Larry Doby was the first African-American baseball star to play in the American League (AL). In 1947 — three months after Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Doby signed with Bill Veek’s Cleveland Indians to become the first player to go to the majors directly from the Negro leagues.
A seven-time All-Star centerfielder, Doby and teammate Satchel Paige played major roles in Cleveland’s World Series championship season of 1948. The duo became the first African-Americans to play on a major league championship winning team. Doby’s 7 hits, .500 slugging percentage and .318 average during the six game series is among the best stat lines ever recorded in World Series play.
The trophy beckoned once again in 1954 when Doby’s Cleveland squad won a franchise-record 111 games and the AL pennant before losing to the New York Giants in the World Series (4-0). Doby finished second in the AL Most Valuable Player (MVP) award voting and led the league in RBI and HR. His illustrious career went on to include stints with the Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers and Chunichi Dragons (Japan) before calling it a day (retirement) as a player in 1962.
Doby later served as manager for the White Sox, and in 1995 was appointed to a position in the AL’s executive office. He also served as director with the New Jersey Nets of the National Basketball Association (NBA).
In 1998, Doby was selected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee and died in 2003 at the age of 79.
The Newark Eagles signed Doby in 1942 at the age of 17 for $300. His initial contract only lasted until September when he would return to college; to protect his amateur status he signed under the name “Larry Walker” and local media was told he came to the team from Los Angeles. Doby made his professional debut on May 31, 1942 at Yankee Stadium when the Eagles faced the rival New York Cubans. He went on to bat .391 in 26 games, according to surviving box scores.
As baseball lore goes, Doby shared an interesting story from a game against the Homestead Grays which describes his penchant for hitting singles. On the mound stood fireball pitcher Ray Brown; powerhouse catcher Josh Gibson greeted him at the plate:
My first time up, Josh said, ‘We’re going to find out if you can hit a fastball.’ I singled. Next time up, Josh said, ‘We’re going to find out if you can hit a curveball.’ I singled. Third time up, Josh said, ‘We’re going to find out how you do after you’re knocked down.’ I popped up the first time after they knocked me down. The second time, I singled.
Baseball careers were interrupted during World War II and Doby was no different. He spent 1943 and part of 1944 at Camp Robert Smalls at the Great Lakes Naval Training School near Chicago. There he played on a team that featured major league ballplayers and he batted .342 against the opposition. Jackie Robinson’s signing with the Montreal Royals was reported on the Armed Services Network, and at that point Doby saw a realistic possibility to play in the major leagues. He went on to serve in the Pacific and was discharged from the Navy in January 1946. In the summer, Doby and Helen Curvy were married.
After a brief stint with the San Juan Senators (Puerto Rico), Doby returned to the Newark Eagles and, in picking up where he left off, made the 1946 All-Star roster. He went on to lead the Eagles to the 1946 championship, defeating Satchel Paige’s Kansas City Monarchs in 7 games. For the series, Doby hit .372 with a HR, 5 RBI and 3 SB.
Many in the Negro leagues believed Doby would be the first African-American ballplayer to make it to the major leagues, not Robinson.
On considering a career in major league baseball, Doby said, “I never dreamed that far ahead. Growing up in a segregated society, you couldn’t have thought that that was the way it was going to be. There was no bright spot as far as looking at baseball until Mr. Robinson got the opportunity to play in Montreal in ’46.”
Major League Debut
Doby’s bright spot became brighter on July 5, 1947, when he debuted for the Cleveland Indians. But prejudice would throw shade on his outing, as it typically did in those days. Many of his new teammates refused to shake hands as he walked through the dugout for the first time, some even turned their backs on him. Teammate Joe Gordon, after a moment, broke ranks and asked Doby to play catch. The two quickly became close friends.
Side note: a simple game of catch created a lasting friendship that day. Just think about that.
Doby went on to have an amazing major league career, one that ultimately led to his enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Career highlights and awards:
- 7x All-Star (1949-55)
- World Series Champion (1948)
- 2x AL home run leader (1952, 1954)
- AL RBI leader (1954)
- Cleveland Indians no. 14 retired
- Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame
- Baseball Hall of Fame (1998)
During his 13 seasons playing in Major League Baseball, Doby amassed 253 home runs and a career slash line of .283/.386/.490.
Larry Doby passed away June 18, 2003 and was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in December 2018.