When Larry Doby broke the American league’s color barrier

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Larry Doby, who debuted as the first black player in American League history 75 years ago Tuesday, could have ended up in DC if Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith had not been given a chance to land him.

In October 1945, Doby served with Senators star Mickey Vernon in the Navy on a small island near Guam when they heard on the radio that the Brooklyn Dodgers had signed Jackie Robinson to a minor league contract.

“I was very surprised, like many others,” Doby recalled in 1997. “… Mickey said to me, ‘There’s your chance,’ and he wrote a letter to Clark Griffith recommending me. However, they were not. ready to integrate. “

Vernon returned to the Senators in 1946 after a two-year military break and did not miss a beat, leading the U.S. league with a .353 batting average and 51 doubles. Doby rejoined the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League, where he set similar numbers and hit .365 with a league-high 10 triples in 59 games.

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The Cleveland Indians signed Doby to a major league contract in the first week of July 1947, a move that player manager Lou Boudreau called “a routine baseball purchase – in my mind. Confession, race or color are not factors in baseball success” . “

Indian owner Bill Veeck said Robinson had proved to be a legitimate major leaguer. “So I wanted to get the best of the Negro boys available while the grip was good,” he said. “Why wait? Within 10 years, Negro players will be in regular service with big league teams, because there are many colored players with sufficient abilities to get to the majors.”

Doby, then 23, played in his first game on July 5, 1947 – and became the second black player in modern baseball history, less than three months after Robinson broke the sport’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Griffith, meanwhile, dug for years after other teams integrated.

“I do not want to sign a Negro for the Washington Club just to satisfy subversive persons,” he said in a retrospective piece from the 1952 Sporting News in ’82. belonged among the great league players. ”

The Senators did not sign a black player until 1954 – making them one of the last teams to do so.

An escort from the team owner

When Griffith refused to rock the boat in DC – still a southern, separate city at the time – Veeck made the historic decision to integrate the American League midway through the 1947 season. But he later admitted to being in doubt as to whether his the city was ready.

“It’s usually overlooked, but if Jackie Robinson was the ideal man to break the color line, Brooklyn would be the ideal place. I was not so sure of Cleveland,” he wrote in his autobiography, “Veeck as in Wreck.”

Veeck remembered receiving 20,000 letters after signing Doby, “most of them in violent and sometimes obscene protest. Over a period of time, I answered them all. In each response, I included a section in which I congratulated them on being wise enough. to have chosen parents so openly to their liking. “

“Buying Doby was Veeck’s first crucial moment as a major league owner,” Paul Dickson wrote in “Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick.” The movement “gave him a voice as a progressive and social critic.”

In a 1997 interview with the New York Times, Doby praised Veeck as a man who “did not see color. For me, he was color-blind in every way. And I always knew he was there for me. He always seemed to know when things were bad, if things were going to get me in. He called and said, ‘Let’s go out. Let’s have something to eat.’ “

Veeck escorted Doby onto the field in Chicago’s Comiskey Park for his first match, posed for photos with the rookie and patted him on the shoulder with these tips: “Just remember you’re just another baseball player. Stay loose and be a good one. rapper. ”

“I’m really nervous,” Doby told sports writers. “Last night on the train was the first time in four nights I got any sleep.”

He received a round of applause from Chicago fans as he came out on the field before the game and again as he came up as a pinch hitter in the seventh inning. Doby struck out with runners on first and third and one out, but got another ovation when he returned to the dugout.

But the response from his teammates was the opposite – several refused to shake his hand when their manager introduced him, the New York Times later reported.

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The Washingtonians got an early glimpse of Doby, who helped swell the crowd for a weekend series at Griffith Stadium a few weeks later. The Senators had an average of 16,500 fans for the three games – a big increase over their average audience of just over 11,000 that year – but Doby only played in one of them, where he went without a hit in two games, which dropped him to 2 for 16 for the season. The Washington Post reported that despite the slow start, “there is a reassuring assurance about the great Negro that the future will go well.”

“So far, I’ve been pretty much a flop, but maybe I’ll get into this kind of pitching in a little while,” Doby said after the one game he appeared in. “That’s good, this big league pitching. is really awfully good. ” Unlike Robinson, Doby went straight from the Negro Leagues – where he had beaten .354 – to the majors without a minor league effort in between, admitting that he might have failed with the Indians.

