Jackie Robinson is rightly honoured as the first African American to play Major League Baseball. Today, all players wear number 42 on April 15, the day that Robinson broke the colour barrier in 1947.
We often forget that Robinson, who played for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the National League, was followed on July 5 by Larry Doby, who played for Cleveland in the American League.
Though Robinson drew more media attention, both players suffered the same abuse from racist fans, players and coaches, and both showed heroic strength in paving the way for baseball to finally judge players by their talent and character, not by the colour of their skin.
I’ll admit that as an avid baseball fan, I wasn’t aware that when my beloved Blue Jays played their inaugural game against the Chicago White Sox in 1977, the batting coach of their opponent was none other than the man who had broken the colour barrier in the American League. I was also not aware that in 1978, Doby became the second African American manager in Major League Baseball when he took over the White Sox partway through the season.
In fact, it was not until 2007, when I was visiting relatives in Paterson, N.J., that I became aware of Doby and his accomplishments. My Aunt Mary proudly took us to Larry Doby Field and showed us the statue erected in his honour.A statue of Larry Doby was erected in Paterson, N.J., where the four-sport athlete went to high school. Doby was the second African American to play Major League Baseball and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998.
Though he was born in South Carolina, Doby’s family moved to Paterson, where Larry was a star in multiple sports at Eastside High School. Aunt Mary proudly told me that Doby had gone to school with her late husband. When I asked if they knew each other she said, “Well, Larry Doby played a lot of sports and Uncle Frank played in the band.” Not that there’s anything wrong with being in the band.
After visiting Eastside Park, I began to research Doby and I was inspired by his greatness.
Dob was an all-star in the Negro Leagues. His Newark Eagles won the Negro World Series in 1946 and, unlike Robinson, he went directly from the Negro Leagues to the Major League in 1947 without playing a single game in the minors. In 1948, he won the Major League World Series with Cleveland, the last time the Cleveland baseball team accomplished this goal.
Doby was a six-time Major League all-star, led the league in home runs twice and had five consecutive seasons with over 100 runs batted in. After his playing days ended, he had a successful career as a coach with the Montreal Expos, Cleveland and the White Sox.
Outside of baseball, Doby also displayed greatness. He and his wife Helyn were married for 55 years and had five children together. Watching his induction speech into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998, it was quite moving to see him recognize Bill Veeck, the owner who not only gave him the opportunity to play for Cleveland in 1947 but to manage for the White Sox in 1978.
On another occasion, Doby said, “I was never bitter because I believed in the man upstairs. … I prefer to remember Bill Veeck … and the good guys. There’s no point in talking about the others.”
When he died in 2003, American President George W. Bush said, “Larry Doby was a good and honourable man, a tremendous athlete and manager. He had a profound influence on the game of baseball.”
Cleveland has retired his number 14, erected a statue and named a street near their stadium in his honour.
This year for Jackie Robinson Day, Toronto Blue Jay Curtis Granderson wore one shoe with Robinson’s number and picture on it, and the other with Doby’s. It won’t be surprising to see other players make similar tributes in the future.
Greatness is all around us. Sometimes we just need to look beyond the headlines and take notice.
Troy Media columnist Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.
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