Being number two sometimes isn’t treated fairly and is too often overlooked, historically speaking. That’s the case with Larry Doby.
Doby (1923-2003) was the second Black player to break baseball’s color line in the late 1940s. He and Jackie Robinson both came into the majors in 1947 — the former with Cleveland in the American League, and the latter with the National League’s Brooklyn Dodgers. Later, Doby again followed another Robinson as the second Black major league manager after Frank Robinson (no relation to Jackie), who was the first Black hired as manager.
“What an irony,” proclaimed Mike Veeck Monday in an MSR interview at the St. Paul Saints’ ballpark. It was “Larry Doby Night” at the park, an annual honoring of the player that Veeck does at each of the four minor league baseball teams he part owns and operates.
“Every ballpark we are involved in has a Larry Doby section,” noted the Saints’ co-owner and president, who has retired the late player’s number with each team as well. During Monday’s Saints-Winnipeg game, a video tribute of Doby was shown on the stadium outfield scoreboard.
There were times, however, when Doby was first. He was the first Black to hit a home run in a World Series game (1948) and the first Black player to hit a homer for the American League in an All-Star Game (1954). He was named an All-Star seven times in his career.
“I think Doby is very mistreated in history,” explained Veeck, who got to know the man when he was a youngster. He and his siblings grew up with Doby’s children. His father, Bill Veeck, then the Cleveland team owner, signed Doby to a major league contract and brought him to Cleveland a couple of months after Robinson’s Brooklyn debut.
“Dad purchased him from Newark” in the Negro Leagues, recalled the younger Veeck. “He plucked him and paid the owner, and he was then thrust into the Rust Belt” in Cleveland.
“The indignities he suffered” were no less than what Jackie Robinson endured when he debuted as a Dodger, but Doby’s experience wasn’t as well documented as Robinson’s, Veeck pointed out.
“I think you get a sanitized version of how it was…by the Robinson family. I’m simply saying he [Doby] had the same cross to bear in a tougher circuit,” which was the American League, whose teams were slower to integrate than the National League teams, stated Veeck.
He suspects one reason for this is that Robinson was a college graduate while Doby only graduated from high school and started playing Black baseball in Newark at age 17. Doby got a basketball scholarship to a college but didn’t like the school and transferred to another school, but he soon was drafted into the Navy during World War II. He returned to Newark to resume his baseball career after he was discharged, and skipped college altogether.
After his arrival in Cleveland, “He conducted himself with such grace. Helen [his late wife] was a huge part of that,” said Veeck. Just such grace the Dobys extended to Mike and his siblings as well: “We were raised together. You couldn’t tell the difference between Larry, Jr. and my brother Greg,” joked Veeck. “That meant four really special people raised these groups of kids,” he says of the two sets of parents.
A couple of years before his death, Mike Veeck invited Doby to speak to his ownership group and other staff. “He said very emphatically, ‘Listen, things are a lot better today than they were when I started. It doesn’t mean things are good today. Things are just better.’
“I remember looking at my staff and [watching] the reactions. He did it with that quiet strength and dignity. He really was quite a man.
“I only have three heroes in my life: Doby, my father and Bob Dylan,” said Veeck. “They all shared a single trait that I admired — they stood for something.”
Related content: St. Paul Saints co-owner Mike Veeck reflects on Larry Doby’s legacy
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Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.