Pop quiz. (1) Who was the second person to climb to the summit of Mt. Everest? (2) Who was the second person to walk on the moon? (3) Who was the second African-American player to play in the major leagues?
The answers: (1) Tenzing Norgay Sherpa followed Edmund Hillary to the peak of the world's tallest mountain in 1953. (2) Astronaut "Buzz" Aldrin stepped onto the lunar surface 19 minutes after Neil Armstrong in 1969. (3) Larry Doby played his first game for the Cleveland Indians eleven weeks after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.
In each instance, the first person who made those achievements was rewarded with fame and glory, their names etched in the annals of history. For their successors, the exact same achievements brought relative obscurity.
Last week (on April 15), Major League Baseball celebrated the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's first game playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. April 15th is now celebrated each year as Robinson Day. Every player playing in a game that day wears a uniform bearing his number 42, which is otherwise retired from the sport. It is an occasion to pause, reflect and remember the significance of what Robinson did, what he endured and what he overcame. Jackie Robinson is remembered today as far more than a great athlete. He is a civil rights icon, an American hero.
Far less well known is the saga of Doby, who went through the same tribulations as Robinson and arguably had an even harder path to acceptance. What he did, who he was and what he overcame is also worth remembering, admiring and honoring.
Jackie Robinson knew he would play in the major leagues and he knew it would be rough. He had signed a contract with the Dodgers in 1945 and spent the 1946 season with their minor league in Montreal, where he played before adoring home crowds. But he had experienced a taste of the racial hostility that awaited him playing at the Dodgers spring training in Florida in 1946.
In 1947, Doby was a star with the Newark Eagles of the Negro League. He had led his team to the NL World Championship the year before and was having a stellar season. Doby didn't know that Bill Veeck, the owner of the Cleveland Indians, was searching for a Black player that he could sign. He had wanted to integrate baseball back in 1942, but the baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis shut him down. But now, five years later, Brooklyn had Robinson.
Just as the Dodgers' general manager, Branch Rickey, had sought and found in Robinson someone with the courage, maturity and even temperament to handle the pressure and inevitable abuse, Veeck was seeking a Black player with the same strengths. He was also looking for someone who could play at the major league level now without needing to spend time in the minors.
Veeck soon focused on Doby, then just 23 (Robinson was 30), who was an outstanding outfielder who hit for average, had home run power and could field. The Indians scouted for weeks -- unbeknownst to Doby -- and were convinced he was their man.
Veeck contacted the owners of the Newark Eagles and purchased Doby's contract for $10,000 with the promise of another $5,000 if he lasted a month. Doby had learned of the Indians' interest in him only a few weeks earlier, but he was skeptical it was real. Now, the deal was done.
Doby caught a train to Chicago where the Indians were playing the White Sox in early July. The Indians manager, Lou Boudreau, took him to the locker room at Comiskey Park to meet his new teammates. It did not go well. The players stood in a line to be introduced to Doby. Recollections of exactly what happened vary. In Pride and Prejudice: The Biography of Larry Doby by Joseph Thomas Moore, Doby recalled getting cold-fish handshakes from most of the players. Four refused to shake his hand, he said.
The next day, July 5th, Doby was inserted in the lineup as a pinch hitter in the seventh inning. With that appearance, he became the first Black player in the American League. He struck out. He then walked back to the dugout and sat down at the end of the bench -- alone.
"After the game, Doby quickly showered and dressed without incident," wrote Moore. "His escort took him not to the Del Prado Hotel downtown, where the Indians players stayed, but to the black DuSable Hotel in Chicago's predominantly black South Side. The segregated arrangements established a pattern, on Doby's first day, that he would be compelled to follow in spring training and during the regular season, in many cities, throughout his playing career."
The next game, Boudreau penciled Doby in the starting lineup at first base. Doby had never played first base and didn't have a first baseman's mitt. When he tried to borrow the mitt of his teammate, Eddie Robinson, Robinson refused to give it to him. Eventually, he relinquished it, but to a club official as an intermediary.
Throughout that season, Doby faced a barrage of racial abuse and vile epithets from fans and opposing players similar to what Robinson was going through over in the National League.
He would tell Jet magazine in 1978, "Jackie got all the publicity for putting up with it. But it was the same thing I had to deal with. He was first, but the crap I took was just as bad. Nobody said, 'We're gonna be nice to the second Black.'"
