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 unremarkably. 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," says Cleveland DH Ellis Burks, "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. And in '78 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. Doby was elected to the Hall by the veterans committee in '98.
The man who hired Doby to manage the Sox was Bill Veeck, who as the Indians' owner had brought Doby to Cleveland 31 years earlier. In July '47 Doby was hitting .415 with 14 home runs in 41 games for the 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. The day after Doby joined the Indians, he spent six innings on the bench under the watch of two black detectives sent to guard him, then went in to hit.
Some of Doby's teammates refused to talk to him, but others were more welcoming, especially Joe Gordon, the 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 Doby's teammates could sympathize with him, only one man could empathize. "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."
From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, June 30, 2003