“Last Train to Cooperstown”
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Yesterday marked the 70th anniversary; July 5, 1947, of former Negro League star and baseball Hall of Fame center fielder Larry Doby’s Major League debut. Less than three months earlier, April 14, Jackie Robinson had become the first African-American to play Major League baseball. Robinson started the season playing first base for the National League’s Brooklyn Dodgers. As the second African American in Major League baseball, the first to play in the American League, Doby’s status is overshadowed by Robinson. Although not as well-known or revered, Larry Doby’s accomplishments in baseball are still of historical significance.
At Comiskey Park against the Chicago White Sox in the top of the seventh inning, Doby pinch hit for Cleveland Indians pitcher Bryan Stephens. He had started the season playing with the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League (NNL). Doby joined the Indians three days prior to the game (July 2) when Eagles’ owner Effa Manley sold his contract to Indians’ owner Bill Veeck for $15,000; the first substantial price a Major League team would pay for a Negro League player. After returning from military service in 1946, Doby played second baseman alongside shortstop Monte Irvin on the Eagles’ 1946 Negro League Baseball World Series Championship team. When Robinson erased the “invisible color line” that had kept African-Americans and dark-skinned Hispanics out of Major League baseball for more than 50 years, Manley sold Doby in a last attempt to keep her team operating. She sold it after the 1948 season when the NNL disbanded. In his first Major League plate appearance against White Sox pitcher Earl Harrist, Doby struck out. He played in 29 games and batted .156 the remainder of the season.
However, in 1948 Doby became the Indians starting center fielder. In his first full Major League season, he hit .301 with 14 home runs and 66 runs batted in to help the Indians win the American League pennant. He batted .318 in the 1948 World Series and his home run, the first of an African-American in a World Series, was the winning run in Game Four. The widely publicized photo taken after that game of Doby and Indian winning pitcher Steve Gromek was the first of an African-American and white player embracing each other. The Indians defeated the Boston Braves in the Series four games to two making Doby and his teammate on the 1948 Indians, Satchel Paige, the first African-Americans to play on a Major League World Series champion. Doby led the American League in home runs with 32 in 1954, helping the Indians again win the American League pennant. In Doby’s thirteen year career (1947 – 1959), he hit 253 homeruns and played in six All Star Games.
After years of being overlooked, Larry Doby’s baseball talent and his importance in the racial integration of Major League baseball received recognition by his 1998 induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Although not as outspoken or charismatic as Jackie Robinson, Doby still overcame the same racism to be a successful Major League player. He, like Robinson, successfully carried on his shoulders the hopes of his race in the face of failure’s dire consequences.
To read more about the Negro League baseball era Last Train to Cooperstown