With a few exceptions, his teammates simply ignored him both on and off the field.
"If we were staying in the same hotel as the team, I wasn't invited to go out by the other players," Doby told Moore. "They might go to a place where I wouldn't be served, so they didn't do it ... I would go upstairs to my room alone."
In the book, Veeck is quoted saying, "Not only being the first in the American League but even more difficult was the fact that he himself had never really been exposed to the virulence that racism took once he donned an Indians uniform."
Doby and Robinson bonded over their shared struggle. They would speak by phone, offering each other support and encouragement.
"Jackie and I agreed we shouldn't challenge anybody or cause trouble -- or we'd both be out of the big leagues just like that," he said, according to a Sarasota Herald Tribune article in 1974. "We figured that if we spoke out, we would ruin things for other black players."
Doby's stats for the 1947 season were disappointing. He played in just 29 games, hitting .156. He struck out 11 times in 32 plate appearances. Robinson, meanwhile, had a terrific season and was named National League Rookie of the Year.
According to the book The Integration of Major League Baseball: A Team by Team History (by Rick Swaine), Rogers Hornsby, one of the greatest hitters in the history of the game and, according to Joe Posnanski in his wonderful book The Baseball 100, "a known racist," wrote, "Bill Veeck did the Negro race no favor when he signed Larry Doby to a Cleveland contract. If Veeck wanted to demonstrate the Negro has no place in major league baseball, he could have used no subtler means to establish the point."
Things would change dramatically for Doby in 1948. Playing regularly, he tore up the league, as the Indians won the pennant, For the season, Doby hit .301 with 14 home runs and knocked in 66 runs.
That season, three more Black players broke into baseball, including the legendary and supposedly 42-year-old Satchel Paige who joined the Indians.
In the 1948 World Series, the Indians would play the Boston Braves.
In Game 4, Doby hit the game winning home run. In the locker room afterward, Cleveland's pitcher, Steve Gromek, joyfully embraced a smiling Doby. A photographer captured the moment and the picture was widely published. Gromek would later get what he called "static" from friends for it. A long-time acquaintance shunned him. Looking back years later, Doby would say it was the highlight of his career.
"The picture was more rewarding and happy for me than actually hitting that home run," Doby said. "It was such a scuffle for me, after being involved in all that segregation, going through all I had to go through until that picture. The picture finally showed a moment of a man showing his feelings for me. But the picture is not just about me. It shows what feelings should be, regardless of differences among people and it shows what feelings should be in all of life, not just in sports. I think enlightenment can come from such a picture."
The Indians won the next game and the World Series. Doby hit .318.
Doby would go on to play 13 years in the majors. He was a seven-time all-star. His career batting average was .283 and he clubbed 253 home runs. He once went 164 games without making an error, then a record.
He retired after the 1959 season. In 1978, Doby was named manager of the Chicago White Sox. Once again he was second -- the second African-American to manage a major league team.*
Jackie Robinson was elected to baseball's Hall of Fame in 1962, his first year of eligibility. Doby would not be chosen until 1998 and then by the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee, which had the authority to select neglected players who are past their eligibility.
"If someone had told me fifty-one or fifty-two years ago that I would be standing here being honored by the Hall of Fame, I wouldn't believe it," he said in his induction speech. "But thank God I've lived long enough, and I certainly appreciate it."
Four years later, he died of cancer at the age of 79.
Last year, Luke Epplin, author of Our Team: The Epic Story of Four Men and the World Series That Changed Baseball, about Doby, Paige, Veeck and pitcher Bob Feller of the 1948 Indians championship team, wrote an op/ed piece in the Washington Post calling on baseball to celebrate July 5th as Larry Doby Day just as it celebrates Robinson Day each April.
"Focusing so singularly on one player has had the unintended effect of obscuring those who followed in Robinson's footsteps, many of whose narratives differed significantly from his own," wrote Epplin. "Establishing a similar league-wide celebration to commemorate Doby's breakthrough would go a long way toward conveying a richer public understanding about the desegregation of Major League Baseball."
It's time for baseball to step up to the plate and recognize Larry Doby -- baseball great. Civil rights pioneer. American hero.
*Frank Robinson was the first. He became manager of the Indians in 1975
Cover photo credit: Getty Images