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Doby stood tall in face of adversity
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06/19/2003  7:15 PM ET 
Doby stood tall in face of adversity
While a pioneer, "hero" may describe Doby best
Vote now for the 2003 All-Star game
Larry Doby's accomplishments in the Major Leagues shortened the hurdles for future black big leaguers. (AP)
CLEVELAND –- You couldn’t call yourself a sports fan in Cleveland in the 1950s and early 1960s and not know who Larry Doby was. Doby, who died Wednesday night, was as important a part of the sports landscape in black neighborhoods in this city as Jim Brown was.

But it took growing into manhood before we actually realized how difficult Doby’s life was as a Major Leaguer. For nobody told us much about the color barriers in the game or recounted the open bigotry in it, even though the bigotry in life was almost everywhere a black youth turned.

What we knew in our youth was that baseball was a splendid game, and it had given us men like Doby, Dave Pope, Mudcat Grant, Willie Tasby, Willie Kirkland and Leon Wagner to celebrate and emulate. In these men, we saw bigger, stronger and older versions of ourselves, and we wanted so much to be part of their world.

Their world, however, wasn’t as easy to break into as it might seem. As much as baseball and other sports preached the concepts of a meritocracy, merit was merely an ideal, not a blood-and-sweat reality.

For boys of color still had invisible hurdles to jump over, but men like Doby made the hurdles shorter than what they were in our father’s childhood. His work helped him become what few athletes are today: a "hero."

It is the best word to describe Doby and his baseball peers. While the word "pioneer" fits them as well, "hero" comes closer to the label they deserve. "Hero" puts what they had to endure into terms almost any person can understand.

Because it takes a hero to walk onto danger’s turf and not retreat. It takes a hero to endure the racial slurs that rained on Doby, Grant, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson and others of the era. It takes a hero to survive this hatred and those unequal opportunities that they found in America without going stark-raving mad.

In the face of all these hurdles, they stood tall. These proud black men taught lessons that inspired me and other boys on the city’s East Side, as we grew into manhood, to fight the good fight ourselves.

But our fights would never be like Doby’s.

Doby and his contemporaries won some of those fights for us. They had knocked over some of those hurdles; they took pickaxes to still other barriers that blocked full equality; and they helped us see a world of opportunities that never existed before the 1960s.


"I don't look for recognition or titles. I think my achievement speaks for itself."
-- Larry Doby

Fighting that good fight, as Doby did, can change a man forever. It can harden him against a society that never seemed to value his sacrifices or understand his struggles. It can embitter a man as well.

Not that a hero jumps into the arena for the praise that comes from his deeds, but he has to think that, through the lens of hindsight, a righteous society will recognize what he has endured and achieved.

In life, Doby didn’t get that recognition. "I don’t look for recognition or titles," he once said. "I think my achievement speaks for itself."

Those are the words of a hero. Yet his heroism -- as often happens to the second person to achieve a significant feat -- went almost unseen in the shadow of Robinson’s accomplishments. But many forget that Doby was the first black player in the American League in a time when the leagues did not play each other. So, like Robinson, he was a lone black face in a league of his own.

Doby entered Major League Baseball just 11 weeks after Robinson. Without taking anything away from Robinson's significant achievement, it is fair to say that plenty of trailblazing remained to be done when Doby joined the Indians on July 5, 1947. These two black pioneers should have been tied together with the same thread. As history told the Jackie Robinson story, it also should have been telling the Larry Doby story, too.

Now in death, Doby might finally have his story fully told and appreciated. He might now get the recognition that eluded him. He might be celebrated for his contributions to American society and his heroism, just as his more heralded brother, Jackie Robinson.

Maybe Doby died having put the slights his achievements received behind him. Maybe he knew that he couldn’t rewrite history and have it conform to what it really should have been. Maybe he knew that being second was good enough, because second beat all the alternatives below it.

But none of us who lived on the East Side of Cleveland in the 1950s and early '60s thought Doby was anything but No. 1. He was everything we wanted to be. So if we were later to become No. 50,391 on the list, we would have gladly settled for that, because No. 50,391 was better than not achieving anything.

And one thing Larry Doby taught us all was this: We could achieve. We have, and we must say thanks to our hero, Larry Doby, for teaching us that lesson.

Justice B. Hill is a senior writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.



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