Well into the 1950s Doby was the only Black All-Star in the American League during a period in which fifteen black players became National League All-Stars. Why is Doby largely forgotten as a central figure in baseball’s integration? Why has he not been accorded his rightful place in baseball history? Greatness in the Shadows attempts to answer these questions, bringing Doby’s story to life and sharing his achievements and firsts with a new generation.
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Greatness in the Shadows
Larry Doby and the Integration of the American League
By Douglas M. Branson
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
The Coolest of Them All?
Mantle, Mays, or Doby?
That [Mays and Mantle] were the two best players of the period isn't simply a myth ... it's a fact. ... [It is] obvious that they are the two greatest players in the history of the game.
— Allen Barra, Mickey and Willie
Who was the best ball player? Was it Willie Mays, center fielder of the San Francisco (then–New York) Giants, whom "a great many people consider ... the greatest all-around player of all time?" Or was it Mickey Mantle, fleet center fielder of the dominant New York Yankees, known for hitting prodigious tape-measure home runs, 535 of them over his eighteen-year Major League career? Or was it the quiet, unassuming centerfielder Larry Doby, playing in the hinterlands of Cleveland? In his book on Mantle and Mays, quoted above, author Allen Barra mentions Doby only a single time and never utters anything close to a superlative.
Baseball and American Life Post–World War II
Those were the conversations and comparisons that took place in nearly every schoolyard and in many work places all across the United States. It is difficult to overemphasize the importance and the centrality of baseball in American life in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Never before, and never since, has baseball captured the attention of so many. As David Halberstam has written, "In the years immediately following World War II, professional baseball mesmerized the American people. ... Baseball, more than anything else, seemed to symbolize normalcy and a return to life as it had been before Pearl Harbor."
During the war U.S. citizens had endured over four years of privation, with scarcity and rationing of everything from eggs and butter to automobiles, tires, and gasoline. Their loved ones had been in harm's way, or at least potentially so. Nearly every American male of appropriate age served in the military; 418,500 of them died in combat. Worldwide 15 million military men and women died. No one knows for sure, but 60 million people, or more, are estimated to have died in World War II.
"When Bob Feller returned from the Navy," where he had spent the four years since Pearl Harbor, "to pitch in late August, 1945, a Cleveland paper headlined the event: THIS IS WHAT WE'VE BEENWAITING FOR. ... The crowds were extraordinary and enthusiastic." Everyone was eager to leave the war years behind. For many baseball was the vehicle to do so. "Nor was it just numbers" of fans. "There was a special intensity to it in those days." When the Boston Red Sox trained down to New York for a series against the Yankees, fans crammed the station platforms in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut to cheer the team as its train passed thorough the station.
In 1948 the Cleveland Indians, for whom Larry Doby and Bob Feller played, and who won the AL pennant and the World Series that year, set a record, drawing 2.6 million fans in the regular season, closely followed by the New York Yankees, who drew 2.4 million. Newspapers throughout the country headlined the baseball pennant races every day. Men and women brought radios to their offices and workplaces (back then the games were played in the afternoons rather than at night).
The popularity, indeed centrality, of baseball in American life continued into the 1950s. On summer Sundays, especially in August and September, the Cleveland Indians played doubleheaders against the Yankees in Cleveland's Municipal Stadium, drawing sold-out crowds of eighty-five thousand plus. In 1951, 1952, 1953, 1955, and 1956, the Indians battled the Yankees for the American League pennant and finished second in each of those years. Only in 1954 did the Indians best the Yankees, finishing first, but in that decade at least, the Indians always contended for the pennant, and the pennant races — Cleveland versus New York, Indians versus Yankees — were filled with excitement and drama.
A Personal Take on Those "Wonder Years"
Those Indians versus Yankees doubleheaders, and the excitement swirling about them, more than anything else characterize the time in which I became a baseball fan. Those years also coincide with the years in which Larry Doby starred for the Indians: a fixture in center field, a spectacular fielder, a home run hitter, and a quiet, dignified presence on and off the playing field. Countless times I listened to longtime Cleveland announcer Jimmy Dudley after Doby had hit a towering drive: "Going, going ... gone." But, again, only in 2013, when watching the credits for the movie 42, did I learn that Doby had also been a racial pioneer, doing in the American League what Jackie Robinson had done a few weeks earlier in the National.
In 1955 I played right field, and once in a while third base, for the South Dayton Optimist Club. (The Optimists' creed: "Talk health, happiness and prosperity to every person you meet — think only of the best, work only for the best, and expect only the best.") On practice days, like thousands of other kids, I would tie one baseball shoelace to a lace from the other shoe. Draping the shoelaces over my shoulder, one shoe in front and the other against my back, I would slide the wristband of my mitt onto my handlebars. With baseball glove hanging from the handlebars and "my spikes" swinging to and fro, I would ride off to practice at Wilmington Park, a mile away.
