Last year, I featured a couple of past Indians players that were also veterans of the U.S. military. Bob Feller and Moe Berg were two very different players, whose service in the military differed even though they both served in the 1930s and/or 1940s. Feller was a physical training instructor, and later the gun captain on the battleship USS Alabama, while Berg acted as spy on a trip to Japan in the 1930s as he photographed Tokyo landmarks. Rather than repeating myself this year (since the link from last year is still available), I figured I’d add a third unique experience to the story – that of Larry Doby.
On the anniversary of Larry Doby’s first major league game in 2011, I wrote about Doby’s integration of the Indians, and his integration of the American League. Doby faced harsh segregation in the military after he was drafted into the Navy in 1942 and was stationed to an African American division outside of Chicago. In fact, baseball would be formally integrated before the military – Jackie Robinson played his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers in April of 1947, and Harry Truman did not sign the executive order officially integrating the armed forces until July of 1948.
Doby was a physical education instructor while stateside, and was eventually stationed in the Pacific. Doby, who also played basketball in high school and college, stayed sharp athletically by continuing to play while serving. While stationed in the Pacific, he met Washington Senators first baseman Mickey Vernon, who was very impressed by Doby’s baseball playing abilities. Vernon actually wrote to Clark Griffith, the owner of the Senators, and tried to persuade him to sign the young outfielder. It was obvious that Griffith was not ready to take the bold step of integration at that point in time, and Doby was eventually signed by Bill Veeck on July 5, 1947. Vernon eventually briefly joined Doby in Cleveland, when he was traded to the Indians prior to the 1949 season. He remained with them until June of 1950, when the Indians traded him back to Washington for Dick Weik. Vernon returned to Cleveland at the age of 40 in 1958 after the Indians claimed him on waivers from the Boston Red Sox; they traded him to the Milwaukee Braves for Humberto Robinson in April of 1959 (Vernon hit .283/.256/.420 with 26 home runs during his career as an Indian).
Doby was honorably discharged from the military in January of 1946, and he returned to baseball as he joined the Negro League Newark Eagles and was part of their world championship team that season. After the Indians signed him, he won another championship with them in 1948 – his second title in just three years. Doby remained with the Indians until October of 1955, when he was traded to the Chicago White Sox for Jim Busby and Chico Carrasquel. He was traded back to the Indians prior to the 1958 season, and the Indians once again traded him prior to the 1959 season, this time to Detroit for Tito Francona. In his 10 seasons with the Indians, Doby hit .286/.389/.500 with 215 home runs. He won one world title with the Tribe, and played in a second World Series in 1954. Doby entered the Hall of Fame in 1998 via the Veterans Committe, and had his number 14 retired by the Indians in 1997. He passed away at the age of 79 in 2003 after a battle with cancer.
On the surface, Doby’s military experience did not differ that much from Vernon’s or even Feller’s. Always lying under the surface though, was the fact that Doby was forced into a segregated regiment and was forced to deal racism not experienced by the others. As Vernon and Feller planned to return to their major league careers at the end of World War II, Doby was not yet able to join them. After his return to the states, he went back to the Negro Leagues and won a championship. It wouldn’t be long before Doby joined Vernon and Feller though, and it also wouldn’t be long for segregation in the military to also become a thing of the past.