Bill Veeck greets Larry Doby upon his arrival in Chicago, July 5, 1947
On April 15 each year, every player on every MLB team dons the number 42 in honor of Jackie Robinson. Announcers discuss the extremely important day in baseball history, when Robinson became the first African American player in more than 50 years to play in the professional major leagues. MLB itself takes time to honor the day, and I’ve even seen April 15, Robinson-related merchandise. In the past couple of years, the date has become an event; something recognized along with other holidays like Memorial Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and the Fourth of July. Unfortunately, by the time the fifth of July rolls around, there’s barely a peep about the date’s significance across baseball. Larry Doby’s first day in professional baseball came just eleven weeks after Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In some ways, he almost had a more challenging road to travel than Jackie – yet his experience is discussed less frequently, if at all.
Why does every one pay homage to Robinson, yet do little to acknowledge Doby? In some ways, it’s the idea that someone is “second.” As the old adage goes, you often don’t remember the name of the second person to walk on the moon. Few people stop to think about the fact that despite being second, Doby experienced the same difficulties as the person that came first. He played in the American League, long before the days of interleague play. Doby and Robinson never had the chance to play on the field together, or to provide each other a level of comfort and support. You could argue it was a difficult experience for every man that was the chosen integrator of each individual major league team. Those men get even less recognition than Larry Doby. (This includes Hank Thompson, who first played with the St. Louis Browns on July 17, 1947).
There are a lot of similarities between Robinson and Doby. Both were eventually enshrined in Baseball’s Hall of Fame, both were World War II veterans, both were high school or college athletes that played on integrated teams. Even though both men spent time in the segregated Negro Leagues, due to the war and their departures for the majors, it was a relatively short amount of time compared to many of the African American stars of the day. There are a number of key differences though – Robinson was 28-years-old when he played his first game for the Dodgers, while Doby was just 23 when he took the field for the Indians. Robinson’s signing was part of a long-range, meticulous plan by Dodgers owner Branch Rickey; he was signed toward the end of 1945, and then spent the entire 1946 season with the team’s minor league club in Montreal. Doby was plucked from his Negro League team, the Newark Eagles, by Indians owner Bill Veeck, in the summer of 1947 and was immediately taken to Chicago to meet up with the major league club. Robinson had the entire winter of 1945-46 to mentally prepare for what was about to happen. He had a year in the minors to further prepare and become acclimated to the situation. Doby did not have this luxury. Through whispers and discussions, he probably realized that a signing may come sooner or later; after all, Veeck scouted him and had people looking into his background. There’s quite a jump between expecting something may happen, and being tossed into the lions den during the middle of the season.
Robinson essentially hit the ground running in 1947, and finished the year with a .297/.383/.427 line with an NL-leading 29 stolen bases as he won Rookie of the Year and helped take the Dodgers to the World Series. Doby hit just .156/.182/.188 in 1947 and actually only had 33 plate appearances in 1947. There were legitimate fears that he may be traded, and that the Indians may give up on him. Veeck seemed to realize the difficulties Doby faced in 1947 and stood by him. He was rewarded in 1948 as Doby hit .301/.384/.490 with 14 home runs as the Indians won the World Series. Doby was able to mentally and physically prepare for the upcoming season during the winter of 1947-48 and like Robinson, hit the ground running when the 1948 season started. I can’t imagine the pressure that either of these men faced, but if you’re Doby and you’re young, alone, and struggling, that’s not an easy path to success in the majors.
While Veeck was the ultimate show-man, and loved to draw attention, Doby did not. He was reserved, and by some accounts, a shy man. Doby loved the game of baseball and just wanted a fair opportunity to do what he loved in the majors. There are some theories that things got easier for Doby by the summer of 1948, when legendary Negro League pitcher Satchel Paige joined the team. However, really the only things them men had in common were their love of baseball, and the color of their skin. They had vastly different personalities, yet still were paired up as roommates on the road just to make things “easier.” Branch Rickey was also very savvy at marketing, just in a more reserved and understated manner than Bill Veeck. Rickey selected Robinson for his talents as well as his demeanor; Robinson had taken part in integration activism in the past, while in the military. It wouldn’t make the experience any less difficult for him, but he had an idea of what to expect in 1947.
