By David Marasco
Larry Doby, the first African-American in the American League, has passed. Here is an article about his debut in "Organized Baseball" and how it was treated by the local African-American media
In 1947 Jackie Robinson stormed across the color barrier, played great baseball for the Dodgers and changed America forever. A little less than three months later Larry Doby brought integration to the American League. While he would go on to have an outstanding career that was finally recognized by Cooperstown, his first season with the Indians was not filled with glory. He would see action in only 29 games, mainly as a pinch-hitter. Worse still, while Jackie Robinson was the darling of the African American world, Larry seemed at times to be a forgotten man. Not only by his manager, but also by people who should have been in his corner -- the local African American press.
Like segregated washrooms, "race papers" for the most part are now an artifact of history. Outside of the flagship titles, most are gone. They were the newspapers that were printed by and marketed to the black community in just about every large city in the country. Papers like the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier enjoyed a national distribution and a true voice in the matters of the day. Cleveland was represented by a weekly known as the Cleveland Call and Post. Here we will look at how the Call described the coming of Larry Doby, and how he disappeared off their pages.
Like most newspapers of its genre, the Call's sports sections were dominated by the Jackie Robinson story in early 1947. His debut with the Dodgers made the front page of the April 19 edition. Cleveland owner Bill Veeck revealed his views on Jackie Robinson in a May 24 article. In a press conference given to journalism students at Kent State Veeck claimed that Robinson couldn't handle a good fastball. He also noted that Jackie "didn't quite fit" on the infield and would be a defensive liability. Interesting words from the man who would oversee the breaking of the color barrier in the American League.
The front page of the June 7 Call announced that the AL was on the verge of integration. This information was faulty. They had the Boston Red Sox scouting the Cleveland Buckeye's Sam Jethroe. Boston had given Jethroe a look-and-see tryout in the mid-40's. This was a fairly common practice, major league teams would let a few Negro Leaguers practice with them for a day or two and then tell them that they weren't interested. It was an easy way of appearing to give the Negro Leaguers a chance. But the Call had nailed the wrong team. The following week they printed a correction. The Boston Braves were interested in Jethroe. He would make their roster in 1950. The Red Sox would be the last team to integrate, holding out until 1959.
The first mention of Larry Doby in the context of the major leagues came in the June 28 edition. In an article that appears to have been pasted together as the paper went to print (the first two paragraphs are repeated) it was revealed that the Indians have been scouting Larry. Veeck himself made the press release. One of the Tribe's veteran scouts, Bill Killefer, had been sent to observe the second baseman of the Newark Eagles.
The next week's edition came out on July 5. As the readers picked up their copies Larry was actually making his debut in Chicago. The July 5 story made the front page, right next to Truman addressing a meeting of the NAACP. Here we get a version of the scouting of Larry Doby. Supposedly members of the African American press brought the play of Larry to the attention of Louis Jones, a PR man for the Indians. He in turn talked to Veeck who assigned Killefer to investigate. Following a positive report from Killefer, Jones was sent to New Jersey to talk to Doby. The pair went to Yankee Stadium to watch the Indians play New York. At one point in the interview Jones asked Larry what he thought of the game, "There's nothing down there I can't do," replied Doby.
On the fourth of July Larry Doby played his last Negro League games, hitting a home run in the first game of a double header. This gave him 14 on the year, tops in the Negro National League at the time. He then caught a train for Chicago, arriving on the following day. When he arrived he went to the Congress Hotel to meet Veeck. After a short discussion Larry signed a contract to play with the Indians. It should be noted that Veeck actually bought the rights to Doby from the Eagles, whereas Branch Rickey would simply steal talent from the Negro Leagues. From the hotel the pair went to Comiskey Park where Larry would meet Lou Boudreau, Doby's new manager. Larry was given a nice new uniform, and would see action on his first day. In the seventh inning Larry struck out as a pinch hitter for the pitcher.
