It is one thing to be a social trailblazer in a sport.
As the first African American player in the American League to break major league baseball’s “color barrier”, Larry Doby always will be recognized as a social trailblazer in baseball.
In addition, Doby was an excellent player.
He made the American League All-Star team for seven consecutive years and helped the Cleveland Indians win the World Series in 1948 and the American League pennant in 1954.
As both a social trailblazer and excellent player, Doby has been inducted in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
— Graig Kreindler (@GraigKreindler) June 18, 2021
We take a look at the life of Larry Doby – before, during, and after his professional baseball playing career.
The Early Years Through High School (1923-1942)
Lawrence Eugene Doby was born on December 13, 1923 in Camden, South Carolina.
Camden is located in north central South Carolina.
Doby’s father, David, played semi-pro baseball.
After his parents divorced and his father drowned in an accident, Doby lived in Camden with his grandmother and other relatives.
Doby first played organized baseball at Boylan-Haven-Mather Academy, a private African American boarding school in Camden.
Recalling when he grew up in Camden, Doby said:
“Growing up in Camden, we didn’t have baseball bats. We’d use a tree here, a tin can there, for bases.”
At the age of 14 (after completing the eighth grade), Doby moved to Paterson, New Jersey to be closer to his mother, Etta.
Paterson is in northeastern New Jersey, near New York City.
While Doby lived with one of his mother’s friends, his mother would visit him weekly.
Doby attended Paterson Eastside High School.
From 1938 to 1942, Doby earned 11 letters, as a multi-sport athlete in baseball, basketball, football, and track, at Paterson Eastside High School.
While in high school, on summer vacation, Doby played baseball with an African American semi-pro team, the Smart Sets.
He also briefly played with the Harlem Renaissance, a professional basketball team.
College Years (1942-1947)
After completing Paterson Eastside High School in 1942, Doby accepted a basketball scholarship to attend Long Island University (LIU) in Brooklyn, New York.
Doby decided to attend LIU because both he could play basketball for its future Basketball Hall of Fame coach Clair Bee and he could stay close to his high school girlfriend, Helyn Curvy (in Paterson).
However, two issues affected Doby’s plans to attend LIU – World War II and baseball.
First, Doby transferred from LIU to Virginia Union University, in Richmond, Virginia, because of World War II.
Doby wanted to serve in the military as an officer, and Virginia Union University had an excellent ROTC program (for officer training).
However, shortly after he transferred to Virginia Union University, Doby was drafted into the United States Navy.
He served in the United States Navy from 1943 to 1946, both at the Great Lakes Naval Training School and various naval bases in the United States and in the Pacific theater.
Second, Doby ultimately decided to play baseball, instead of to attend college.
In 1942, Doby signed a contract for $300 to play baseball for the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League (NNL).
To maintain his amateur status, Doby signed the contract as “Larry Walker”.
For the Eagles, playing various infield and outfield positions, Doby had a batting average of .309, with 14 runs batted in, in 81 at bats in 1942, a batting average of .301, with 22 runs batted in, in 103 at bats in 1943, and a batting average of .200 in five at bats in 1944.
After serving in World War II, Doby again played for the Eagles in 1946.
Doby, in 1946, was an All-Star in the NNL.
Principally playing second base, Doby had a batting average of .339, with 47 runs batted in, in 221 at bats.
With Doby, the Eagles won the Negro World Series championship in 1946.
In the Negro World Series, Doby had a batting average of .227, with five runs batted in, in 22 at bats.
Despite his success in the NNL, Doby never expected to play major league baseball.
“I never dreamed that far ahead. Growing up in a segregated society, you couldn’t have thought that that was the way it was gonna be. There was no bright spot as far as looking at baseball.”
However, when Doby heard that the Brooklyn Dodgers had signed future National Baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson to be the first African American player to break major league baseball’s “color barrier”, his future career plans changed.
“I felt I had a chance to play major league baseball. My main thing was to become a teacher and coach somewhere in New Jersey, but when I heard about Jackie, I decided to concentrate on baseball. I forgot about going back to college.”
The Professional Baseball Playing Years
Future National Baseball Hall of Famer Bill Veeck, the owner of the Cleveland Indians, was in favor of integrating baseball.
However, his approach was different from that of Dodgers general manager and future National Baseball Hall of Famer Branch Rickey, who had signed Jackie Robinson.
