April 18, 2012

Why do we keep forgetting Larry Doby?

Sports Columnist

On Sunday every major league baseball player wore No. 42. Normally there is just one player in the major leagues who wears that number Ė Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees. And, when he retires, no player will ever wear it again.

That is because Jackie Robinson wore No. 42 and major league baseball retired the number on every team in 1997. The Dodgers had retired the number in 1972 and the Cardinals retired it in tribute to Bruce Sutter. After first having one player on each team wear No. 42 every April 15 (the anniversary of Robinsonís major league debut in 1947) baseball decided to deepen its tribute to Robinson by having every single player wear it every April 15.

By the way, it would be a good idea to at least put each playerís actual uniform number on his sleeve durng these games so fans and the media can identify them.

Everybody knows about Jackie Robinson. A superb athlete, baseball was only his third best sport. He was a better football player and better in track and field. But he had a Hall of Fame career in the major leagues. More important, he was the first African-American to play in the major leagues.

He received scores of death threats and was abused verbally and sometimes physically in every stadium, even Ebbets Field, his home field in Brooklyn. It might not surprise fans to know that Robinson often said that his worst treatment by opposing players and fans took place in Philadelphia.

There should be no argument about the incredible role Robinson played Ė not only in the history of baseball but in the history of civil rights. He was elected to baseballís Hall of Fame in 1962.

But what about Larry Doby?

Just 11 weeks after Robinson broke the color barrier in the National League with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Doby became the first African-American to play in the American League with the Cleveland Indians. But baseball has not given Doby anywhere near the same recognition as it has Robinson.

Unlike Robinson, Doby did not have an entire year to prepare for his entrance into the majors. Robinson signed his original contract in 1945 and didn't take the field until 1947 while being groomed by Dodger owner Branch Rickey to get ready for what he was about to face during his career. Doby never had that luxury. He signed his contract on July 1, 1947 and took the field only four days later.

Doby lived within the same atmosphere as Robinson. And he lived it at the same time. Robinson played in 1382 games and Doby played in 1533. Robinsonís lifetime batting average was .311 and Doby's was .283. Doby hit 253 home runs and had 970 RBIs. Doby was a seven-time all-star, Robinson was chosen to six all star teams. Doby helped lead the Indians to their last World Series title in 1948, hitting a home run that won game four. He also won two home run crowns and, in 1954, he finished second in the AL MVP voting when he led the league with 32 home runs and 126 RBIs. Robinson won the NL MVP in 1949. Doby was selected to Baseballís Hall of Fame in 1998 by the veteranís committee after being ignored by the writers who vote each year.

Interestingly, Doby was not only the second African-American to play in the major leagues, he was also the second black man to manage in the majors, following Frank Robinson.

There have been some other tributes to Doby, though all just in Cleveland. All Indians players wore Dobyís No. 14 for one game five years ago. There was another game where the Indians wore No. 14 on their sleeves. But baseball should do a lot more.

Why not have every American League team wear No. 14 each July 5, the anniversary of Dobyís debut? Robinson never played an inning in the American League. It was Doby who integrated that league. It was Doby who took all the threats from the brainless racists who attended American League ballparks.

Larry Doby had strong ties to New Jersey. Though born in South Carolina, he ended up in Paterson. He played for the Newark Bears in the Negro League and he died in 2003 in Montclair.

Baseball has recognized Dobyís performance on the field by finally getting around to selecting him to its Hall of Fame. But, outside of Cleveland, very little has been done to recognize his contributions to integrating the game.

You have to imagine, if Jackie Robinson was the man we all understand that he was, and if he was alive today, he would be leading the battle to get proper recognition for Doby. Because Robinson is pretty much the only person who knows exactly what Larry Doby went through to open up half of major league baseball to black players.

Read more of Tom Williams' columns