Black churches across the South Side of Chicago let out a little early on the next day. The White Sox had a double header against the Indians. Larry would get a start in the second game. In the second inning he struck out again (he would end the season with 11 Ks to his 5 hits). In the third inning he beat out a slow grounder to record his first hit as a major leaguer. Not a bad start for a rookie. He would stay in the Dusable Hotel while his teammates roomed at the segregated Del Prado. According to the Call the only two cities where he would not room with his team were Chicago and St. Louis.
The July 12 copy of the Call was filled with stories of Larry's debut and there was a wide spread of pictures to celebrate the event. The next week's edition would admit that one single in eight trips wasn't up to snuff, but would make the point that not many 22-year-olds faced the situation that Doby encountered. The Call also praised Boudreau's use of Doby as a pinch hitter. July 26 would make the point that Doby had slightly improved (2-12), and added with optimism that the next road trip would take Doby back to the baseball fields he knew and enjoyed from the Negro National League. Sadly this optimism was short lived. The August 2 edition has a short piece about how Larry was not sharp due to his lack of playing time. He would see even less time in print, he would next make the headlines on September 20.
On the same page that announced that Jackie Robinson had won the Rookie of the Year award (which is now known as the Jackie Robinson award), there is a small article entitled "Found: One Larry Doby" This marked the first time on the current road trip that Doby had seen playing time. He came to the plate with two strikes from the last batter and completed the strikeout. The writer joked that Doby was working on a technical paper, "A Scientific Comparison of Splinter Texture in Eight American League Dugouts." A more ominous rumor also surfaced; Doby was to spend 1948 with Baltimore in the International League. The next week had Doby offered to several Pacific Coast League teams, but none would take him as he was a "sandlot performer."
A short piece in the October 11 issue cut to a very important issue. It is alleged that Lou Boudreau never arranged for the proper instruction of his young Negro League player, and that the two never exchanged more than a casual hello. The following week featured a longer article featuring Bill Veeck. He touched upon many points. He claimed that what went on between Boudreau and Doby was their own affair, that he simply signed the paychecks and that he left the running of the team to his manager. Veeck also claimed that he had faith in Doby, and that his future was in the Cleveland organization, but that at the time he wouldn't say if Larry would spend 1948 in the majors or the minors. Perhaps his most important thought was that he had failed Larry by bringing him to the majors right away. Veeck commented that Branch Rickey had the right idea when he brought Jackie Robinson up through Montreal, giving him a year in the minors before bringing him into the fold with the Dodgers. Veeck felt that he had brought Doby along too fast. Still, he was optimistic about getting talent from the Negro Leagues. This was proven in later years as he brought in players such as Satchel Paige and Minnie Minoso. While it was almost impossible to break the Yankees' stranglehold on the American League, with the help of former Negro Leaguers the Indians were able to take the title in 1948 and again in 1954.
While Larry Doby did break the color barrier in the American League it was done with very little fanfare. His poor play at the plate meant that he would not play every day. Without the guarantee that Doby would play, the potential African American customers stayed at home. Robinson drew great crowds in 1947, but the Indians would not see the same effect until they signed Satchel Paige in 1948. It is reasonable to expect the mainstream press to treat Doby as a big story upon his arrival and then ignore him when he became an infrequently used pinch-hitter. It is strange to see the Call take the same point of view. Veeck can shoulder some of the blame for Doby's first season, he didn't put him in an environment conducive to his success. Yet what did the local African American press do to contribute to Doby's chances? True, they criticized his lack of play, and after the season accused Boudreau of mishandling Doby (and then made Veeck answer to those charges). But for a big chunk of the season there was very little, if anything at all, printed about Larry. It was as if he wasn't even a member of the Indians. After waiting all of those years for black players to make the majors it was as if nobody cared. Granted, there was not a lot of on field action to write about, but interviews with Doby could have been serialized and published. Stories about his childhood and Negro Leagues career could be recounted. Something could have been done to give him a higher profile. Yet for whatever reason Larry Doby was an invisible man. Today we know a little better. He has rightly assumed his place with the other legends of the game.
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