Saturday, May 12, 2007

Tribe to Honor Larry Doby

It's time for Major League Baseball to open up their eyes.

On April 15th, Major League Baseball honored the great Jackie Robinson on the 60th anniversary of his breaking the color barrier. ESPN had a commercial during nearly every break announcing Jackie Robinson Day. Players from nearly every team were allowed to wear the #42 in his honor, even though it had been retired league-wide. The Los Angeles Dodgers ALL wore #42.

Unfortunately for MLB, that's where the honors end.

60 years ago, on July 5, 1947, Larry Doby broke the American League color barrier. The problem? Nobody knows a thing about it.

The Indians will take a step to educate the baseball world when they pay tribute to Doby on Friday, August 10 against the New York Yankees. Major League Baseball, in typical Bud Selig fashion, took over a month to okay a proposal by the Indians to allow the entire team to wear his retired #14 during the game. More than likely, his staff had to look up who Doby actually was.

I want to preface the rest of this by saying that what Jackie Robinson did IS something that should be celebrated. Being the first black baseball player in the modern era, combined with the numbers that Robinson put up, certainly make him worthy of the honors bestowed upon him.

Doby deserves the same consideration. When Branch Rickey signed Robinson in 1945, and brought him up to the bigs in 1947, he had planned for the event for many years. Rickey had a plan in place to not only make it easier for Robinson to be successful, but easier for him to avoid certain racial issues that could have come before him. No, I'm not saying that the path was easy for Robinson. That's ridiculous. I am saying that Rickey was shrewd enough, and racial sensitive enough, to make sure that Robinson succeeded not only as a player, but as a person.

Doby didn't have the benefit of that preparation. Bill Veeck signed him on July 3, 1947, sat him down one day and told him not to react to fans and to umpires. Don't do anything physical in retaliation unless it involves hitting a baseball. That was it. He played two days later. Jackie Robinson had been hand-picked years before, signing with the Dodgers in October 1945, and played in the Dodgers minor league system OUTSIDE of the United States, in Montreal. After 1947, Robinson received ALL of the media attention, while Doby took the brunt of the same racial attacks, without ANY of the support or media attention that Robinson received. Doby was straight out of the Negro Leagues, and five years younger than Jackie Robinson. Two guys seemingly in Doby's corner were manager Lou Boudreau and second baseman Joe Gordan:

"Now, I couldn't believe how this (cold treatment from the Indians team during his first year) was. I put on my uniform and I went out on the field to warm up, but nobody wanted to warm up with me. I had never been so alone in my life. I stood there alone in front of the dugout for five minutes. Then Joe Gordon, the second baseman who would become my friend, came up to me and asked, 'Hey, rookie, you gonna just stand there or do you want to throw a little?' I will never forget that man."

Rickey made sure to align Robinson with the rest of the organization. Red Barber, the famed announcer for the Dodgers was told early on, and nearly quit, until he saw him play. Rickey made sure all the minor league managers and major league coaches saw him play, to see how talented he was. Coaches and managers aren't stupid. If a kid can play, they aren't going to care about his color. Robinson was a superstar at UCLA. During his days in the minors, Rickey even went so far as to help train Robinson in how to deal with potential racial issues.

Doby had 2 days.

How did Doby respond? He became the first black ballplayer (along with Satchell Paige) to become a world champion, one year after becoming a pro, and his first pro season. He hit a key home run that gave the Indians a 2-1 victory, and a 3-1 series lead (the first black player to hit a home run in a world series game). He went to the all-star game 7 times, joining Robinson and Newcombe as the first black ballplayers in the all-star game. He led the league in home runs twice, with 32 in 1952 (first time a black player led the Majors) and 1954. In 1952, Doby led the league in runs scored with 104, and during the 1954 season he led the league with 126 RBI (first time a black player led the AL). In 1950, he led the league in OBP, and in 1952, he led the league in slugging. Much like Robinson, the New York Yankees blocked the Indians from world series acclaim, finishing second to the Yankees four times.

Doby retired in 1959. He should have been a first year ballot hall of famer. Instead, he didn't have to wait 10 years, or 15, or even 20. Doby had to wait 39 years, as he was inducted in 1998. Robinson was inducted in 1962, as a first ballot hall of famer.

Irony would continue for Doby in 1978, when he became the 2nd black manager for the Chicago White Sox.

Doby may have been the 2nd black player in the major leagues, but it's time that he be given the credit he's due. No, he wasn't Jackie Robinson. All the acclaim that went to Robinson is certainly deserved. But being Larry Doby should be given it's due.

It's time for Major League Baseball to recognize BOTH Robinson and Doby.

Let's hope August 10th is a step in that direction.

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