By Joe Darby
It’s human nature, I suppose, to remember those of our species who achieve significant firsts. Theirs is lasting fame, usually.
But what about the poor guy or gal who accomplished the same difficult task, but were merely the second to do it. We all know Christopher Columbus. But who remembers the explorer who was the second person to lead an expedition to the New World? Most remember Charles Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. Who made the second such flight? Even with our current abysmal knowledge of history, most can name George Washington as the first US president. Poor John Adams would not be named by many as the second chief executive.
So I want to bring to your attention a man who, except for a matter of less than three months, would be one of the most famous American athletes of all time. But few, except for real baseball history buffs, have heard of the fellow.
Jackie Robinson was the first African American to play Major League Baseball (except for a couple of young men who did it in the 1880s for a very brief time), Jackie broke in with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. He was a great player and a great person.
His accomplishments are justly renowned. He put up with horrific verbal abuse from fans and opposing players alike and even had problems with some of his own teammates. He is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. On Jackie Robinson Day each year, all MLB players wear jerseys with Jackie’s retired number, 42. He deserves all the recognition he has gotten.
But, I ask, what about Larry Doby, a black man who started playing with the Cleveland Indians on July 4, 1947, just 81 days after Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers. Doby did achieve a first of his own. He was the first African American to play in the American League. Brooklyn, now the Los Angeles Dodgers, was in the National League.
Larry was also a darned good ball player and a tough, resilient guy. He had to be, because he received the same type of abuse that Robinson had suffered. But how many people know that? Doby was born in Camden, S.C., in 1923 and began playing baseball for the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues in 1943. When Cleveland owner Bill Veeck brought him up to the American League in 1947, he didn’t get off to as good of a start as Robinson did in Brooklyn that year.
But he returned in 1948 and helped lead the Indians to a World Series title that year, batting .301 with 14 home runs. He was still a star in 1954, when he hit .272 with 32 homers and 126 runs batted in. Even if his is not a household name, he was recognized by the sport and was belatedly voted into the Hall of Fame in 1998, just three years before he passed away.
So, what did he have to say for himself?
“Part of history? I have no ideas about that. I just want to play baseball.”
“The only difference was that Jackie Robinson got all of the publicity. You didn’t hear much about what I was going through because the media didn’t want to repeat the same story.”
I had a Larry Doby baseball card about 70 years ago. I sure wish I still had it. But I remember Larry. And it would be nice if lots more folks did, too.