Baseball’s Forgotten Black Pioneer

By | April 17, 2013

Robert L. Harris, Jr.

– Amidst the hoopla surrounding the outstanding movie 42 and Jackie Robinson’s heroic integration of major league baseball in April, 1947, the media has all but forgotten Larry Doby’s integration of the American League less than three months later. Unlike Robinson who spent a year with the Brooklyn Dodgers’ farm team, Doby moved directly from the Negro League Newark Eagles to the Cleveland Indians. In his first full season in 1948, Doby helped the Indians win the World Series, a feat that Robinson did not accomplish until 1955. Both Robinson and Doby encountered racial prejudice, racist slurs, and even death threats. In one instance while Doby was sliding into second base, an opposing player spat tobacco juice on him. Doby later acknowledged that Robinson received most of the attention because “the media didn’t want to repeat the same story.” And here we are more than sixty years later with a similar result.

Robinson’s story is certainly very compelling, but there is a class distinction between the two. Robinson attended Pasadena Junior College and later University of California, Los Angeles. He was a second lieutenant, 1942-1944, in the U.S. Army during World War II. Doby served in the U.S. Navy, 1943-1945, which did not commission its first black officers until 1944. A gifted athlete four years younger than Robinson, Doby was a New Jersey all-state star in baseball, football, and basketball. After high school, he received an athletic scholarship to play basketball at Long Island University but signed with the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League in 1942. Doby rejoined the Newark Eagles after military service. The Newark Eagles, with a team that included Doby and Monte Irvin, won the Negro League World Championship series in 1946. Many Negro League players thought that Doby or Irvin (who joined the New York Giants in 1949) would be the first black players in major league baseball.

President of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey, however, selected Robinson, to break the color barrier. Robinson played only one season in the Negro Leagues at shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs. Throughout most of his career, he played second base, while Doby played center field and was touted by The Sporting News in 1950 as the best center fielder in professional baseball. Although Doby talked regularly with Robinson by phone during his first season with the Indians, the movie 42 is totally silent on their relationship. They encouraged each other and decided not to do anything that would ruin opportunities for other black players. Cleveland Indians Club President, Bill Veeck, selected Doby as much for his temperament as for his talent. Veeck’s baseball scouts assured him that Doby would not cause any problems on or off the field. Doby therefore did not have to undergo the same tests to which Rickey subjected Robinson.

The media in many respects has distorted Robinson by overlooking Doby. It has given us a singular hero rather than a broader and more complex context that is the essence of black life in America. In 42, we see how one black man confronted racism rather than the way in which black men have historically navigated the thickets of white supremacy.

Robert L. Harris, Jr.
Africana Studies & Research Center
Professor of African American History,
American Studies, & Public Affairs
Cornell University