Cleveland Indians’ Larry Doby More Than Just AL’s First African-American Player


The ripple effect of Doby on Cleveland Indians baseball

When I first started paying attention to sports, we were living in a suburb of Akron that had two African American families out of a population of about three thousand.  There was one black child in my class, Phillip Sales, but I didn’t know where his family lived or have any interaction with him unless we ended up at the same table at lunch.  When we went shopping in downtown Akron my mother would steer me away from blacks if they approached, but she did that with hippies and anyone else who looked improper, so it never seemed like a big deal.  Eventually, we started shopping at the mall where everyone looked like us.

So it turned out that my first encounters with African-Americans that had any emotional impact involved sports.  Ironically, the first sporting event I ever watched featured O.J. Simpson losing the Rose Bowl and the national championship to Ohio State.  Even in defeat, Simpson showed a level of gracefulness, speed, and power that was so far above anyone else on the field that I can still remember it now, nearly fifty years later.

You couldn’t watch sports, then or now, without noticing that African-Americans were performing at a level equal to or superior to that of whites.  But, for a nine-year-old boy in Doylestown, Ohio, that wasn’t the lesson that endured.  What endured was that the idea of blacks and whites as teammates, fighting together, celebrating and suffering together, was something that I saw on television all the time.  At a point in history when that seldom happened in other segments of society, the fact that I watched sports as much as was humanly possible in the days before ESPN meant that racial equality and harmony seemed like a natural thing to me.

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As I grew up and became more aware, I realized, of course, that sports weren’t always the beacon of harmony that it appeared to be.  I learned about John Carlos and Tommie Smith, realized the truth about what happened to Muhammad Ali and Curt Flood.  But, even with all of that going on, sports was still so far ahead of the rest of society that it looked like an ideal that everyone else should be striving for.  My brain worked too logically to allow me to experience the joy of Willie Mays chasing down a fly ball or watch the dignity with which Roberto Clemente and Hank Aaron carried themselves and then go out and apply negative stereotypes to the races to which they belonged.  Obviously, others found a way to do that, but I have to believe that there are thousands if not millions of others who believe in and work for racial equality and teach their kids those values who got their first lessons in those values through sports, particularly baseball.

That is a roundabout way of saying thank you to Larry Doby, whose statue was unveiled this weekend.   Doby never got the acclaim that Jackie Robinson did, but his ascension to the big leagues 81 days after Robinson was no less significant.  Had Robinson remained the sole African-American in the major leagues for a prolonged period of time, it would have been easy to dismiss him as a fluke, an experiment that the other fifteen teams could disregard without being impacted on the field. The appearance of Doby, however, was a confirmation of a sort that the experiment of Robinson was working, that not only could African-Americans play baseball without destroying the fabric of the game (or hurting attendance), they could enhance the game.

Once Doby came along, it became impossible for others not to follow; there were a handful of other blacks on major league rosters by the end of the 1947 season, and eventually it was soon recognized by forward-looking front offices that the teams that gained the inside track to African-American talent would have a huge competitive advantage while teams that allowed bigotry to overcome common sense (namely, most of the American League) would lag behind.

Which is the way it ought to be, not only in sports but in society as a whole.  Black players made it in baseball because they deserved to, because they made their teams better.  Slowly but steadily, we are getting closer to the day when that will be the case everywhere for everybody.  It is easy to look at people like George Zimmerman and Dylann Roof and think that people like them are winning, but if you listen to what they say you can tell that they are lashing out because they know they are losing, that the tide of history, decency, and common sense are flowing against them, that the day is coming when people like them, while never completely gone, are the outliers whose views have no impact on society.

That day will come, and it will come a little sooner because of Larry Doby.  Remember that if you happen to see his statue outside Progressive Field.

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