By John Pierce
While enjoying afterschool hummus at Mellow Mushroom with my daughter Abigail yesterday, she asked: “What African American became the next Major League player after Jackie Robinson?”
I’m no help with geometry and biology questions, but this kind of American history is well within my strike zone.
“Larry Doby,” I said. “He was signed by the Cleveland Indians and became the first black player in the American League.”
Always willing to give a bigger answer than the question, I added that his name is not well known outside of baseball circles. But he deserves more recognition.
Bill Veeck, owner and general manager of the Indians, bought Doby’s contract from the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League. Unlike, Robinson, he did not go to the minor leagues first.
Doby joined the Indians on July 5, 1947, less than three months after Robinson’s appearance in Brooklyn. At age 23, he faced the same taunts, threats and discrimination, including teammates who refused to even shake his hand. He and Robinson often talked by phone to encourage each other as they faced daily trials tied solely to their racial makeup.
Although an infielder, Doby moved to centerfield the following season where he would become an all-star — for seven consecutive years.
Not only did Doby demonstrate courage and discipline, and help bring about needed social change, he was quite the ballplayer. Along with teammate and great pitcher of note, Satchel Paige, he put on a World Series ring as the 1948 season came to an end.
He and Paige were the first African Americans to become World Series champions, and his series home run off the Braves’ Johnny Sain was the first for any black player.
As Robinson’s door of opportunity was opened by Branch Rickey, it was Veeck who brought the first African-American player into the American League and years later named him manager of the Chicago White Sox. Doby was second again — since Frank Robinson was the first black manager in the majors.
In retirement, Doby lived in Montclair, N.J., where his family enjoyed a close relationship with the family of Yankees great Yogi Berra. He once said that Berra was the first player in the American League to really talk to him.
But then he added: “Yogi talked to everybody.”
Doby died in 2003 at age 79. He left a good mark on baseball and the nation that he served faithfully in the Navy during World War II.
I know, Abigail simply inquired about a player’s name. But that’s what she gets for asking such good questions over afterschool hummus. History class resumes.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.