In the summer of 1947, 11 weeks after Jackie Robinson suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke the major league color barrier, a 23-year-old black ballplayer named Larry Doby began a big league career of his own when he pinch-hit for the Indians. He struck out, but so often great things begin unremarkable Doby, who died at age 79 on June 18 after a long battle with cancer, would become one of the game's best sluggers, even as he remained one of its forgotten heroes, a historical footnote. "Jackie's number is hung in every ballpark in the country," said Cleveland DH Ellis Burks last week, "but Larry Doby never did get enough recognition for what he did."
Doby wasn't just the second black major leaguer; he was the first in the American League, meaning that, like Robinson, he took the field among all white peers. Doby did more than hold his own: He was a seven-time All-Star who twice led the league in homers. He hit the decisive home run off the Boston Braves' Johnny Sain to win Game 4 of the 1948 World Series. (The Indians won that Series in six games, the team's last world championship.) And in 1978 he became baseball's second black manager—Frank Robinson had been the first, for the Indians in '75—when he took over the White Sox in midseason and managed them for the rest of the year.
The man who hired Doby to manage the White Sox was Bill Veeck, who as the Indians' owner had brought Doby to Cleveland 31 years earlier. In July 1947 Doby was hitting .415 with 14 home runs in 41 games for die Newark Eagles of the Negro National League, numbers that attracted the attention of Veeck, who wanted to integrate his team. Unlike Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, who signed Robinson and then sent him to the minors for 18 months to get ready, Veeck wanted a player to step right in. "I'm going to get [a player] I think can play with Cleveland," Veeck had said before the '47 season. "One afternoon when the team trots out on the field, a Negro player will be out there with it."
Veeck sent Lou Jones—an African-American publicist he had hired earlier that year—to Newark to watch Doby in a July 4 doubleheader. By the start of the second game Doby was on a train to Chicago, where the Indians were playing the White Sox. The next day Veeck announced the signing, and after Doby spent six innings on the bench under the watch of two black Chicago detectives sent to guard him, he went in to pinch-hit against righthander Earl Harrist.
Like Robinson, Doby combined the physical skills and the strong, stoic personality that Veeck thought was needed to break the color barrier. Doby was a lean lefthanded hitter with excellent power and great speed. He was also a quiet Navy veteran (he served in Guam) who married his high school sweetheart from Paterson, N.J., and was virtually vice-free. "When I get two bottles of beer, I'm ready to go to bed," he said in 1950.
For Doby, Cleveland was as close to an ideal major league destination as he would find. The city's football team, the Browns, was dominating the All-America Football Conference with several black players. And Veeck had hired Jones as a liaison to the African-American community and to serve, in Veeck's words, as Doby's "companion and buffer." Yet reaction to Doby was mixed. He received taunts and threats but also ovations. On the road some hotels barred him; the Hotel Statler in Washington, D.C., accepted him as its first black guest.
Some of Doby's teammates refused to talk to him, but others were more welcoming, especially Joe Gordon, the Indians' veteran second baseman. In one of his first games Doby struck out on three pitches, then sat down at the end of the bench with his head in his hands. Gordon was up next, and he too struck out on three pitches, flailing at the last strike. He sat next to Doby and put his head in his hands. "I never asked Gordon then if he struck out deliberately," said Veeck years later. "[But] after that, every time that Doby went out on the field, he would pick up Gordon's glove and throw it to him. It's as nice a thing as I ever saw or heard of in sports."
While his teammates could sympathize with Doby, only one man could empathize. "Jackie and I talked often," Doby said. "Maybe we kept each other from giving up." Robinson, of course, became Brooklyn's catalyst and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962. Doby finished his career with a .283 average and 253 homers in 13 seasons. He was elected to the Hall of Fame by the veterans committee in '98. "Jack and I went through a lot of the same things," said Doby in '97,25 years after he had served as a pallbearer at Robinson's funeral. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't want people to remember that."