Baseball Pioneer Larry Doby Dies

Manager Lou Boudreau and Larry Doby, first black player in the American League, stand in the dugout at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Ill., on July 5, 1947 AP

More than a half-century ago when Larry Doby signed his first major league contract, Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck made a prediction.

"'Lawrence,' — he's the only person who called me Lawrence — 'you are going to be part of history,'" Doby said Veeck told him that day.

Doby had more pressing thoughts.

"Part of history? I had no notions about that. I just wanted to play baseball," Doby recalled.

As it turned out, Doby did fine on both counts.

Doby, the first black player in the American League and a Hall of Fame outfielder, died Wednesday night at his home in Montclair, N.J., after a long illness.

Doby, who was believed to be 79, grew up in Paterson — where a post office was renamed in his honor in 1998 — and had lived in Montclair for more than 40 years.

On July 5, 1947, just 11 weeks after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier, Doby joined the Indians.

Doby became a seven-time All-Star in a 13-year career, most of it spent with Cleveland. He helped lead the Indians to their last World Series title in 1948.

"He was a great guy, a great center fielder and a great teammate," Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller, who played with Doby for nearly 10 seasons, said Wednesday night.

Later, with the 1978 Chicago White Sox, Doby became just the second black to manage a major league team, following Frank Robinson.

St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa worked on Doby's staff with the White Sox.

"I got to know him in '78. He brought me up to coach first for him, so I was with him for half a year. Man, that's really bad news," La Russa said.

"I kick myself. I saw his son early in the year and I asked him for his number and I didn't call him. And I regret it," he said.

There are discrepancies over Doby's age. Total Baseball listed his birth date as Dec. 13, 1923, while the Baseball Encyclopedia had it as Dec. 13, 1924. Even Doby's friends weren't sure of the exact date.

Doby hit .283 with 253 home runs and 969 RBIs in a career that lasted through 1959. He was voted into the Hall of Fame by its Veterans Committee in 1998.

Yet on that historic day he joined the Indians, some teammates would not even shake his hand.

"Very tough," Doby once said. "I'd never faced any circumstances like that. Teammates were lined up and some would greet you and some wouldn't. You could deal with it, but it was hard."

Feller saw the struggles Doby went through.

"It was tough on him," he said. "Larry was very sensitive, more so than Robinson or Satchel Paige or Luke Easter or some of the other players who came over from the Negro Leagues. He was completely different from Jackie as a player. He was aggressive, but not like Jackie was."

Doby's No. 14 was retired by the Indians in 1994 — 47 years to date after he signed his contract with Cleveland.

Despite provocation from opposing players and fans, Doby kept his cool. He followed the advice of Veeck, who bought Doby's contract from the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League.

"He sat me down and told me some of the do's and don'ts," Doby once said. "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."

Even in later years, Doby did not dwell on the rough treatment he'd received.

"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."

Seattle hitting coach Lamar Johnson was the White Sox first baseman under Doby.

"We talked a little about what things were like when he first came into the game, but he never went into details," Johnson said Wednesday night. "He said the game had come a long way in some regards and in some other regards it hadn't."

Doby was a second baseman when the Indians signed him. Two seasons later, as the team's starting center fielder, he helped Cleveland win the World Series, hitting a home run in Game 4 against the Boston Braves.

"Larry Doby could do everything — hit, run, field and throw," said Yogi Berra, a Veterans Committee member.

Doby hit at least 20 home runs in eight straight years, back in an era where home runs were not as common as they are now. He led the AL in homers in 1952 and `54 — hitting 32 each season — and led the league in 1954 with 126 RBIs.

Doby played in six straight All-Star games. In 1949, he, Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe became baseball's first black All-Stars.

"It was a great feeling for me to look across the diamond and see other black faces," Doby told Ebony magazine in 1999. "I think I was more excited after the game after thinking about the history, but that day looking across the diamond and seeing those guys I no longer felt like I was all alone."

In 1942, at 17, he joined the Eagles and played under the name of Larry Walker to protect his amateur status. He played his first pro game at Yankee Stadium.

In 1943, Doby became the first black to play in the American Basketball League, a forerunner of the NBA, as a member of the Paterson (N.J.) Panthers.

Doby's Newark career was interrupted by two years in the Navy.

Along with the Indians, he played for the White Sox and Tigers before his career ended in 1959.

After retiring, Doby coached and was in the front office while with the Indians, White Sox and Montreal. He later worked in the commissioner's office.

Doby was director of community relations for the NBA's New Jersey Nets in the late 1970s and got involved in a number of inner-city youth programs.

Doby, of Paterson, and his wife, Helyn, had five children. She died of cancer in 2001.

Funeral arrangements were pending. Doby Jr. said services would be held no earlier than Saturday.
  • Dan Collins

Comments