While Rickey had Robinson play minor league baseball before joining the Dodgers, Veeck wanted a player to move directly to the major leagues.
Before the 1947 season, Veeck said:
“I’m going to get [a player] I think can play with Cleveland. One afternoon when the team trots out on the field, a Negro player will be out there with it.”
Veeck had seen Doby at the Great Lakes Naval Training School during World War II.
Reporters who covered the NNL recommended Doby to Veeck.
Indians scout Bill Killefer also gave a favorable rating to Doby.
In 1947, Doby, playing second base for the Newark Eagles, did nothing on the field to discourage Veeck from signing him.
Doby had a batting average of .354, with 41 runs batted in, in 113 at bats.
On July 3, 1947, Veeck purchased Doby from the Eagles for $15,000.
Two days later, on July 5, 1947, Doby (at a height of six feet and one inch and a weight of 180 pounds) joined the Indians who were in Chicago to play the White Sox.
With the exception of one player, Doby initially was not well-received by his Indians teammates.
“I walked down that line stuck out my hand, and very few hands came back in return. Most of the ones that did were cold-fish handshakes, along with a look that said, ‘You don’t belong here.’ . . . Now, I couldn’t believe how this 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.”
Doby became the second African American player after Jackie Robinson, and the first African American player in the American League, to break major league baseball’s “color barrier”, when he entered the July 5, 1947 game against the White Sox as a pinch hitter.
TIL Larry Doby made his debut with the Indians less than 3 hours after signing with them. pic.twitter.com/BkNWQWbuSd
— just the vax, ma'am (@wjcgibson) June 22, 2021
In his plate appearance, Doby struck out, in a 6-5 Indians loss to the White Sox.
The following day, on July 6, 1947, Doby had his first major league start, playing first base in the second game of a doubleheader against the White Sox.
In four at bats, Doby had his first major league hit and a run batted in, as Cleveland defeated the White Sox 5-1.
For the 1947 season, playing second base, first base, and shortstop, Doby had a batting average of .156, with two runs batted in, in 32 at bats.
Cleveland, with an 80-74 record, finished in fourth place in the American League in 1947.
After receiving instruction and encouragement from former Indians manager and National Baseball Hall of Famer Tris Speaker, Indians farm system director and future National Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg, and Indians coach and future National Baseball Hall of Famer Bill McKechnie during spring training in 1948, Doby’s play significantly improved in 1948.
In 1948, Doby, playing in the outfield (where he played for the rest of his baseball career, mostly in center field), had a batting average of .301, with 66 runs batted in and 14 home runs, in 439 at bats.
Doby’s play helped the Indians win the 1948 American League pennant, with a 97-58 record.
Cleveland advanced to play the Boston Braves in the 1948 World Series.
On October 9, 1948, in game four of the 1948 World Series, Doby became the first African American player to hit a home run in a World Series game.
— SABR SC Chapter – Larry Doby (@sabrsclarrydoby) June 26, 2021
The home run helped the Indians defeat the Braves 2-1.
Following the game, a photograph appeared in The Cleveland Plain Dealer of Indians winning pitcher Steve Gromek, who was white, hugging Doby.
The photograph was of special significance to Doby.
“The picture was more rewarding and happy for me than actually hitting the home run. It was such a scuffle for me, after being involved in all that segregation, going through all I had to go through, until that picture. The picture finally showed a moment of a man showing his feelings for me.”
With Doby having a batting average of .318, with two runs batted in and the above-described home run, in 22 at bats, the Indians defeated the Braves four games to two games, as Cleveland won its first World Series since 1920.
Doby, and his Indians teammate pitcher Satchel Paige, became the first African American players to win a World Series championship.
In 1949, Doby was named to his first American League All-Star team.
Doby had a batting average of .280, with 85 runs batted in and 24 home runs, in 547 at bats in 1949.
He also stole 10 bases.
Cleveland had an 89-65 record in 1949 and finished in third place in the American League.
Doby again was named to the American League All-Star team in 1950.
In 1950, Doby (who batted as a left-handed hitter) had a batting average of .326, with 102 runs batted in and 25 home runs, in 503 at bats.
He also led the American League in on-base percentage (.442).
Doby finished eighth in the American League Most Valuable Player voting in 1950.
