06/19/2003 7:15 PM ET
Doby stood tall in face of adversity
While a pioneer, "hero" may describe Doby best
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
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
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.
By Justice B. Hill / MLB.com
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.
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
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,
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.
"I don't look for
recognition or titles. I think my achievement speaks for
-- Larry Doby
Justice B. Hill is a senior
writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major
League Baseball or its clubs.