide your emotions and go out to the mound with your bat if necessary.
So as you hear about Jackie Robinson today, don’t forget about men like Doby and the other early integrators of the late 1940s. They weren’t long after Robinson (Doby integrated the American League just 11 weeks later) and their paths were not necessarily easier than Robinson’s. Also think about the fact that these players were held to a different behavioral standard when compared to white players. Imagine the frustration that Shin-Soo Choo felt being hit several times so far this year; imagine if he were told not to respond or show anger just based upon his race. It’s no surprise that by 1950, the mild-mannered Doby had about all that he could take.