CHARLES DOBIE : GENEALOGY

LARRY DOBY,
THE SECOND BLACK
TO PLAY IN THE MAJORS

This is a transcript of a feature article published Sunday, July 6, 1997 on the first and second pages of the Sports section, Pages B1 and B2 of the "Ottawa Citizen". The article is reprinted from the Chicago Tribune.

Playing in the shadow
of baseball's Jackie Robinson

Few people know Larry Doby. He was the second black to play in the majors, Skip Myslenski writes.

CHICAGO

It was sunny in Chicago on the afternoon of July 5, 1947. A concert production of "The Merry Widow" was scheduled for the evening in Grant Park, and at the Rialto, "The Outlaw" with Jane Russell was being held over for a second week.

Marshall Field's was holding its "Big July Towel Event," which featured bath towels at 49 cents, hand towels at 29 cents and face cloths at 13 cents. And, at any Walgreen's, three cakes of Palmolive were going for 18 cents.

Scientists, atomic experts and high-ranking military officials were scurrying about trying to explain, as the "Chicago Tribune" would report, "the saucerlike objects scores of persons in 31 states have reported seeing in the sky within the last two weeks." World leaders were equally concerned about Russia, which was boycotting ecomomic conferences aimed at rebuilding war-ravaged Europe.

And in the visiting manager's office at old Comiskey Park, Cleveland Indians manager Lou Boudreau sat talking with 22-year-old Larry Doby.

Jackie Robinson, in this far different world, had integrated major-league baseball just 81 days earlier, and now Doby was set to become the second black player to grace the game, the first to play in the American League. On July 3, Indians owner Bill Veeck had signed him to a contract; on July 4, Doby had homered in his final at-bat for the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League. That night, he boarded the train that would carry him to his destiny.

On the morning of July 5, he arrived in Chicago, where Veeck met him. Now he was sequestered with Boudreau, who talked with him for more than 30 minutes. "I had read about the reactions to Jackie Robinson," Boudreau recalled, "and I told him it might happen to him, it might not. No one knew. He understood."

Then, with all the Indians assembled in the clubhouse, Boudreau and Doby left the office and began a journey from player to player. At each stop, introductions were made, and here the mist of history has created different memories. "I don't recall anyone not shaking his hand," Boudreau said. "But the story's out now that some didn't."

Said Mel Harder, a pitcher on the team: "Most shook his hand and welcomed him to the Indians. A few didn't, I think about three or so. I think they were all from the South."

Doby's recollection: "Some of the players shook my hand, but most of them didn't. It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. That reception I got was a total shock."

Few remember the second man who walked on the moon, or the pilot who followed Charles Lindbergh's lead and was the second to fly solo across the Atlantic. The second four-minute miler is little more than a historical footnote, an esoteric piece of sports trivia. And sadly, unjustly and unconscionably, this is true too of Larry Doby.

Everyone from U.S. President Bill Clinton to Deion Sanders has taken time to honour Jackie Robinson and all he wrought by smashing baseball's color line a half-century ago. This is as it should be. But outside of the Cleveland Indians, few have paused to recognize Doby, whose own experiences echoed those of the man who happened to beat him to the history books.

"That doesn't bother me -- Jackie Robinson was No. 1, and he deserves that," Doby said. "But when people ask me, 'Did he make it easier for you?' -- that's a stupid question.

"It was 11 weeks between the time Jackie Robinson and I came into the majors. Eleven weeks. Come on. Whatever happened to him happened to me."

Doby, just like Robinson, bumped up against people who didn't want him there, including some of his own teammates, including some of the best-known and best-loved figures in the game. He visited parks where fans greeted him with some of the most vile, hateful names imaginable.

Like Robinson, he was forced to live and eat apart from his teammates, and, like Robinson, he was under orders not to fight back, not to retaliate, to turn the other cheek no matter how much it hurt. Doby, no less than Robinson, was a role model, a flashpoint who would help determine what kind of chance blacks who came later would have. That meant his actions were constantly scrutinized.

He had to perform under extreme pressure, had to maintain his dignity while showered with scurrilous venom. And he would do so after struggling through 1947. He was then a second baseman on a team with the game's best second baseman, Joe Gordon. Used primarily as a pinch hitter, Doby appeared in only 29 games and hit .156 in just 32 at-bats.

The next spring, he was converted into a centre-fielder, and he ended his first full season in the majors with a .301 average, 14 home runs and 66 RBI. Four years later, in 1952, he led the American League with 32 home runs and a .541 slugging percentage. When he retired, after an injury-plagued 1959 season with the White Sox, he was a six-time All-Star with 253 home runs and a career batting average of .283.

He was an exemplary performer through much of this time, yet one hit among the 1,515 accumulated remains with him to this day. It is the home run he drove out of Cleveland's Municipal Stadium in the third inning of the fourth game of the 1948 World Series. It not only won the game for the Indians, but later, in public view and for all the photographers to record, he was also warmly embraced by Steve Gromek, the winning pitcher.

"When he hit the home run," Gromek recalled, "someone said, 'Let's take a picture.' He got his arm under me, I put my arm around his neck, he squeezed, I squeezed, the picture came out.

"Some people, when I got home (to Hamtramck, Michigan), resented it. They said I kissed him. It wasn't a kiss. But I was happy the picture came out the way it did. Hell, he won the game for me, didn't he? That's all that mattered to me."

"The embrace," remembers Doby. "It was special because it was the first time anyone showed feeling toward me, as far as I'm concerned. I mean, toward an African-American. Until then, they had been distant, cool. And he got criticized for what he did back home in Hamtramck.

"I think it was the first picture taken of that type, the first picture of a black American and a white American embracing each other going out all over the country. That embrace is one memory I'll always have."

Larry Doby, the introductions done, stepped out into the sun wearing No. 14 on that afternoon of July 5, 1947. The Indians retired his number three years ago -- 40 yars after his 32 homers and 126 RBI helped lead them to the 1954 World Series -- but, on the day of his debut, he was studiously ignored by his new teammates.

Several minutes passed, and still he just stood there, no one willing to warm him up or play catch with him. "You don't know what a terrible feeling that was," he would recall. Interestingly, Gordon rescued him.

"Hey, kid, let's warm up," the All-Star second baseman said to the new second baseman, and they did. When the game started, Doby went to the bench, where he sat silently until the seventh inning, when Boudreau, his team trailing by two, asked him to pinch-hit for pitcher Bryan Stephens with one out and two runners.

There were only 14,655 cash customers and 3,407 women guests (as the "Tribune" described them) at Comiskey that day, and they greeted Doby warmly. He set himself to face Sox reliever Earl Harrist, and this is how the "Tribune" detailed the minutes that followed:

"He swung at the first pitch but missed. He swung at the second, and whistled a line drive past third base. It curved foul. Then Harrist tried to make him bite on a couple of bad pitches. He let 'em alone. The next hooked over the plate, and he indulged in another free-for-all swing, but not in the right place."

In his first at-bat, then, Larry Doby struck out, but it hardly mattered. He had, on an afternoon worth remembering, found his rightful place, his own place in the major leagues, just 81 days after Jackie Robinson.

Skip Myslenski is a reporter for "The Chicago Tribune".


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