Even though both Robinson and Doby won championships with their teams, and eventually were enshrined in Cooperstown, the integration process took a toll on them. Robinson died in 1972 at the young age of 53 from a heart attack. He suffered from heart disease and diabetes, but friends still theorize that the hardships he faced on the baseball field may have sent him to an early grave. Doby lived to the age of 79 (he died of cancer in 2003), but Bill Veeck has said that he thinks Doby’s numbers would have been even better if he didn’t have to deal with being an integrator. It’s challenging enough to be successful at professional sports; imagine what it was like to add in something that had much larger cultural significance like integration.
Even though the rest of baseball may not do much today to acknowledge the important anniversary of Larry Doby’s first game, Indians fans should do so. Yes, it took place 67 years ago, before many fans were born. But it was an important moment for Cleveland, and for the rest of the United States. I don’t say this to take away from Robinson’s achievements at all, just to say that there are others that endured just as many challenges, with much less recognition. July 5 does not take on the same significance as April 15, as far as Major League Baseball is concerned. And you hear very little discussion of the fact that it took 12 more years after Robinson and Doby to integrate the rest of the majors. (The Boston Red Sox were the final team to integrate in 1959 with Pumpsie Green). You hear next to no mention about the lives and experiences of some of those men.
I also need to be a little bit critical of Major League Baseball for a moment, and the self-congratulatory way they handle the anniversary of Robinson’s first game every year. To be fair, none of the people involved in the majors (or their marketing departments) were around in 1947, so I’m certainly not holding the idea of segregation against them. But during the 1940s, Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis did not take the lead when it came to ending segregation in the majors. He really passed the buck to the owners, by saying in 1942 that there was no formal ban on African Americans in the majors, and that teams were free to do what they wished. That statement certainly doesn’t condone or support segregation, but it’s also not taking a bold position to end the practice either. That took the actions of two bold men – Branch Rickey and Bill Veeck – in order to change what had been the status quo since the nineteenth century. Integration didn’t take place in 1947 thanks to the leagues’ hierarchy, but because two owners took a stand.
And perhaps that’s how we, as fans, need to take the reigns on making sure that some of these other men aren’t forgotten. To make sure that baseball fans realize the boldness and bravery required to take action during the 1940s to make sure the practice of segregation in baseball ended once and for all. People love to point out that baseball made these changes prior to the formal Brown vs. the Board of Education decision in 1954, and prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (celebrating its 50th anniversary this year). Those changes in baseball were possible because of men like Robinson and Doby, who endured abuse on the field in order to pioneer change, and men like Rickey and Veeck, who were willing to step forward and be the first owners to make a difference.
In case you’re interested, here is a listing of the first men to integrate each major league team:
April 15 – Jackie Robinson, Brooklyn Dodgers
July 5 – Larry Doby, Cleveland Indians
July 17 – Hank Thompson, St. Louis Browns
July 8 – Monte Irvin, New York Giants
July 8 – Hank Thompson, New York Giants
April 18 – Sam Jethroe, Boston Braves (Jethroe spent his entire Negro League career with the Cleveland Buckeyes)
May 1 – Minnie Minoso, Chicago White Sox
September 13 – Bob Trice, Philadelphia Athletics
September 17 – Ernie Banks, Chicago Cubs
April 13 – Curt Roberts, Pittsburgh Pirates
April 13 – Tom Alston, St. Louis Cardinals
April 17 – Nino Escalera, Cincinnati Reds
April 17 – Chuck Harmon, Cincinnati Reds
September 6 – Carlos Paula, Washington Senators
April 14 – Elston Howard, New York Yankees
April 22 – John Kennedy, Philadelphia Phillies
June 6 – Ozzie Virgil, Sr., Detroit Tigers
July 21 – Pumpsie Green, Boston Red Sox