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Baseball Pioneer Doby Dies

He became American League's first black player 11 weeks after Jackie Robinson broke baseball color barrier.

June 19, 2003|Ross Newhan | Times Staff Writer

Larry Doby, who joined Jackie Robinson in breaking down baseball's color barrier, died Wednesday night at his home in Montclair, N.J., after a long illness. Some baseball record books listed the Hall of Fame outfielder as being 78, others 79.

A seven-time All-Star during a 13-year major league career, Doby became the American League's first African American player when he joined the Cleveland Indians on July 5, 1947, just 11 weeks after Robinson became baseball's first African American player when he debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Doby would go on to hit 253 home runs, drive in 970 runs and bat .283, but he often said that he never faced a more difficult situation than his first day with the Indians.

"Teammates were lined up and some would greet you and some wouldn't," he said. "You could deal with it, but it was hard."

Although Robinson's career has been celebrated on the basis of accomplishment and pioneering impact, Doby's, by contrast, has been often overlooked, even though he helped open similar doors while experiencing the same racial taunts and prejudices.

In his first years with the Indians, Doby was kept apart from his teammates -- eating in separate restaurants, sleeping in separate hotels -- even during spring training.

Despite frequent provocations, Doby kept his temper, displaying the grace that marked his career and life while heeding Bill Veeck's advice when the then Cleveland owner bought Doby's contract from the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League.

"He sat me down and told me some of the do's and don'ts," Doby once said. "No arguing with umpires. Don't even turn around on a bad call at the plate and no dissertations with opposing players -- either of those might start a race riot."

Doby seldom expressed bitterness about the discrimination he endured -- "we hope baseball has given [people] some idea of what it is to live together and how you can get along, whether you be black or white," he said in a college commencement speech after retiring -- but some wounds were difficult to heal.

"There's something in the Bible that says you should forgive and forget," Doby told the New York Post in 1999. "Well, you might forgive. But boy, it is tough to forget."

Doby was a 22-year-old second baseman when the Indians signed him. Two seasons later, as the team's starting center fielder in 1948, he helped the Indians win the World Series, which they have not done since.

"Larry Doby could do everything -- hit, run, field and throw," said former New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra, a Veterans committee member when that group elected Doby to the Hall of Fame in 1998.

"Larry and I were very good friends," Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller, Doby's teammate in Cleveland from 1947-55, said Wednesday night. "He was a great guy, a great center fielder and a great teammate. He helped us win the pennant in 1948 and the World Series. My thoughts go out to his family."

Feller remembered some of the difficulties Doby faced when he entered the league.

"It was tough on him," Feller said. "Larry was very sensitive, more so than [Jackie] Robinson or Satchel Paige or Luke Easter or some of the other players who came over from the Negro Leagues. He was completely different from Jackie as a player. He was aggressive, but not like Jackie was."

In an era when power hitting wasn't as prevalent as it is now, Doby slugged at least 20 home runs in eight consecutive years, leading the league with 32 in both 1952 and '54, when he also led the league with 126 RBI.

In 1949, he, Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe became baseball's first black All-Stars.

"It was a great feeling for me to look across the diamond and see other black faces," Doby told Ebony magazine in 1999. "I think I was more excited after the game after thinking about the history, but that day looking across the diamond and seeing those guys I no longer felt like I was all alone."

Doby was born in Camden, S.C., the son of a semipro baseball player who died when Doby was 8. He moved with his family to Paterson, N.J., in his teens. In 1942, he joined the Newark Eagles, playing under the name of Larry Walker to protect his amateur status, and playing his first pro game at Yankee Stadium.

Although his Newark career was interrupted by two years in the Navy, he attracted the interest of Cleveland, where he would be joined by the legendary Paige, by hitting .414 with 14 homers in his final season with the Eagles, leading the league in both categories and leading his team to the championship of the Negro World Series.

Doby ended his major league career in 1959 with the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox, with whom he eventually became baseball's second African American manager, following Frank Robinson, in 1978. He also had coaching and front office stints with the White Sox, Indians and Montreal Expos before wrapping up his baseball career by working in community relations for the commissioner's office in New York.

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