When I was in the army one of my best friends was a black guy from New York. We did a lot of things together, including heading to a few parties. I had a car, he didn’t, and it was easiest for us to head out together in my Dodge. I remember we pulled up to one party and as we were getting out he commented, “I wonder who the obligatory second is?” Not unreasonably, I asked, “What the heck is that?” “The people throwing the party can’t admit to tokenism, so they have to invite a second black person to the party so no one can say either of us was a token. That’s the obligatory second.” I told him I thought that sounded terrible. “Actually, sometimes it’s not bad. Sometimes they pick a good-looking girl and I get lucky.” I remember the obligatory second that night was a girl and I also remember driving home alone. He did better than I. Larry Doby was, in many ways, baseball’s obligatory second.
Larry Doby was born in Jim Crow South Carolina in 1923. The family moved to Paterson, New Jersey where Doby caught the eye of the nearby Newark Eagles of the Negro National League. He was signed in 1942 at age 17 to playsecond base. He was good from the beginning, but lost 1944 and 1945 to the Second World War. Back in Newark in 1946, he helped lead his team to the Negro League World Series, a set of games they won 4 games to 3. Doby didn’t do particularly well. He hit .227, but walked to begin the rally that won game 7 for the Eagles.
In 1947, the Cleveland Indians determined it was time to bring a black player to the American League. The picked Doby over teammate Monte Irvin. Irvin was considered by many contemporary writers as the man who would integrate the AL, but Indians owner Bill Veeck wanted more power and Doby gave him that over Irvin (and Irvin was considerably older). Unfortunately for Doby, the Indians already had a good second baseman, Hall of Famer Joe Gordon. Veeck’s solution was to make Doby an outfielder. Doby made his Major League debut on 5 July 1947 in Chicago. He pinch hit and struck out. The day before, 4 July, Cleveland had a home game which they won 13-6. I’m not sure why they didn’t let Doby play on Independence Day in front of a home crowd. For the 1947 season Doby played in 29 games, going 5 for 32 (.156).
By 1948 he was the starting center fielder. Cleveland got hot, Doby did well, and for the first time since 1920, the Indians made the World Series. They won in six games, Doby hitting .318 with a home run. For the regular season he hit .301 with an OPS of 873 and 14 home runs. As a fielder the results were mixed. He led the AL in errors in center field, but was third in the league in assists.
He remained with Cleveland through 1955, twice leading the AL in home runs, and once in both RBIs and runs. In the 1954 111 win season he finished second the the mVP race (to Yogi Berra), being acknowledged as the most valuable Indian. Unfortunately for Cleveland, 111 were all the wins they were going to get as the Giants swept the World Series. Doby was part of the reason they lost. He hit a buck-25 with no extra base hits and four strikeouts (he had two hits and two walks). In 1956 he was traded to Chicago where he took over center field for the White Sox. His career was on the slide. He went back to Cleveland in 1958, then to Detroit and back to Chicago in 1959. He retired at age 35. He became the third American player to head to Japan when he joined the Japanese Leagues in 1962. He coached at both Montreal and Cleveland, then in 1978 became manager of the White Sox. Again, he was second. Frank Robinson had become the first black manager in the Major Leagues (ironically enough at Cleveland) and Doby was overlooked again. He remainded somewhat overlooked until 1998 when the Veteran’s Committee elected him to the Hall of Fame. His death came in June 2003.
For his big league career, Doby hit .283 with an 876 OPS (136 OPS +). He had 253 home runs, 970 RBIs, 2621 total bases, 1515 hits, and 960 runs (Note the closeness of the RBI and runs number. You don’t see that a lot.) Not a bad career. But over the last few days around here there’s been a lot of comment (including mine) about just how good Negro League players were. Well, with Doby we actually have something like a complete career. Signed at 17, he’s in the Negro Leagues at ages 18 and 19. By 20 and 21 he’s in the military. At 22 he’s back in the Negro Leagues, and makes his Major League debut at 23. That’s not a bad career progression for the era. Think of 18 and 19 as inital years in the minors then, like a lot of other minor leagues he goes off to war. He returns to the minors in 1946, then makes his cup of coffee debut at 23. Hank Bauer, to use only one example of a player whose career is interrupted by war, makes his debut (19 games) at age 25. None of that is meant to imply that 1940s Negro League teams were only minor league in quality, but is meant only to give an age progression comparison. So unlike a lot of Negro Leaguers of the first generation who get to the Majors in mid-career, Doby gives us a look at how a good young Negro League player could play at the highest level. That was pretty good.