In addition, in 1950, Doby was considered the best center fielder in baseball by The Sporting News and named the Cleveland Baseball Man of the Year by Cleveland sportswriters,
With a 92-62 record, the Indians finished in fourth place in the American League in 1950.
In 1951, Doby again was named to the American League All-Star team.
He had a batting average of .295, with 69 runs batted in and 20 home runs, in 447 at bats in 1951.
Cleveland had a 93-61 record in 1951 and finished in second place in the American League.
Doby again was named to the American League All-Star team in 1952.
On June 4, 1952, in a 13-11 Indians loss to the Boston Red Sox, Doby “hit for the cycle” (hitting a home run, a double, a triple, and a single), had six runs batted in, and scored three runs.
In 1952, Doby had a batting average of .276, with 104 runs batted in and 32 home runs, in 519 at bats.
He led the American League in all of home runs, runs scored (104), and slugging percentage (.541).
Doby finished 12th in the American League Most Valuable Player voting in 1952.
In 1952, the Indians finished in second place in the American League, again posting a 93-61 record.
For the fifth consecutive year, Doby was named to the American League All-Star team in 1953.
Doby had a batting average of .263, with 102 runs batted in and 29 home runs, in 513 at bats in 1953.
With a 92-62 record and second-place finish in the American League, in 1953, Cleveland won 92 or more games for the fourth consecutive year and finished in second place in the American League for the third consecutive year.
In 1954, Doby again was named to the American League All-Star team.
On July 13, 1954, in the 1954 major league baseball All-Star game (played at Cleveland Municipal Stadium), Doby pinch hit a home run, which helped the American League defeat the National League 11-9.
Doby’s home run was the first home run hit by an African American player in a major league baseball All-Star game.
For the 1954 season, Doby had a batting average of .272, with 126 runs batted in and 32 home runs, in 577 at bats.
Doby led the American League in both runs batted in and home runs.
He finished second in the American League Most Valuable Player voting in 1954.
Doby helped the Indians have a historic season in 1954.
Cleveland won the American League pennant in 1954 with a 111-43 record; the .721 winning percentage by the Indians was the best regular season winning percentage ever recorded in the American League.
The Indians advanced to play the New York Giants in the 1954 World Series.
However, the Giants swept Cleveland in four games.
Doby had a batting average of .125 in 16 at bats in the 1954 World Series.
In 1955, for the seventh consecutive year, Doby was named to the American League All-Star team.
Doby had a .291 batting average, with 75 runs batted in and 26 home runs, in 491 at bats in 1955.
Leg injuries (which had first bothered Doby in 1951) slowed Doby in 1955, as he played in only 131 regular season games, his fewest number of regular season games played since 1948.
The Indians, with a 93-61 record, finished in second place in the American League in 1955.
On October 26, 1955, Doby was traded by the Indians to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for shortstop Chico Carrasquel and center fielder Jim Busby.
Doby played two seasons with the White Sox in 1956 and 1957.
In 1956, Doby had a .268 batting average, with 102 runs batted in and 24 home runs, in 504 at bats.
The following year, in 1957, Doby had a .288 batting average, with 79 runs batted in and 14 home runs, in 416 at bats.
For the two seasons that Doby played for the White Sox in 1956 and 1957, Chicago posted records of 85-69 (finishing in third place in the American League in 1956) and 90-64 (finishing in second place in the American League in 1957).
After the 1957 season, Doby was traded twice – first to the Baltimore Orioles on December 3, 1957 and then back to the Cleveland Indians (with pitcher Don Ferrarese in exchange for outfielder Gene Woodling, pitcher Bud Daley, and outfielder-third baseman (and future National Baseball Hall of Famer) Dick Williams) on April 1, 1958.
In 1958, with Cleveland, Doby had a .283 batting average, with 45 runs batted in and 13 home runs, in 247 at bats.
Cleveland had a 77-76 record and finished in fourth place in the American League in 1958.
On March 21, 1959, the Indians traded Doby to the Detroit Tigers in exchange for outfielder-first baseman Tito Francona.
Less than two months later, on May 13, 1959, the Tigers sold Doby back to the Chicago White Sox for $20,000.
In his time playing for the Tigers and the White Sox in 1959, Doby had a combined .230 batting average, with 13 runs batted in, in 113 at bats.
Detroit ended up with a 76-78 record and fourth place finish, and Chicago won the American League pennant (before losing in the 1959 World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers) with a 94-60 record, in 1959.
