Sunday, April 08, 2007

Remember Jack, But Don't Forget Larry

Sixty years ago this coming Sunday, Jack Robinson stepped onto a baseball field and into the history books. A fiery competitor and talented all-around athlete, he had been chosen by Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey as the ideal player to implement what is sometimes called “The Great Experiment”: the crossing of baseball’s “color line”, a barrier that had prevented African-American players from competing in the major leagues since the late 1800s.

Following his April 15th debut, Robinson did exactly as Rickey had hoped, winning the Rookie of the Year award, leading the Dodgers into the World Series and keeping his cool in the face of tremendous hatred from teammates, opposing players and fans alike. It was the start of a ten-year career that would ultimately be capped by a long-awaited World Series victory for Brooklyn in 1955 and induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.

Robinson’s contributions to the game of baseball and the civil rights movement led Major League Baseball to honor him in 1997 by retiring his number 42 throughout the league. It was an unprecedented move that brought Robinson, who died in 1972, back to the forefront and presented his story to an entirely new generation of baseball fans.

Because players who wore number 42 at the time of its retirement were allowed to continue doing so until the end of their own playing days, New York Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera still provides a reminder of Robinson’s legacy every time he takes the mound. On April 15, 2007, however, he won’t be the only one. On that day, with every team in baseball paying some sort of homage to Jack’s legacy, any player on any team will have the option of pulling on number 42.

The idea was originally conceived by Cincinnati Reds outfielder Ken Griffey, Jr. and embraced by commissioner Bud Selig. Griffey wasn’t yet three years old when Robinson died, but has nevertheless studied and learned the lessons imparted by his predecessor’s life:

“What I think: If he didn’t achieve or didn’t overcome the racial tension, would I be wearing this uniform? Or, when was the next opportunity that an African-American would get a chance to put on another major league uniform if he didn’t achieve what he did?”

Griffey’s grasp of those who came before him and the way they affected his own career are admirable, but they highlight a regrettable omission that is often made when discussing the issue of race in baseball: the contributions of Lawrence Eugene Doby.

Where Jack Robinson is always celebrated, Larry Doby is often forgotten. The first African-American to play in the American League, he was originally signed by innovative Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck in early July 1947 and made his major league debut on July 5. His first season was difficult (.156 batting average in 32 at-bats, mostly as a pinch-hitter and second baseman), but he shifted to the outfield in 1948 and became a key player on the Indians championship team that year and its pennant winner in 1954.

Unlike Robinson, who was a 28-year-old veteran of the United States military and the Negro Leagues by the time he made his major league debut, Doby was only 23 when he joined the Indians, a kid thrown into a hellish situation. Like Robinson, however, he had played in the Negro Leagues (four years with the Newark Eagles), was an excellent ballplayer, and was greeted with distrust and outright hate by many people, including some of his new teammates. Robinson was no stranger to racism – he was court-martialed in 1944 after refusing to move to the back of a military bus; he was eventually acquitted of the charges – but Doby was less used to such behavior:

“I’d never faced any circumstances like that. Teammates were lined up and some would greet you and some wouldn’t. You could deal with it, but it was hard.”

It is nearly impossible to imagine the similar situations faced by Robinson and Doby – young men who kept their composure despite facing more than most of us can fathom – but for some reason, the latter man’s story has never been fully appreciated by Major League Baseball or its fans. Robinson’s number 42 was retired by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1972 and all of baseball in 1997; Doby’s number 14 wasn’t retired by the Indians until 1994. Robinson was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers Association of America in 1962, his first year of eligibility; Doby also made it to Cooperstown, but he had to wait until 1998, and then only after the writers had finished considering his case and passed him on to the Veteran’s Committee.

Ken Griffey Jr.’s plan to honor Jack Robinson by wearing his number 42 is a great idea, one that every major leaguer should consider sharing next week. But it would also be a great idea if somebody on the Cleveland Indians – maybe C.C. Sabathia, who recently lamented the lack of young black players in the game – asked team management for permission to don number 14.

Because while Jack Robinson was great and deserves all the accolades he has received, the career of Larry Doby is worthy of recognition as well.

Doby was AL’s first African-American player (ESPN)
Jackie Robinson Statistics (Baseball-Reference.com)
Larry Doby Statistics (Baseball-Reference.com)
Retired Uniform Numbers in the American League (Baseball-Almanac.com)
Lack of black players a ‘crisis,’ Indians ace says (MSNBC.com)
The Court Martial of Jackie Robinson (American Heritage)

5 Comments:

Anonymous said...

Bravo!!!

Terrific blog. Doby needs the recognition. He has been slighted to many times for his contribution in 1947 as well. It should stop immediately.

Anonymous said...

Great post, and you couldn't be more right.

The Indians have put in a request to wear Doby's number on the anniversary of his entering the American League so that, much in the same way that all Dodgers fans will be wearing Robinson's 42 on April 15th, all Indians will be wearing Doby's number on his anniversary (assuming that the request is approved by the league).

Anyway, well-written and timely post.

Phillips said...

Great post, it's always a shame that Doby's story seems to get lost in all the hoopla surrounding Robinson's amazing achievements. Well done.

Mini Me said...

Larry is certainly a pioneer and a hero. It is a damn shame that he isn't remembered like Jackie is.

larrybrownsports.com said...

excellent job, I've always thought the same thing about Doby. Far too under-appreciated for having accomplished nearly everything Robinson did. He is the Jackie Robinson of the AL and should be treated as such.