Years later, Doby expressed appreciation for the support he received from Washington fans. In one turn, the separation of Griffith Stadium ended in making him feel welcome. As David Maraniss wrote in The Post in 1997, Black fans were relegated to the stands, close to Doby’s position on the road.

“When people say, ‘You played well in Washington,’ yes, I had a motivating factor there,” Doby told Maraniss 50 years after he broke in. “I had cheerleaders there at Griffith Stadium. I did not have to worry about naming. You got cheers from the people when you went out on the field. They would tell you that they appreciated that you were there. Give yourself a little pat when you go out there, and if you hit a home, they would recognize it, and tip their hats. “

‘The shit I took was just as bad’

Doby asked the question he was most often asked – did Robinson make it easier for him? – “one of the dumbest questions ever asked. Think about it. We’re talking about 11 weeks – 1947. Now it’s 50 years later and you’re still hiding racism, educated racist people. How could you change that in 11 weeks? ”

Or as he told the magazine Jet in 1978: “Jackie got all that publicity for finding himself in [racial abuse]. But that was the same thing I had to deal with. He was the first, but the shit I took was just as bad. No one said, ‘We want to be sweet to the other black man.’ ”

In his first year with Cleveland, Doby hit .156 in 32 strokes, mostly as a pinch hitter. The next season, the team picked up Hall of Fame outfielder Tris Speaker to teach the young player, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported in 2012: prejudices.”

Doby took his step that year, hitting .301 to help lead the Indians to the 1948 World Series title – still the franchise’s latest. As Boudreau, the player manager, said in September 1948: “Without Doby we would not be fighting for the pennant. We would probably have been in fourth place.”

After Doby hit a home from Boston Braves star Johnny Sain, who helped the Indians win Game 4, a picture was taken of Doby and a white teammate, pitcher Steve Gromek, embracing cheek-to-cheek with wide grins. The image created a lot of attention – what we would call going viral today.

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“It was a feeling from within, the human side of two people, one black and one white,” Doby later said. “It made up for everything I went through. I would always relate back to it when I was offended or rejected by hotels. I would always think of that image. It would remove all the negative.”

Gromek later recalled to the New York Times, who at home in Hamtramck, Mich .: “People close to me said, ‘Steve, how can you do that?’ Those things did not bother me. “

Doby led all Indians regular with a .318 batting average and a .500 slugging percentage in the World Series. He played 13 seasons in the major leagues, helping the Indians return to the Fall Classic in 1954, hitting 32 homers and running for 126 runs, finishing in second place in the MVP poll for New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra.

That year, Washington’s first black player, Cuban-born Carlos Paula, made his debut, going 2 for 5 with two RBIs in a victory over the Philadelphia Athletics on September 6th.

Also baseballs second black manager

Doby retired in 1959, and Robinson wrote in a 1965 column that Doby had applied for a director-level job.

“The men in control, the men at the top, are not really ready to give a Negro a chance at the top – unless he’s the kind of Negro they can count on being an errand boy,” Robinson wrote in Chicago Defender. a black newspaper.

“Larry Doby gave everything for the game. He is intelligent. He could make a meaningful contribution in the front office. But Larry Doby has one trait in common with me. He is candid. They do not want such a Negro. “There’s a brick wall that confronts the Negro player when his playing days are over.”

But Doby got a chance to make it years later. Veeck, the former Indian owner, tried to buy the Senators in 1967, and he planned to install Elston Howard as the sport’s first black manager. He ended up buying the Chicago White Sox and hired Doby halfway through the 1978 season to replace Bob Lemon. That made Doby the second black manager after Frank Robinson, who had ruled the Indians from 1975 to 1977.

The White Sox only went 37-50 under Doby and fired him after the season, and it never succeeded again. Doby died in 2003.

“Baseball was not the all-American game in 1947 because not all Americans could play,” Doby told the Chicago Tribune in 1987. “And it’s still not the all-American game because not all Americans can work in most positions in baseball. , even if they are qualified, ”he added, citing the scarcity of black leaders, coaches and leaders.

“How they can keep saying it’s hot dogs and apple pie and motherhood and all that, I do not know.”

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