This week marks the 65th anniversary of Larry Doby integrating the American League. His debut with the Cleveland Indians came on July 5, 1947, and I suspected other THT writers—yes, Chris Jaffe especially—might mention the occasion on Thursday. So I chose to make my remarks today, observing the day that Cleveland owner Bill Veeck purchased Doby’s contract from the Newark Eagles. However, sources differ on whether this happened on July 2 or July 3, and Mr. Jaffe got slightly ahead of me yesterday with his anniversary column. I may not be first overall (much like Doby), but I still have a couple thoughts on the matter.
My first thought begins with a man who almost inevitably comes up when you think about Doby’s debut: Jackie Robinson. Robinson is, without doubt, the most-honored man in baseball. His number is retired across the game, barred to everyone except one grandfathered player who isn’t even playing right now. (Get well, Mariano.) Every April 15, the anniversary of his debut, this is reversed, and everybody is wearing his number. The Rookie of the Year award is named after him, but this shining honor is lost in the sun-hard glare of everything else.
I confess thinking sometimes that it’s a bit much. It seems baseball is trying so hard to expiate the sins of a previous generation that it cannot quite move beyond them, even when it is beyond them. And in the center of this effort stands Robinson, raised to a level unique in the sport. He has to be the greatest man in baseball history, they seem to be saying, the only man worthy of these tremendous honors, because only he could have done this tremendous deed.
I can think of another.
Larry Doby walked onto a team whose players didn’t have all that much use for him, and not only due to the age-old scorn of rookies. There were honorable exceptions—Joe Gordon, Jim Hegan, and Bob Lemon being names you might well recognize—but to most of the rest, Doby was an interloper, not a teammate. From opposing players, opposing managers, and fans, he got treatment that is still painful to recount at this far remove. “I can’t see how things were any different for me than they were for [Robinson],” Doby would later say.
He was partly right. The animus against him was comparable to what Robinson suffered, but the support for him in his struggles was much less. For one, the black newspapers of the day, united in extolling Robinson, let Doby fade from their pages. The story was the First Man, not the Next Man. This was short-sighted: that next man mattered very much, in insuring that Robinson wasn’t a fluke, that there would be a next man, and a next, and a next.
But it’s understandable that they might not look too closely at his performance, because in 1947, it did not stand much scrutiny. To be blunt, Larry Doby had an awful 1947. He started exactly one game (the day after his debut), and his .156/.182/.188 line over 33 plate appearances didn’t justify much more.
Robinson had rough patches in his first April, but a 14-game hitting streak to begin May established him as someone who deserved to be in the majors. Whatever vile stuff was being thrown at him, he could stand buttressed by the knowledge that he belonged.
For Larry Doby, it must have felt like he left his bat back in Newark. And in the dark of night, staying at some rundown hotel because the establishment where the rest of the team stayed didn’t serve “his kind,” it had to be terribly tempting to think that maybe he belonged in Newark after all.
But he endured the corrosive mixture of outside abuse and inner doubt. He stuck around for 1948, when vindication came in a flood. He played like a star, and his Indians became the first integrated team to win the World Series.
It didn’t have to be that way. Not every player who crossed the color line in those years was a success story. For a few, the pressures found a seam in their armor and cracked it. Larry Doby, left exposed in some ways not even Robinson was, might have cracked.
But he didn’t. He justified his place in baseball history. Had it fallen to him to be first instead of second, I believe he would have justified that, too. There are surely at least a few others who would have carried the burden as well—but it isn’t their anniversary today.
My second thought requires intruding on the foreign turf of professional football, but it involves Doby as well. Football was just ahead of baseball in integrating its ranks in 1946. The twin tracks it followed to do so are worthy of comment.
Soon after the Cleveland Rams won the 1945 NFL championship, owner Dan Reeves pressured the league to allow him to move the franchise to Los Angeles. A potential stumbling block was that the commissioners of the L.A. Memorial Coliseum required the Rams to be racially integrated to play there, and the NFL barred black players. Reeves’ pressure was remarkably effective: the bar fell, the Rams signed Kenny Washington and Woody Strode from UCLA, and the L.A. Rams were born in 1946.
The NFL might have been prodded by a parallel example. The All-American Football Conference had been founded as a challenge to the established league. When it began play in 1946, one of its teams came pre-desegregated. The Cleveland Browns, led by the innovative Paul Brown, signed Bill Willis and Marion Motley to play for them. It may be no coincidence that the Browns were the absolute class of the AAFC (and once they were absorbed by the NFL, the class of that league as well).
Let’s recap. The AAFC began its short existence in 1946 as an integrated league, thanks to the Cleveland Browns. At the same time, the NFL shed its segregated status due to strong lobbying from the team that months before had won the league title as the Cleveland Rams. A year later, Larry Doby and the Cleveland Indians integrated the American League.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen these connections made before, but there was something about Cleveland in the latter 1940s that made it highly fertile ground for advances in American race relations. And it didn’t vanish too quickly, either: when Frank Robinson became the first black manager in the majors, he did it for the Cleveland Indians.
The second, of course, was Larry Doby.