Memories & Dreams: Plaque Check/Larry Doby

By Marty Appel

It would be ironic to say that Larry Doby was the second baseball player honored with a U.S. postage stamp – but he wasn’t. (That was Babe Ruth).

Still, when Doby’s time came in 2011, the Buzz Aldrin of baseball received his due. For just as Aldrin will always be remembered as the second man on the moon, Doby’s place in history will be as the second African-American player and then the second African-American manager in the Major Leagues.

The pride of Paterson (NJ)’s Eastside High debuted as a player with the Cleveland Indians 80 days after Jackie Robinson broke the unwritten color line in baseball in 1947. Had he been signed at the start of the season, he would have broken in on the same day, same hour, as Jackie.

Doby was certainly more of a surprise than Robinson had been. When Jackie, a Brooklyn farmhand, had played at Montreal in 1946, many people knew that his day was coming. Doby opened the ’47 season in the Negro Leagues, a teammate of Monte Irvin and Satchel Paige on the Newark Eagles, managed by Biz Mackey. He played the first game of a doubleheader for the Eagles on July 4, and made his Major League debut the very next day in Comiskey Park, wearing the grey visiting uniform of the Indians. No one saw that coming, but Bill Veeck, the owner of the Indians, had long sought to integrate the game, and with this move, he at once integrated the American League. That is Doby’s “first” – the first African-American player in the American League.

Joe Gordon, Cleveland’s second baseman, was the first to greet Doby and welcome him to the team. Others, as with Brooklyn, were less gracious. His manager was Lou Boudreau, also the shortstop, and so suddenly, with Doby installed at first base that day, the Indians had future Hall of Famers at first, second and short.

Larry didn’t play much as a rookie, but in his first full season, 1948, the Indians won their first world championship in 28 years, with Doby, now an outfielder, hitting .301 and then .318 in the Series. (It remains the Indians last world championship).

Quickly, his prominence in the league was established. He made the All-Star team seven years in a row, and in 1954, with the Indians returning to the Series, he finished second to Yogi Berra in MVP voting. He twice led the league in homers, and also had RBI and slugging percentage titles.

He went on to play for the White Sox, Tigers, and one more tour with the Indians before becoming only the third American to play in Japan. His 13-season Major League average was .283 with 253 home runs.

In 1978, with Veeck back as owner of the White Sox, Doby was named manager. He had been serving as a coach with Montreal, Cleveland and the White Sox while waiting for a chance. Three years earlier, another Robinson – Frank – had been the first African-American so named. The job didn’t last into a second season, but it raised Doby’s profile and awareness of his historic contributions.

Over the coming years, the Indians retired his number, a field in Paterson would be named for him, a wing at the Yogi Berra Museum in his hometown of Montclair, NJ would be named for him, and the Veteran’s Committee would elect him to the Hall of Fame in 1998.

Larry, a Navy veteran of World War II, died at 80 in 2003. Eight years later, he, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Willie Stargell were honored by the issuance of U.S. postage stamps.