FORGOTTEN PIONEER : DOBY: FIRST AL BLACK.
Larry Doby remembers clearly his first day in the major leagues, that day 50 years ago when he broke the color barrier in the American League. It was 11 weeks after Jackie Robinson had played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the National League. Doby remembers the excitement of that day when he became only the second black player in the major leagues - he had hardly slept in four nights leading up to it - and he remembers the dismay.
Saturday, July 5, 1947, a sunny morning in Chicago: Lou Boudreau, the manager of the Cleveland Indians, took the 22-year-old second baseman into the visiting team's locker room in Comiskey Park and introduced him to the players. Each of Doby's new teammates stood at his locker and looked over the young black man who had just been purchased by the Indians' owner, Bill Veeck, from the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League. Doby and the manager went from player to player.
``Some of the players shook my hand,'' Doby recalled recently, ``but most of them didn't. It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life.''
When the 6-foot-1-inch, 185-pound newcomer, born in South Carolina but reared in Patterson, N.J., stepped onto the field before the game with the White Sox, he stood on the sideline in Cleveland uniform No. 14, glove in hand, for what he recalled as five or 10 minutes. ``No one offered to play catch,'' he said. Then he heard Joe ``Flash'' Gordon, the All-Star second baseman, call to him: `` `Hey, kid, let's go.' '' And they warmed up.
Doby, a left-handed batter, was called in to pinch-hit in the seventh inning and after ``hitting a scorching drive foul,'' he, according to a wire-service report, struck out.
But he was officially a big-leaguer, one who the following year would help the Indians win the pennant and the World Series. He became the first player to hit a home run in a World Series, made six straight American League All-Star teams and, at one time or another over a 13-year big-league career, led the American League in homers, runs batted in, runs scored and slugging average, as well as strike outs. When he retired in 1959, he did so with a .283 career average and 253 home runs.
As major-league baseball and the nation prepare for a season of homage to the breaking of the color barrier in the big leagues, almost all of the attention is centered on Jackie Robinson, which is understandable, since he was the first. The Jackie Robinson commemorative coins, the Jackie Robinson commemorative video, the Jackie Robinson seminar.
``And that's the way it should be,'' said Doby. ``But Jack and I had very similar experiences. And I wouldn't be human if I didn't want people to remember my participation.''
Doby went through much the same kind of discrimination and abuse that Robinson suffered - not being allowed to stay in the same hotels and eat in the same restaurants as the white players, hearing the racial insults of fans and opposing bench jockeys, experiencing the of some teammates. But while Doby will be honored at the All-Star Game - which, coincidentally, will be played in Cleveland on July 8 - he in some ways seems the forgotten man.
``Jackie Robinson of course deserves all the credit he gets,'' Boudreau said last week. ``But I really don't think that Larry gets the credit he deserves for being the pioneer in the situation he was in.''
About Robinson, Doby said: ``I had the greatest respect for Jack. He was tough and smart and brave. I once told him, `If not for you, then probably not for me.' ''
Lou Brissie, who pitched for the Philadelphia A's beginning in 1947, recalled: ``I was on the bench and heard some of my teammates shouting things at Larry, like, `Porter, carry my bags,' or `Shoe-shine boy, shine my shoes,' and, well, the N-word, too. It was terrible.''
Brissie, who was from South Carolina, had been shot and left for dead in Italy during World War II. He pitched with a large steel brace on his left leg and instinctively felt an identity with the young black player. ``He was a kind of underdog, like me,'' Brissie said.
Doby has not forgotten the abuse: the ``N-word'' being used every day, the calls of ``coon'' and ``jigaboo,'' the times when he slid into second base and the opposing infielder spit in his face.
``I never sought sympathy or felt sorry for myself,'' Doby said. ``And all that stuff just made me try harder, made me more aggressive. Sometimes I'd get too aggressive and swing too hard and miss the pitch.''
But he cannot forget the sense of loneliness, particularly after games. ``It's then you'd really like to be with your teammates, win or lose, and go over the game,'' he said. ``But I'd go off to my hotel in the black part of town, and they'd go off to their hotel.''
Doby is now 72, his hair sprinkled lightly with gray. He is huskier than in the old photos of him breaking in with the Indians. He works for Major League Baseball, handling the licensing of former players. Wearing a tie and suspenders and an easy smile and forthright manner, this father of five, grandfather of six and great-grandfather of three reflected on his years as a ballplayer as he sat recently in a sunny 29th-floor room at the Baseball Commissioner's office in Manhattan.
``When Mr. Veeck signed me,'' Doby said, ``he sat me down and told me some of the do's and don'ts. He said, `Lawrence' - he's the only person who called me Lawrence - `you are going to be part of history.' Part of history? I had no notions about that. I just wanted to play baseball. I mean, I was young. I didn't quite realize then what all this meant. I saw it simply as an opportunity to get ahead.
``Mr. Veeck told me: `No arguing with umpires, don't even turn around at a bad call at the plate, and no dissertations with opposing players, either of those might start a race riot; no associating with female Caucasians' - not that I was going to. And he said remember to act in a way that you know people are watching you. And this was something that both Jack and I took seriously. We knew that if we didn't succeed, it might hinder opportunities for other Afro-Americans.''
Doby had been leading the Negro National League in batting average, at .415, and home runs, with 14, when he was signed by the Indians. He began as a second baseman, but was switched to the outfield, where he would be assured of starting. But he was unaccustomed to playing there, and in an early game, in center field, and with the bases loaded, he misjudged a fly ball in the sun and the ball hit him on the head. It caused his team to lose.
After the game, Bill McKechnie, an Indians coach who had befriended Doby, said to him, ``We'll find out what kind of ballplayer you are tomorrow.'' Doby recalled that McKechnie smiled. ``It was a challenge and a kind of vote of confidence,'' Doby said. ``The next day I hit a home run to win the game.''
Doby appreciated Gordon and McKechnie and the catcher, Jim Hegan, in particular, who would seek to salve his disappointments and perhaps take a seat next to him after he had struck out or made an error. ``They were tremendous,'' Doby said. ``But there were others who don't remember or don't want to remember some of their actions. And sometimes I'd see them later and they'd say, `Hey, Larry, let's go have a beer.' I thought, `When I needed you, where were you?' I forgive, but I can't forget. I politely decline their invitations.''
Doby spent his grammar-school years years in Camden, S.C. He recalls seeing the white people riding in fringed, horse-drawn buggies through the black neighborhood and tossing dimes and nickels at the small black children. And then they would rub the children's heads for good luck. ``My grandmother warned me never to pick up the money,'' Doby said. ``She thought it was undignified.
Photo: (1-2) Larry Doby, who was the first African-American to play in the American League, is shown above. Baseball has celebrated Jackie Robinson's 50th anniversary this season by universally retiring his number. Even community officials in the Queens Borough of New York renamed a highway after Robinson while Doby has been overlooked and near forgotton.
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|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Date:||Apr 20, 1997|
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