Doby an iconic figure for this wide-eyed kid
The train from Akron to Cleveland didn’t take long, but it seemed like forever as the landscape whizzed by from my window seat, my dad seated next to me.
While I loved riding trains, I wanted this one to end quickly because it meant I would be getting off just outside Cleveland Stadium on that hot, humid Aug. 4 of 1954, the first time I would see my beloved Cleveland Indians in person.
And I would get to see, in person, my favorite baseball player.
There were only 27,888 fans in the cavernous concrete monstrosity sitting on the banks of Lake Erie for a Sunday doubleheader against the Washington Senators.
Our seats were in the lower deck in right field, near the foul pole, and we arrived in time for batting practice. Doby hit a ball that landed about 10 rows behind us, but the baseball landed on the aisle, hit a step, and bounced back toward me, where I grabbed it as it rolled.
I cherished that ball, but not enough to keep it from rolling down a gutter during a pick-up game on a weedy field a block from my house.
All summer, my 14th year on this earth, I listened to Jimmy Dudley and Jack Graney on the radio as the Indians were en route to 111 victories to win the American League pennant by eight games over the New York Yankees.
And my hero was the Tribe’s center fielder, the first African-American to play in the American League, arriving in 1947, seven weeks after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the National League with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Doby didn’t do much that day. He had a single in each game, scored a run and drove in one as the Tribe won both games, 3-1 and 5-4. But I was entranced just watching Doby standing in center field.
Doby played 153 of the team’s 154 games that year and the next most played was 141 by second baseman Bobby Avila, who had a career-year with a .341 average.
Doby hit only .272 that year, but led the league with 32 homers and 126 RBI. The baseball writers broke my heart when they named Yogi Berra of the second-place Yankees as MVP, although Berra hit only .301 with 22 homers (10 less than Doby) and 125 RBI (one less than Doby).
But over the long haul during his years with the Indians he was their best player.
He also led the league with 32 home runs in 1952 and he hit 20 or more home runs every season from 1949 to 1956. Over his career he hit .283 with 253 home runs and 970 RBI in 1,533 games.
On the day I sat in Cleveland Stadium, I was unaware of Doby’s historic presence and as my dad said, “He was the second black player in major league baseball, but it didn’t get much attention because being second in something like that is like being the second person to fly around the world or the second person to invent the wheel.”
But Doby endured the same prejudices aimed at Robinson and took the abuse the same way. As he once said, “I knew being accepted was going to be hard, but I knew I was involved in a situation that was going to bring opportunities to other blacks.
Doby signed with the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League when he was 17, then served two years in the Navy and returned to the Eagles in 1946, where he and fellow African American Monte Irvin, also a Hall of Famer, led the team to the championship.
It was baseball innovator Bill Veeck who signed Doby for the Indians in late 1947 and he played only 29 games and was 5 for 32 with 11 strikeouts.
He became the Tribe’s regular center fielder in 1948 and helped the Indians win the World Series that year over the Boston Braves. In Game 4, Doby became the first African-American to hit a World Series home run.
He played in seven All-Star games during his 13 seasons.
Oct. 25, 1955 was a rough day in my life. After he hit .291 with 26 homers and 75 RBI, Doby was traded to the Chicago White Sox for Chico Carrasquel and Jim Busby.
From that moment on, I never cared much for Carrasquel and Busby.