We — my friends, teammates, and I — all had our baseball card collections. Mine filled a cigar box and half of another. Often, even just before practice, my friends and I compared cards; traded cards; proposed, negotiated, and bought and sold cards; and filed and refiled cards, for hours. We bought packets with the Topps baseball cards inside; we kept the cards but threw the gum away (we thought it tasted like cardboard).
I saw my first Major League game in 1955, Cleveland Indians against the Baltimore Orioles, who had recently arrived in Baltimorefrom St. Louis, where the team had been the Browns. Mike "The Bear" Garcia pitched for the Indians; Larry Doby, my hero, played center field. My fantasy, then and for several years thereafter, was to be just like him. I was crestfallen when the Indians traded Doby to the Chicago White Sox following the 1955 season.
Doby, of course, also was African American, which I can't say made any impression on me back then. Growing up, I went to Catholic schools with students of all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. Some of my friends were black; we played sports together. In the Catholic schools I attended, the nuns and later the brothers placed strong emphasis on racial equality and social justice.
In those moments of fantasy, unlike most other boys my age, my childhood hero was not Willie Mays and it was not Mickey Mantle, both of whom I knew about and perhaps knew, instinctively, might be better players than Doby — but not by much. My childhood hero was Larry Doby.
A Peek at Doby's Career
In 1955 Doby had hit .291 for the Indians. Mantle hit only .298 lifetime; Mays hit .302. To compare, a recent inductee (2015) into the Baseball Hall of Fame, former Houston Astro Craig Biggio, hit .283 lifetime.
The year previous, 1954, was a stellar one for Doby: 32 home runs and 126 runs batted in (RBIs), leading the American League in both categories. In 1954 he also led Cleveland to a 111-win season, then the Major League record, and to the American League pennant, which led them only to a disastrous four-game World Series sweep by the New York Giants. Doby was named to the American League All-Star team in seven of the nine years he played for the Indians.
In 1948, the other year in which the Cleveland Indians won the American League pennant and the World Series as well, Doby hit .301 with fourteen home runs, in his first full year in the major leagues. Mantle hit only .267, with thirteen home runs, in his first Major League year. Doby was an athletic center fielder who made circus and highlight-reel catches.
Noteworthy, too, is that through the postwar years and the 1950s, it was only the Indians (1948 and 1954), and the White Sox (1959), the two teams for which Doby played, who offered any serious resistance to the hated New York Yankees. The Yankees won the remainder of the American League pennants and appeared in twelve World Series during that fifteen-year time span.
Only in 2013, when I went to see the movie 42, about Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson breaking down racial barriers for Robinson to become the first African American in Major League history, did I see Doby's name, which by then had long since passed from my consciousness. My wife and I sat in the dark theater with the ending credits rolling. Near the credits' end, fine print indicated that the American League had been integrated in the same year, 1947. Larry Doby, of the Cleveland Indians, had done it. I had never realized that my childhood hero had been a pioneer. I ordered a few books and began to read.
An Amazon search revealed that roughly fifty-five books have been written about Jackie Robinson and his and Branch Rickey's feat, beginning the integration of baseball. Hollywood has produced two, and television one, feature films about Robinson's life. Once each year players for all thirty-two Major League teams wear throwback uniforms, all with Jackie Robinson's number 42, in Robinson's memory. Robinson retired from Major League Baseball in 1958, after only a ten- year career. He was elected unanimously to the Baseball Hall of Fame five years after he retired in the first year in which he was eligible, only the sixth player in history to be so honored.
By contrast, only one book, a biography, Larry Doby: The Struggle of the American League's First Black Player (2011), by history professor Joseph Thomas Moore of New Jersey's Montclair State University, exists. Only two memorials exist: Cleveland named a street outside Jacobs Field (now Progressive Field) after Doby, and the Indians have placed a Doby statue outside the park. Cleveland has also retired Doby's number, 14.
Why? As well as the fifty-five books about Jackie Robinson, thirty-five books have been written about Mickey Mantle; thirty-two books by or about Willie Mays; and thirty-one books about Satchel Paige, the lanky pitcher, humorist, and legendary character who followed Doby to the Indians. But only one book about Doby?
Arguably, in beginning the integration of the American League, Doby had a much rougher time of it than Robinson did in integrating the National League (see chapter 17). Of course, it goes without saying that neither Doby nor Robinson should have had to endure the taunts, name-calling, isolation, and other forms of discrimination they endured. To cite only a few examples, Doby could not stay with his teammates as the team traveled to many of the other American League cities. He was forced to stay in an African American hotel or in the home of a black family, even during the Indians' spring training in Tucson, Arizona. Doby lived in segregated quarters in ten of the thirteen spring-training sessions he attended, many even after he had become a star. By contrast, in spring training Robinson could enjoy the comforts of his own brick bungalow at Dodger Town, which the Dodgers built in 1949 in Vero Beach, Florida, and used for spring training each year for the remainder of Robinson's Major League career and thereafter (until 2012).
