Larry Doby

On October 9, 1948, in the fourth inning of the fourth game in the World Series, a young man stepped up to the plate. His team, the Cleveland Indians, held a slim one run lead. The Indians held an equally slim one game lead. Before 82,000 people, the largest crowd ever to see a series game up till that time, and with no one on base and with two outs, the batter slammed the second pitch 420 feet over the right field wall. It proved to be the decisive run, providing a 2-1 win for the Indians. It also provided an overwhelming 3-1 lead in the series. Two games later the Indians shut out the Boston Braves on the road.

Larry Doby was the driving force behind the only Cleveland World Series Championship in the last half century. He also led the heroic drive to the pennant that year. In a race that came down to a playoff with the other Boston team, the Red Sox, Doby paced the team with a .396 batting average over the last 20 crucial games. His season average was .301.

Although Larry Doby had a stellar career in baseball--playing in six All-Star games, named to a seventh (1949-1955), playing in two World Series (1948 and 1954), home run leader in the American League in 1952, both the home run and RBI leader and runner-up to Yogi Berra for American League MVP in 1954, having the top fielding average of all full-time American League center fielders in 1954, and setting a major league record of 164 games without an error in 1954 and 1955 that stood for seventeen years--he will be remembered mostly as a quiet and proud pioneer. He became the second African-American to play major league baseball on July 5, 1947, following the much more flamboyant Jackie Robinson by only eleven weeks. He was the first African-American to play in the American League. Some years later he played another pioneering role, but again he was second. Following Frank Robinson, who was named manager for the Cleveland Indians in 1975, Doby replaced his old friend and former teammate, Bob Lemon, as manager of the Chicago White Sox in June of 1978.

Born in Camden, South Carolina in 1923, Lawrence Eugene Doby was the son of David and Etta Doby. David, a World War I veteran who worked in the horse industry as a groom, played baseball in his spare time and was known as a great hitter. Any influence on Larry's baseball skills was indirect. David was away from home most of the time working in the North. Larry vaguely remembered his father playing ball but little else. David Doby died when Larry was only eleven years old. Etta also had little to do with Larry's upbringing. She emigrated north to Paterson, New Jersey in search of work. Etta's mother was in charge of Larry's life during most of his early years, rearing him with strict discipline, regular church attendance, and reading and writing lessons before his formal education began. That changed when Larry's grandmother began having mental problems, and Etta returned to move Larry into the home of her sister-in-law, where he lived for the next four years.

These few years living with the Cookes on Lyttleton Street in Camden were very happy and positive years for Larry. Residents still living there remember playing ball in the street in games where race did not matter (Robinson). His uncle, who was successful in construction, was a leader in the African-American community. Larry attended Mather Academy, where he had good teachers, heard lectures by Mary McLeod Bethune, and played organized baseball and other sports for the first time. He learned baseball from Richard DuBose, who was one of the best known figures in African-American baseball in the state for more than half a century. DuBose had also coached Larry's father in the many games he organized. In 1938 Larry graduated from the 8th grade and his mother insisted that he move to Paterson to attend high school, where educational and economic opportunities were relatively greater for African-Americans. He never lived in South Carolina again.

Living with a friend of his mother in Paterson, Doby soon adjusted to a life that revolved around sports in the streets and in school. Only being able to see his mother on her one day off a week from domestic service, Doby never really had a family, but he found solace in sports. At the end of his high school career he had lettered in eleven sports and was an all-state performer in most of them. He began playing with the semi-professional and professional teams in both basketball and baseball. His talents were such that he even played a few games before graduation with the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League. He played under an assumed name since high school students weren't allowed to play. Following graduation, he played the summer of 1942 with the Eagles, batting .391 in the 26 games for which records exist.

Doby began college in September of 1942, but his college career quickly ended with a draft notice. Ironically, he was stationed at Camp Smalls in the Great Lakes, a station named after a fellow South Carolinian, Robert Smalls, a hero of the Civil War. There his physical prowess earned him an assignment as physical education instructor and plenty of playing time with sports teams that represented the camp. He spent the last year of the war on a coral reef in the Pacific both unloading ships and organizing recreational activities for other servicemen.

Discharged from the Navy in early 1946, Doby returned to professional baseball. He spent a winter season playing in Puerto Rico and then rejoined the Newark Eagles. There he played with some of the all-time greats: Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige (who would later be his roommate in Cleveland), Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe, both of whom would later play with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was not the top player in the league, but he was among the elite with a .348 batting average for the 1946 season. He helped lead his team to the Negro World Series title. The first half of the 1947 season Doby led the league with a .458 average. He did not finish the season--fate and Bill Veeck were about to change and challenge his life.

