On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first black Major League baseball player of the modern era when he took the field for the National League Brooklyn Dodgers. Three months later, on July 5, Larry Doby debuted for the Cleveland Indians becoming Major League’s second black player and the American League’s first.
Born in Camden, South Carolina in 1923, Doby grew up watching his father, David Doby, play baseball in the neighborhood streets and for local semi-pro teams. His dad’s local semi-pro manager, Richard Dubose, also taught young Larry how to play baseball. After his father passed away, Larry moved with his mother to New Jersey when he was 12 years old. Doby inherited his father’s athleticism and lettered in four sports at Paterson Eastside High School in New Jersey.
While still attending high school, Doby began playing second base for the Newark Eagles in 1942 at age 18. Larry would hit .309 in 23 games. While playing for Newark in 1942, Doby met Negro Leagues legend Josh Gibson, catcher for the Homestead Grays. According to Doby, his first time facing the Grays resulted in several challenges from Gibson.
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.– Larry Doby on his first time meeting Josh Gibson
The following summer, Doby returned to the Newark team and played in 28 games for the Eagles, hitting .301 with 4 home runs in 1943. During this time, Doby took a basketball scholarship to attend Long Island University. He later transferred to Virginia Union College. In 1944, Doby was drafted to serve in the United States Navy during World War II.
While serving in the Pacific for the Navy, Doby met a fellow sailor, Washington Senators player Mickey Vernon. Doby developed a lifelong friendship with Vernon. The rising Major League baseball star, Vernon, petitioned the owner of the Senators to sign Doby, but owner Clark Griffith wasn’t ready. Doby, however, was ready to give up on a baseball career until he met Vernon. Doby was further inspired by the Dodgers’ signing of Jackie Robinson in 1945. In 1946, Doby was honorably discharged from the Navy after the war and returned to baseball.
Returning to Newark in 1946, Doby hit .333 with 8 home runs as his Eagles would go on to win the 1946 Negro Leagues World Series against the Kansas City Monarchs. His play that season caught the eye of Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck. In April 1947, Jackie Robinson made his debut with the NL Dodgers to break the Major League color barrier. The Indians purchased Doby’s contract from Newark halfway through the 1947 season. Before his AL debut in Cleveland, Doby played in 30 games for Newark. In 113 at-bats for the Eagles, he hit .354. His last at-bat with Newark was a home run, his 8th on the season for the Negro League team. Robinson spent two seasons in the minor leagues preparing for his debut. Doby had just hours to prepare for his historic debut.
After his July 5th debut, Doby spent the last half of the 1947 season as a pinch hitter for the Indians and playing a handful of games in the infield. Even with Jackie Robinson being the first to break the Major League color barrier in 1947, Doby spoke of being shunned in the American League clubhouses and stands. In the spring of 1948, Doby won a starting job in center field with the help of former Indians star outfielder and Hall of Famer Tris Speaker’s tutelage. With Speaker’s help, Doby learned to play outfield after a lifetime of playing infield.
In 439 at-bats as the Indians’ starting CF in 1948, Doby hit .301 with 14 home runs and 83 runs scored. Cleveland finished first in the AL and went on to capture their franchise’s second World Series title, defeating the Boston Braves 4 games to 2. In Game Four of the 1948 Fall Classic, Doby would become the first black player to hit a home run in a World Series, leading Cleveland to a 2-1 victory. Doby is also one of only four Negro Leagues players to play in both a Negro Leagues World Series and Major League World Series – the others being Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, and 1948 teammate Satchel Paige.
Doby’s play in 1948, along with Cleveland winning the World Series, helped his teammates and league embrace Doby and break down any negative feelings toward the breaking of baseball’s color barrier. After the 1955 season, Doby was traded to the Chicago White Sox. He retired as a player in 1960 at age 35. In 1962 Doby returned to play baseball for one more season – this time in Japan, signing with the Chunichi Dragons. During his 13-year Major League career, Doby hit .283 with 1,515 hits, and 253 home runs in 1,533 games played. He was a 7-time All-Star and led the league in home runs twice. In his best season in 1954, Doby hit .272 for Cleveland and led the AL with 32 HRs and 126 RBI. He finished second in the 1954 AL MVP voting, just behind Yogi Berra.
After his playing career, Doby was a scout and coach in the Major Leagues for the Montreal Expos, Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox. In 1978, Doby was coaching for the White Sox when manager Bob Lemon was fired halfway through the season. The Sox named Doby as the team’s manager, making him the second black manager in the history of the Major League (Frank Robinson was the first in 1975).
In 1993, Doby was inducted into the New Jersey Sports Hall of Fame. In 1995, Doby served as special assistant to AL president Gene Budig. In 1997, the Indians retired Doby’s number 14 on the 50th anniversary of his historic debut. Doby was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998 by the Veterans Committee.
Doby passed away in 2003 at age 79. In 2015, the Indians unveiled a statue in his honor at their home field, Progressive Field in Cleveland. In 2018, Doby was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
For too long, Larry Doby’s courageous contributions to American civil rights have been overlooked. Awarding him this medal from our national legislature will give his family and his legacy more well-deserved recognition for his heroism.– New Jersey Representative Bill Pascrell in 2018 on Doby’s Congressional Gold Medal
Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (James Riley)
Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
The Plain Dealer – Larry Doby’s challenging route to the Cleveland Indians (Terry Pluto)
Great Black Heroes
SABR article (John McMurray)
Military.com (Richard Sisk)
Seamheads database (Gary Ashwill)
History Stories (Martin Stezano)