For Indians, Doby's impact on Jackie's level
Grant recalls memories of American League's first black player
Sitting alone, Mudcat Grant waited with nervous anticipation for the arrival of his new roommate and Indians teammate. He was careful not to touch any of the belongings that had been placed so meticulously around the room, showing respect even in solitude.
The door swung open and in walked Larry Doby.
"It was as big as day," said Grant, still sounding in awe 54 years later. "It was unbelievable."
Grant was a rookie pitcher for Cleveland that spring in 1958, and he was scared to death to have been assigned a room with a legend like Doby. Jackie Robinson is rightly praised and remembered for breaking down baseball's color barrier with the Dodgers on April 15, 1947, but Doby also played an important role in the advancement of African-Americans in the game.
As an 11-year-old growing up in Lacoochee, Fla., Grant remembers delivering copies of the New York Amsterdam News -- a black publication -- to his neighbors. He can still see the words, printed in black and white, that he held in his hands in the summer of 1947. The Cleveland Indians had signed Doby, making him the first black ballplayer in the American League.
Now, there in the doorway stood Doby, and Grant was without words.
"He said, 'Oh, you must be Mudcat,'" Grant recalled. "I said, 'Yes sir, Mr. Doby.' He said, 'You like television?' And I said, 'Yes sir, Mr. Doby,' and he turned on the television. He says, 'Which bed would you like? This bed?' I said, 'Yes sir, Mr. Doby.'
"So then he said, 'Now listen. We've got to forget this, "Yes sir, Mr. Doby'" stuff.' And I said, 'Yes sir, Mr. Doby.'"
At that, the 76-year-old Grant let out a long laugh.
"It was the beginning of a great friendship," he added.
By the time they met, Doby had established himself as a seven-time American League All-Star and had helped lead the Indians to a World Series triumph in 1948. Doby was in the latter stages of what would eventually be recognized as a Hall of Fame career, but his place in the game goes beyond what he did between the chalk lines.
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"He was very happy with his spot in history," said Larry Doby Jr. "Somebody had to be No. 2. Unfortunately, people don't remember No. 2 as much. Fortunately for him, Cleveland has never forgotten what he did, and he never forgot Cleveland. So I think he was satisfied with his place in history.
"He made it possible for little kids to dream of playing baseball. Before Mr. Robinson and my father came along, a minority could not dream of playing in the big leagues."
Others who knew Doby are not satisfied.
"Larry Doby is sort of a forgotten person," Grant said. "Every time I hear the name Jackie, I also hear the name Larry. I always thought that we should have a Larry Doby Day."
Doby, who passed away in 2003, emerged as a star athlete in his hometown of Paterson, N.J., in high school before signing with the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League at the age of 17 in 1942. On July 1, 1947, Indians owner Bill Veeck offered the Eagles $10,000 for Doby and promised another $5,000 if he stuck with the Tribe.
Four days later, Doby walked into Cleveland's clubhouse.
It was a drastically different situation than the one faced by Robinson. Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey signed Robinson in 1946 and had him play with the Montreal Royals to help prepare him for the prejudices he would face in the Major Leagues. When Doby broke the American League's color barrier, he was thrown immediately into the fire.
"Larry Doby had it a little bit more difficult than Jackie Robinson," said Indians senior vice president of public affairs Bob DiBiasio. "I don't think anybody would deny that statement. ... Being plucked off the Newark Eagle roster in the middle of a season and walking into our clubhouse as a 23-year-old, that had to be just incredibly hard.
"To end up turning into a Hall of Fame player, that shows you the kind of toughness that Larry Doby had."
On the field, Doby hit .283 with 253 home runs and 970 RBIs over 13 years spent with the Indians, White Sox and Twins. It was there -- on the diamond -- that Doby could set aside the hatred he encountered as one of the first black players in baseball.
"He tried to do the best that he could," said Doby Jr. "When he was on the field, they had a common goal. They were together and they were all striving to reach the same thing. Those were some of the happiest times that he had. When you're off the field, that's when that stuff kind of hits you in the face.
"You go to a different hotel. You go to a different restaurant. You can't go here or you can't be there. On the field was where they were able to kind of put all the differences aside."
In their many conversations -- about life, baseball and segregation -- Grant said Doby offered great advice for dealing with the pressures of being a black baseball player in those days.
"He said, 'Now, you're going to get threatening phone calls. You're going to be called names,'" Grant recalled. "He said, 'But there's one thing that you have to do. When you walk across those white lines and play this great game, you better win.' He didn't say you should win. He said, 'You better win.'"
Grant chuckled at the memory.
"He was a wonderful," he added. "Not only was he a great figure and a great teammate, but he was like a father figure for me, too."