On July 3, 1947, after weeks of rumors, Larry Doby was told that he had been purchased by Bill Veeck's Cleveland Indians. He made his playing debut two days later when he struck out pinch hitting, but barely missed on a line drive that was foul by inches. He received very limited playing time that first half season, appearing in only 29 games and batting 32 times, mostly as a pinch hitter.

The next year, the championship and World Series year, Doby came into his own. He was the first African-American to hit a home run in an All-Star game and was the first African-American to win a league home run crown. He is best remembered as a power hitter, who like other power hitters, did strike out a lot. In May of 1948 he hit what would have been one of the longest home runs in history, estimated at over 500 feet, had it not hit a loud speaker hanging high over the center field fence in Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. Almost exactly a year later he hit another home run over 500 feet. It cleared the scoreboard in right center field in the same ball park.

He should also be remembered as one of the best defensive center fielders in the game at the time, with a 164 game streak of flawless play in the field. On July 31, 1954, Doby made a catch that snatched a home run away by vaulting himself up the fence with his left hand while making the catch with his right hand, then falling back onto the field while hanging onto the ball. Dizzy Dean, who was broadcasting the game, declared it the greatest catch he had ever seen. In that year he led Cleveland to a record number of wins in the regular season, a record that stood till 1998 when the Yankees set a new mark.

After breaking an ankle while sliding into third base in 1959, Doby retired from baseball as a player. After an interlude of nearly ten years, which included briefly playing ball in Japan, running a business in Newark, and campaigning for Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 Presidential Campaign, Doby reentered professional baseball as hitting coach for the Montreal Expos in 1969. Thus began his second career. He proved to be a very effective coach with his ability to communicate with players and adapt instruction to their styles and abilities. His ambition was to be a manager, but no African-American had ever managed a major league team before. He nearly got the chance in 1975 with his old team, the Cleveland Indians. But the management chose Frank Robinson instead.

Three frustrating years later Doby was given a chance to manage. The opportunity came from the same man who had brought him into the white major leagues, Bill Veeck, who was then head of the Chicago White Sox. However, the opportunity was really only half a chance. Although Doby was able to improve the team's performance, he did not have the players to win a pennant without a miracle. Most importantly to the owner, Doby did not improve ticket sales. Thus Veeck fired Doby and replaced him with a white manager whom he felt would draw in more of the White Sox's mostly white fans. Doby then left baseball to work as director of community relations for the New Jersey Nets of the National Basketball Association.

For all his feats in baseball, perhaps his greatest achievement lay outside the statistics that are such a central part of the culture of baseball. Larry Doby, without the months of preparation that helped Jackie Robinson endure his ordeal, endured two ordeals of his own. The first involved his entry into a hostile world where many wanted him to fail, and the second was being ignored by history because he was not the first to enter that world. Doby endured both without complaint, never saying anything about Jackie Robinson that could be construed as even hinting at jealousy. He endured with quiet pride and great dignity. When he first joined the Indians, some players refused to shake his hand. Doby has refused to ever say who they were. He and his family were forced to live apart from the team in Spring training camp because of segregation rules. He often had to stay in separate hotel facilities and eat in separate areas from the rest of his teammates. In one instance, after being tagged out at second base, the opponent spit in his face. Doby walked away, not giving in to the evil of prejudice.

Late in life Doby finally began to receive the recognition he had quietly earned. In 1994 the Cleveland Indians retired the number 14 he had worn in the ten seasons playing there. The 1997 All-Star Game in Cleveland was dedicated to Larry Doby. He was honorary American League captain and threw out the first pitch for the game. About half a million dollars from the All-Star proceeds went to building a playground project in the city where he first played, the Larry Doby All-Star Playground. Finally, in July 1998, Doby was awarded a long overdue recognition, induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The plaque for Doby in the Hall of Fame reads as follows:

"Exceptional athletic prowess and a staunch constitution led to a successful playing career after integrating the American League in 1947. A seven-time All-Star who batted .283 with 253 home runs and 970 RBI in 13 major league seasons. The power-hitting center fielder paced the A.L. in home runs twice and collected 100 RBI five times, while leading the Indians to pennants in 1948 and 1954. Appointed manager of the White Sox in 1978, the second African-American to lead a major league club. Played four seasons with Newark in the Negro National League. Following player career worked as a scout and major league baseball executive."