At the age of 35, Doby played in his last American major league baseball game on July 26, 1959 – a 4-0 White Sox loss to the Baltimore Orioles.
The White Sox sent Doby to the minor league Triple-A San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League.
While playing with the Padres, Doby fractured his ankle.
Doby tried to make the White Sox roster in 1960, but he failed to do so.
He briefly played with the minor league Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League in 1960, but, bothered by his injured ankle, Doby was released by Toronto.
While the Toronto Maple Leafs were Doby’s last baseball playing experience in North America, in 1962, Doby came out of retirement to play baseball in Japan.
Doby played for the Chunichi Dragons in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball League before completely retiring as a professional baseball player.
The Years After Playing Professional Baseball
Doby was married to Helyn for 55 years.
They had five children, Christina, Leslie, Larry Jr., Kimberly, and Susan.
After his complete retirement as a player, Doby stayed active in baseball.
Doby worked for the Montreal Expos as a scout in 1969, as a minor league instructor in 1970, and as a batting coach from 1971 to 1973 and in 1976.
He was first base coach for the Cleveland Indians in 1974.
In 1976, Doby was hired by Bill Veeck, then owner of the Chicago White Sox, to be the batting coach for the White Sox.
On June 30, 1978, Doby replaced Bob Lemon as the manager of the White Sox.
Doby was the second African American major league manager (only preceded by Frank Robinson, as manager of the Indians).
As manager of the White Sox for the remainder of the 1978 season, Doby compiled a 37-50 record.
Chicago finished in fifth place in the American League West Division in 1978.
Doby was not rehired as manager by the White Sox for the 1979 season; instead, he again served as Chicago’s batting coach for the 1979 season.
In 1995, Doby was named special assistant to Gene Budig, president of the American League.
Besides his post-retirement baseball jobs, Doby also worked as a liquor retailer, in the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office in New Jersey, and, during the period from 1980 to 1990, in administrative positions for the New Jersey Nets in the National Basketball Association
In 1998, Doby was inducted in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Doby was also inducted in the South Carolina Hall of Fame in 1973 and in the New Jersey Hall of Fame in 2010.
On June 18, 2003, in Montclair, New Jersey, Doby, at the age of 79, Doby died of cancer.
After Doby’s death, President George W. Bush said:
“Larry Doby was a good and honorable man and a tremendous athlete and manager. He had a profound influence on the game of baseball, and he will be missed.”
Doby was honored by the Cleveland Indians with “Larry Doby Day” on August 10, 2007 and with “Larry Doby Way” (the new name of Eagle Avenue, next to the Indians’ Progressive Field) in 2012.
In addition, the Indians have retired Doby’s number, “14”.
— SABR SC Chapter – Larry Doby (@sabrsclarrydoby) June 21, 2021
The U.S. Postal Service also honored Doby by having him appear on a postage stamp in 2012.
Doby, who was inducted in the Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame in 1966, ranks among the top players in Cleveland Indians history.
Over 10 seasons with the Indians (from 1947 to 1955 and in 1958), Doby ranks, in Cleveland career statistics, tied for 70th in batting average (.286), ninth in runs batted in (776), seventh in home runs (215), 10th in runs scored (808), 17th in hits (1,234), tied for 21st in triples (45), tied for 17th in on-base percentage (.389), and 17th in slugging percentage (.500).
Doby also helped the Indians win games.
Most notably, Cleveland won the World Series championship in 1948 and two American League pennants in 1948 and 1954.
In addition, when Doby played for Cleveland, the Indians finished first or second in six out of 10 seasons, never finishing worse than fourth, and won more than 90 games in seven out of 10 seasons, never having a losing season.
When playing for other major league teams, Doby also helped them win games.
Only the Detroit Tigers in 1959 had a losing record in a season.
Perhaps the best description of Doby was made by his teammate on the Indians, National Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller.
“[Doby] was a great American, served the country in World War II, and he was a great ballplayer. He was kind of like Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, because he was the second African-American in the majors behind Jackie Robinson. He was just as good of a ballplayer, an exvciting player, and a very good teammate.”
While Indians fans should definitely remember Doby for his role in breaking baseball’s “color barrier”, they also should not forget that Doby was an excellent player who made the American League All-Star team for seven consecutive years and helped Cleveland win games.