National Book Month: Reading about Larry Doby

Of the four players featured on the forthcoming Major League Baseball All-Stars stamps, Larry Doby (1923–2003) may be the least well known. However, the Hall of Fame center fielder was a true pioneer. Months after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in April 1947, Doby—who spent the majority of his career with the Cleveland Indians—became the American League’s first African-American player.

Joseph Moore, a professor emeritus of history at Montclair State University, has long been a Doby admirer. A new edition of Moore’s biography, Larry Doby: The Struggle of the American League’s First Black Player, hit shelves this month.

I recently caught up with Moore via email. Below is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Larry Doby was a pioneer, but what specific aspects of his story led you to write about him?

I chose to write Doby’s biography for a variety of reasons. As a native of Paterson, N.J., I grew up impressed by his legendary feats at Eastside High School. My brother-in-law, a scout for the Phillies, told me many stories of Doby as a player in semi-pro baseball. When I worked on the re-write desk in the sports department of the local daily newspaper, I knew that the sports editor was the man who first broke the story of Doby’s signing with the Indians. On top of all that, as a baseball fan and a professor of history at Montclair State University, I had become deeply concerned about the history of Black Americans in the United States.

Was writing the book an enjoyable process?

The research and writing of the book never felt hard. My interviews with Mr. Doby, my research trips to South Carolina, Cleveland, Chicago and elsewhere, were stimulating and exciting. Putting it all together was a very satisfying intellectual exercise.

Have you always been a big baseball fan?

From my earliest memory, I was a baseball fan. I used to imitate Mel Allen’s Yankees broadcasts: “Rizzuto to Gordon to Hassett, it’s a double play!”

Most Americans, even those who aren’t sports fans, know Jackie Robinson. I don’t think that’s the case with Doby. Why hasn’t he been celebrated as much as some of of the country’s other pioneering athletes?

Doby hasn’t been as celebrated as Robinson for many reasons: he was second, not first; he was in Cleveland, not New York; he was self-effacing, not outspoken; he kept his feelings inside, instead of being combative. As he always said, “I just wanted to be plain me.” And when he became the manager of the White Sox, he was second again, this time to another Robinson, Frank.

What kind of treatment—by fans and teammates—did Doby receive when he joined the Indians in 1947?

When team manager Lou Boudreau introduced Doby to the Indians players in July 1947, some of them refused to shake his hand. Others refused to talk with him. But second baseman Joe Gordon and catcher Jim Hegan were exceptions. They accepted and helped Doby. In the cities of the American League, he heard racial epithets from racist fans and rival players. In his first spring training he was segregated in Arizona. Twelve years later he was still segregated from his teammates, this time in Florida.

Did the pressure of being the American League’s first African-American player take a toll on him?

These many pressures took a heavy toll on Doby, but he would never acknowledge them, never complain. Imagine what kind of career he would have had, had he been welcomed!

What are a few things about Doby you’ve learned while working on the new edition of your book?

In preparing the new edition, the passage of time, and the accolades showered upon him, gave me a richer perspective on who Doby was, and what he did. He was and is so much more than that plaque in Cooperstown.

An additional note: I collaborated with the late Bud Greenspan and his staff to create a 90-minute documentary about Doby for Showtime in 2007. It has been screened nationally many dozens of times since then under the title of the original book, Pride Against Prejudice.

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