Fifty years after he came onto the national scene, continues to look to the future quietly. He is going about his life's pursuits as special assistant to American League President Gene Budig.

Doby's birth state finally recognized his achievements in 1997. The South Carolina General Assembly passed a congratulatory resolution in recognition of Larry Doby's many pioneering achievements, baseball records, and contributions. Perhaps, at the age of 72, Larry Doby finally had a home.

 

Sources:

Berger, Ken. "A Diamond in the Rough: Doby Provides Inner-City Kids with a Place to Play." The State (July 9, 1997), C-1, 4.

"Doby, Forgotten Pioneer, Gets His Due." Associated Press (July 6, 1997). Online. The Internet. Available: http://wedge.nando.net/newsroom/ap/bbo/1997/mlb/cle/feat/archive/070697/cle24979.html. September 11, 1997.

"Larry Doby: Double Dip, Chocolate Chip Player." Online. The Internet: Available: http://www.majorleaguebaseball.com/nbl/nl10.sml. September 11, 1997.

"Larry Doby: The First World Champion." Online. The Internet. Available: http://www.aafla.com/larry.htm. September 11, 1997.

Livingston, Bill. "Cleveland's Tolerance Was Not By Accident." Cleveland Plain Dealer (March 30, 1997). Online. The Internet. Available: http://www.cleveland.com/sports/tribefan/history/doby/. September 11, 1997.

Mittler, Doug. "Larry Doby Moves Into Spotlight at All-Star Festivities" (July 8 1997). Online. The Internet. Available: http://www.cbs.sportsline.com/u/sportsticker/html/baseball/LGNS/BBM--DOBYFTR-X.HTM. September 11, 1997.

Moore, Joseph Thomas. Pride Against Prejudice: The Biography of Larry Doby (New York: Praeger, 1988).

Robinson, Bill. "Doby Enters Baseball Hall of Fame." The State (July 27, 1998), A1,7.

Robinson, Bill. "Doby, Pride of Camden, Enters Hall." The State (July 25, 1998), B1,2.

Spear, Bob. "At Long Last, Doby Gets his Reward." The State (July 28, 1998), C1,3.

Spear, Bob. "Larry Doby's Gift to Us All." The State (May 23, 1997), C1.

last updated 7/31/2008

 

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Addendum:  Larry Doby’s Greatest Catch: An Eyewitness Account 

By Ken Saulter 

June 25, 2008 

Baseball Hall of Famer (1998) Larry Doby’s career seemed to follow a path that was the opposite of the Latin motto nulli secondis, “second to none.” Jackie Robinson was the first black player in the major leagues when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers of the National League. Doby was the second black player to enter baseball’s major leagues when he joined the American League’s Cleveland Indians in July1947. Doby followed Robinson by 11weeks when he helped break the race barrier in major league baseball.

This story is about a memorable catch by Larry Doby on a day in mid-summer 1954 in Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium.  In keeping with Larry’s pattern it is, I believe, his greatest and most dramatic catch but is still second to Willie May’s more famous World Series catch in September 1954, two months after Doby’s catch during regular season play. Willie’s feat was witnessed by a nationwide television audience so it’s no wonder why it became quickly known among baseball fans as “the catch.”

As for Larry’s catch, I saw it happen on July 31, 1954. At the time I was thirteen years old and in my second season selling souvenir programs at the Cleveland Municipal Stadium. I was hired despite the fact that I was well below the age limit of sixteen--I was tall and enthusiastic for my age. But, I just followed the older kids in the projects when they took the bus to the stadium from 7th & Starkweather on Cleveland’s lower westside. Getting my first job selling scorecards at Indians games was the highlight of my early youth. Not only did I make good tips but I got to see every game I worked!

I remember many Indian players:  Al Rosen (3B), Bob Lemon (P), Bobby Avila (2B), Luke Easter (1B), Early Wynn (P), George Strickland (SS), and the rest but the at the top of my list was Larry Doby, Center Field and a great hitter who’s classic batting stance was copied by me and by kids all over town.

As for Larry’s catch I was blown away by the catch and what followed. I told this story for weeks after it happened to anyone who would listen. My memory of Doby’s catch is clear but some of the game details are less clear.  It was a Washington Senators game on a Saturday with a very large Cleveland crowd who were obviously pleased with the Indian’s win-loss record (68 wins and 33 losses). The Indians were on their way to an American league pennant and a shot at another World Series Championship!

