WHO KNEW NUMBER TWO?
Larry Doby, the first African American in the 20th century to play in the American League, passed away yesterday at his home in New Jersey. He was 78. Doby was signed by Bill Veeck to play for the Indians just three months after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the National League. Doby was a major contributor to the Indians last championship season (1948) and went on to enjoy a career that would eventually get him elected to the Hall of Fame. Doby was also the second black manager in the big leagues (hired by Veeck once again).
Unfortunately, Doby’s is most remembered for being number two. The second guy. Who cares about second place? This is particularly upsetting when you consider the fact that Doby had to face the same brutal racism that Robinson encountered:
Before Doby’s election to the Hall, Willie Mays said: “Don’t forget Larry Doby. From what I hear, Jackie had Pee Wee Reese and Gil Hodges and Ralph Branca, but Larry didn’t have anybody.”
…”There’s something in the Bible that says you should forgive and forget,” Doby told the New York Post in 1999. “Well, you might forgive. But boy, it is tough to forget.”
…”The only difference was that Jackie Robinson got all the publicity,” Doby later said. “You didn’t hear much about what I was going through because the media didn’t want to repeat the same story.”
There was, of course, a lot that separated Robinson and Doby. Doby, was younger when he came to the majors, and was a withdrawn and sensitive guy, while Robinson was a tour de force, a dynamo. But what is inexplicable—even inexcusable—is how the press and the public have slighted Doby over the years. Earlier this year, I spoke with the filmmaker Ken Burns about Doby:
Bronx Banter: Jackie Robinson was a fitting choice as the hero of the “Baseball” series. Without taking anything away from his greatness, what about Larry Doby? He was the first black player in the American League. I don’t mean to single you out on this, but how come Doby has been so over looked, even neglected, by history?
KB: That’s one of those situations where when you are not the first, you get forgotten. It’s the John Adams syndrome. So maybe it’s going to take somebody of David McCollough’s caliber to rescue the Larry Doby’s of the world. The guys who end up in second.
BB: Nice guys finish last, right?
KB: That doesn’t make him any less courageous or any less heroic, it’s just that we focused our attention on the heroism and courage of Jackie Robinson, and that’s what we endow with all the symbolic importance that Jackie Robinson has for us.
BB: So it was more of an aesthetic choice rather than just saying, ‘Oh, Doby’s story just isn’t all that interesting.’
KB: It’s just a question of first, it’s not even a question of aesthetics. It’s just Jackie was first, and Jackie also happened to display this incredible courage and heroics and really wore it. And Doby, of course, had to go through much of the same thing, it’s just because our attention was on Jackie, we didn’t have the time to do Doby as well.
Here is a comment from a fan named Philippe that I came across in the Baseball Primer Clutch Hits chat room:
I’d just want to shed some light on the little-known role played by the Montreal Expos in bringing Larry Doby back to the limelight. After his major league career ended, Doby went to Japan for a couple of seasons and then was out of baseball altogether, although the Johnson administration did give him a job on the National Council on Physical Fitness. His main source of income was a liquor store he operated in in New Jersey, however.
The Expos hired Doby shortly after they were granted an expansion franchise in 1968. He was at first a scout and minor league instructor, but in 1971 he became the full-time hitting coach, staying until the end of the 1973 season. He coached in Cleveland in 1974 then was brought back to Montreal to be Karl Kuehl’s bench coach in 1976 (not something to gloat about in your resume), which led to his hiring by the White Sox when the Expos cleaned house after Kuehl’s firing.
And of course, one major league player, catcher Larry Doby Johnson, is named after him.
Rest in peace, Larry Doby. You have left good memories everywhere you have been.
Amen to that.