In 1947, unbeknown to Doby, Bill Veeck, owner of the Cleveland Indians, purchased Doby's contract with the Newark Eagles of the Negro Baseball League. In early July Doby received notice of the transaction and then had to parachute into Comiskey Park, Chicago, with little warning and no preparation for his Major League debut and his first Major League season.
Branch Rickey, on the other hand, brought Jackie Robinson along slowly, over an eighteen-month period. Rickey lectured Robinson and held sessions with him. He sent Robinson down to AAAbaseball, with the Montreal Royals of the International League. There Robinson played a full season before largely but not completely tolerant crowds, preparing himself for what the atmosphere was likely to be once he reached "the Bigs."
Willie Mays's introduction to organized baseball and the major leagues was gradual as well, similar to Robinson's. The New York Giants sent Mays for a season to its AAA affiliate, the Minneapolis Millers. There, Mays quickly won acceptance, becoming wildly popular with tolerant, near color-blind Minnesota crowds.
This book is not a biography. Joseph Moore's book, Larry Doby, is a very good one, accurate, easy to read, and well documented. Even though there are some fifty-five books about Robinson, thirty-five about Mantle, and so on, one biography is enough if it's a good one.
Neither is this book an attempt to make the case that Larry Doby was better than, or even the equal of, Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays, other celebrated center fielders. Doby was not. But he was not far behind, a half notch, probably much less, below the skills and achievements of those players, and he was the equal of, if not a better baseball player than, Jackie Robinson.
Doby was a fine center fielder and also a very good hitter, who could hit for average as well as for power. He led the major leagues in slugging percentage in 1952. As noted, he also led the league in home runs (twice), in RBIs (once), and in runs scored (once). He fought in World War II. He was a through-and-through family man who, together with his wife of fifty-three years, raised five children. And he was a racial pioneer who endured as much — indeed probably much more — than his friend and fellow pioneer Jackie Robinson.
To return to my youth out in the hinterlands, both of my best friends, Jimmy Wenzke and Tom Thorton, were Yankees fans, something that seemed inexplicable to me, given their location in Dayton, Ohio. On reflection, though, it's easy enough to understand: there are fans of the "pretty boy teams" (the Yankees and the Dodgers) everywhere. But my buddies also were unabashed Mickey Mantle fans. Intermittently I made the case that Larry Doby was Mantle's equal. But they shouted me down or laughed at me. Maybe I did not even believe it myself, at least in my heart of hearts.
I would, however, make the case today that Doby was a greatplayer and as valuable to his team as Mays was to his and as Mantle was to the Yankees (at least for portions of his career). And during those Doby years, those Indians teams were not too shabby, winning the World Series once, the American League pennant twice, and finishing second to the Yankees in five of the seven other years in which Doby was a Cleveland Indian.
Rather, then, this book asks the question why? Why have Larry Doby and his career received so little attention?CHAPTER 2
The Branch Rickey Yardstick
"Branch, [if you integrate the National League] all hell will break loose."
"No, Lowell, all heaven will rejoice."
— Quoted in Sam Roberts, "Faster than Jackie Robinson"
Mr. Rickey was a Christian Man. He firmly believed that the treatment of the black man was a blot on the history of America.
— Mal Goode, editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, 1955
This book backs into the treatment of beginning integration in modern-day baseball, especially the nearly forgotten Larry Doby half of it. It does so by treating first with the Wizards of Oz, the two gentlemen behind the curtain (well, not really far behind the curtain), Branch Rickey and Bill Veeck. Well-known to baseball historians, Rickey, Veeck, and their stories represent a necessary prelude to any story about the first African Americans in the major leagues.
Excerpted from Greatness in the Shadows by Douglas M. Branson. Copyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Note on Monetary Conversions,
1. The Coolest of Them All? Mantle, Mays, or Doby?,
2. The Branch Rickey Yardstick,
3. Bill Veeck Compared,
4. Doby Breaks the Color Line in the American League,
5. Doby's Middle Years: World Championships, Home Run and RBI Titles,
6. It Takes a Village (and More): Efforts at Breaking the Color Line in Baseball,
7. The Shadow Cast by Rickey and Robinson,
8. The Second Shadow? A Tale of Two Cities,
9. Playing in the American League,
10. The Long Shadow of Satchel Paige,
11. Should Paige Have Been the First?,
12. The Mantle Shadow? Mickey, Mantle Boulevard, Mantle Museum, Mick Lit, Mick Legend, The Mick,
13. Conflation of the Mantle Legend,
14. Willie Mays and "The Catch",
15. Casting Their Own Shadows: Robinson, Doby, and the News Media,
16. Doby's Later Years,
17. Doby, Robinson, Baseball, and Racism,
18. A Seldom-Remembered Pioneer,
Postscript on Baseball Statistics,