As far as the game goes, it was after the 3rd inning, when I would normally turn in my uniform and find a place to either stand or sit to watch the game. I usually sat or stood next to an exit stairwell halfway up the stands on the right field side of the stadium. I had a good view of the center and right outfields and, as long as I didn’t block anyone’s view, I wasn’t bothered by the ushers who recognized me as a stadium employee.

As for Larry Doby’s catch here is what I remember.

Things were going fairly routinely, a pitching duel was probably underway. There was no score about half way in the game, probably the 5th or 6th inning. As it often is in baseball, suddenly things changed. With maybe one out in the inning, a Senator’s batter hit a long ball to deep center-right field. The crack of the bat got a crowd of fans on their feet. Eyes were fixed on the outfield fence. The cyclone fence marker was probably about 375 feet.  Everyone could see that the ball was probably going to clear the outfield fence and score the Senator’s first run.

Larry was playing his usual center-field position. When the ball was hit, he went after it starting from middle-centerfield with the ball sailing to his left. He took off after the ball and it looked like he was going to crash into the outfield fence when he put a foot onto the fence, lifted himself up about two to three feet over the top (which fortunately was covered with a green padding material to cover the fence’s barbs), reached as far as he possibly could and caught the ball in his left hand glove.

He immediately fell onto an awning on the other side of the fence. The awning, about 12’x10’was supported by metal corner poles about as tall as the outfield fence itself and was put there by stadium grounds-keepers to provide shade for bull-pen pitchers to sit under while watching games.

Larry fell onto the awning and literally bounced up and fell on the fair-side of the fence. He hit the ground pretty hard but the ball stayed secure in his glove. The ball was declared caught and a tremendous cheer went up among the Cleveland fans.

But Larry lay motionless on the field and as if on cue, the crowd went completely silent. Then it seemed as it the entire Indians bench empted the dugout and surrounded the spot where Larry laid.  Everybody’s eyes were on the circle of Indians players waiting for some indication of Larry’s condition. Everyone was quietly murmuring with each other about what had just happened.

Finally After a minute or two, there was a movement among the Cleveland players and Larry’s partially-bald head emerged in the middle of the Indians players and the players, with Larry still surrounded by his teammates, started moving toward the Indian dugout. As he walked toward the dugout, the crowd gave him a standing ovation.

But, about half-way to the dugout, Larry stopped and exchanged words with Al Lopez, the Cleveland Manager. All of a sudden, Larry put on his hat and glove, shook his head OK and started walking--then jogging-- back to his position in center field. The crowd cheered with pride and great emotion.

What a catch! The whole episode took maybe ten minutes but what an emotion-filled play and witness to a coming Hall of Famer’s great character and skill. But the story doesn’t quite end there.

About two innings later Larry came to bat to loud and enthusiastic cheers. On the first two pitches Larry took two balls but on the third pitch he knocks the ball over the right-field fence for a home run. As Larry rounded the bases, the berserk fans knew that they had witnessed a truly great baseball moment and saw a baseball player at the height of his career performing in a way that would have Indian fans talking about it for years and decades to come.

This Doby catch was undoubtedly his greatest and, I would argue, second only to Willie Mays’s World Series catch. The famous pitcher Dizzy Dean, with decades in the game and who was announcing the game for the Senators, was quoted as saying it was the greatest catch he had ever seen. Cleveland won the game 6-0 and swept the four game series.

The famous Willie Mays catch took place in the first game of the 1954 World Series between the New York Giants and the Cleveland Indians on September 29th. Cleveland’s Vic Wertz hit the ball about 400 feet. Willie caught the ball and stopped on a dime, turned and unleashed a perfect throw to second base preventing Larry Doby from scoring Cleveland’s first run of the game. Cleveland went on to lose four straight and haven’t been to a world series since.

Larry Doby went on to Baseball’s Hall of Fame after being a seven time All Star player from 1949 thru 1955. His final game was played June 26, 1959. He died June 18, 2003 at the age of seventy-nine. President Bush issued the following statement on his death:

“Larry Doby was a good and honorable man and a tremendous athlete and manager. He had a profound influence on the game of baseball and will be missed. As the first African-American in the American League he helped lead the Cleveland Indians to their last World Series title in 1948. Laura and I send our heartfelt condolences to Larry’s family and loved ones.”

 

Ken Saulter was born in Cleveland, Ohio and grew-up in the Tremont neighborhood. He sold scorecard programs at Cleveland Indians games during the 1953 and 1954 seasons. He is a retired economist and lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He can be reached at kjsaulter@gmail.com

 

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