Should baseball retire Larry Doby's number?
APR 14, 2013 10:00a ET
So why haven’t they retired the number 14 worn by a famous baseball player who made his name in Ohio?
And, no, it isn’t Pete Rose.
It was worn by Cleveland Indians outfielder Larry Doby, a man who had the misfortune to be the second African American permitted to join the white fraternity of major league baseball players, as far as recognition goes.
And Doby easily could have been the first if Branch Rickey, the man who signed Jackie Robinson, had just looked out the window of his Ebbets Field office. Doby was once on the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University, playing basketball. And at age 17 he was playing second base for the Newark Eagles in the Negro National League before he received a military draft notice.
But Rickey signed Robinson in 1946 and brought him up to the Brooklyn Dodgers early in 1947. Eleven weeks later Bill Veeck signed Doby to be the first African-American in the American League with the Cleveland Indians. Doby cost Veeck $15,000 and he brought a .415 batting average with him.
A Negro League umpire actually recommended Doby, who lived in New Jersey, to the Newark Eagles. They gave him a tryout and signed him to play second base.
“They gave me a tryout and I made the team that first day and that’s how I got involved in Negro League Baseball,” said Doby.
Rickey signed Robinson out of UCLA, so Doby became the first Negro League player to make it to the majors, where the Indians promptly moved him to center field.
“When I was playing in the Negro League, I never looked very far ahead because growing up in a segregated society you couldn’t have thought about the way of life that was ahead for me,” Doby once said. “There was no bright spot as far a looking at baseball until Mr. Robinson got the opportunity to play in Montreal (the minor leagues) in 1946.”
But despite Doby’s star status as a popular power-hitting outfielder for the Tribe, he never achieved the acclaim of Robinson, didn’t have books written about him, didn’t have movies filmed about him, even though he suffered through the same torment and bitterness aimed at Robinson by fans and opposing players.
But he, too, was a pioneer.
Through it all, after he arrived in Cleveland at age 23, he made the All-Star team seven straight years, he was the first black player, along with pitcher Satchel Paige, to play in a World Series and he was the first black to hit a World Series home run.
Being second in making racial progress followed Doby when in 1978 he was named manager of the Chicago White Sox, the second African-American to manage a major league team. Frank Robinson of the Cleveland Indians was first.
It was on Oct. 9, 1948, that Doby walked to the batter’s box in Game 4 of the World Series. The Tribe led the Boston Braves two games to one. It was the fourth inning. Tie game, 1-1. Doby launched a 420-foot home run in front of 82,000 in Cleveland Municipal Stadium, the largest World Series crowd ever.
That was in the fourth inning and it gave Cleveland a 2-1 lead, a score that stood throughout the game, giving the Indians a 3 games to 1 lead in a Series they eventually won in seven games.
This was after Doby led the Tribe to the pennant and a playoff game against the Boston Red Sox to win the American League pennant. Doby hit .396 the last 20 games of the year as the Indians tried to hold off the Red Sox and he hit .301 for the season.
He helped the Indians to another American League pennant in 1954, when the Tribe won 111 games, and finished second to Yogi Berra in the MVP balloting.
Al Rosen, a long-time baseball executive who played third for the Indians in 1954, knew the credit that Doby deserved, because Doby played in American League cities, cities where Robinson didn’t play.
“Jackie was a college-educated man who had been an officer in the service and who played at the Triple-A level,” Rosen told the Desert News.
“Jackie was brought in by Branch Rickey specifically to be the first black player in the major leagues. Doby came up as a second baseman who didn’t have time to get his full college education and was forced to play a different position in his first major league season,” Rosen added. “I think, because of those circumstances, he had a more difficult time than Robinson. He has never received the credit he deserves.”
Legendary Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller was with Doby through most of his career with the Indians and saw what Doby went through and what Doby did off and on the field.
“He was kind of like (astronaut) Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon,” said Feller. “Doby was a great American who served his country in World War II. He was as good a ballplayer as Robinson, an exciting player who not only was a great hitter but a great defensive outfielder. And he was a very good teammate.”
As major league baseball celebrates Robinson’s legacy Monday, with every player in the majors wearing uniform No. 42, MLB and commissioner Bud Selig are concerned about the declining number of African-American playing baseball.
African-Americans occupied only 7.7 percent of the spots on major league roster on opening day. So Selig announced formation of a task force to investigate and to try to increase the numbers.
The 7.7 percent is the lowest since 1959 and has declined from 19 percent in 1995. The high was 27 percent in 1975.
The Cincinnati Reds have three African Americans — second baseman Brandon Phillips and bench players Xavier Paul and Derrick Robinson. The Cleveland Indians have outfielder Michael Bourn and Michael Brantley.