We are celebrating the history of the Cleveland Indians by building an all-time roster. In this installment, we select our choice for right field.
This article concludes the starting positions on my Cleveland Indians All-Time Team with the right fielder. I still have my designated hitter, bullpen and bench to round out, but my trip around the field has reached position nine.
There are a few fantastic outfielders that I could have used here, and I will talk about those guys when I reach my bench, but there was one man that stood head and shoulders above the rest. In fact, his likeness is immortalized outside of Gate C at Progressive Field.
Larry Doby doesn’t often get the credit he deserves as the American League’s first black player. He was just under 3 months behind Jackie Robinson for the race to the color barrier. Three months sooner and it would be number 14 retired across Major League Baseball.
He was forced to endure the same hatred and prejudice that plagued Robinson, but Doby didn’t receive the same attention. It was partially due to his placement in the midwest as opposed to Brooklyn and due to the unfortunate position of second place. However you look at it, Doby is vastly underappreciated as a trailblazer.
Doby began his professional career playing for the Negro League’s Newark Eagles as a teenager under the name of Larry Walker. He was drafted into the Navy at the start of American involvement in World War II and his baseball career would be put on hold.
His excellent play that year and during the series caught the eye of Indians owner Bill Veeck. Long eager to tap into the market of segregated players, Veeck purchased Doby’s contract for the Eagles and the AL’s first black player made his debut on 5 July 1947.
Doby went on to spend 10 years in an Indians uniform. He was elected to 7 consecutive All-Star teams and twice lead the AL in home runs. When Doby retired after the 1959 season, he was 3rd in Indians history with 215 home runs and 5th with 45.0 fWAR.
He wasn’t immediately welcomed by his teammates when he arrived with the franchise in 1947. His first day in the clubhouse his fellow Indians wouldn’t even look at him as he walked by.
He was slated to start at first base the next day but had no first baseman’s glove. His teammates gave him the cold shoulder again and he was forced to go to the opposing team, the Chicago White Sox, to borrow the leather.
That was baseball back then, a sad and embarrassing time for sure. Black players were forced to play in their own league separate from white players. Doby came along at the right time when the opportunity was there for innovation, but so many others were not as fortunate.
In researching Doby and working on his story, I realized that many of my selections for this list played during a time when baseball was segregated. That raised a couple of questions in my mind. How good would they have been if baseball were integrated? Can a player that spent the bulk of his career playing in segregation really be considered for an all-time great list?
That second question really bothered me. How can a player be considered great when he didn’t play against the greatest players in the country?
Were I to make this list again I don’t think I would include anyone that played the bulk of their career prior to 1947. Larry Doby is my choice for right field on my all-time list, but there is more to this story than just Doby.
This story is about what Doby represents and what was lost because of ignorant prejudice and misguided tribal ideology. This story is about all those that came before.
Prior to integration in baseball, Negro League stars like O’Neil, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, and many more, played an elite level of baseball in relative obscurity. Records from those old leagues are incomplete and sometimes altogether mute when it comes to telling the story of these ball players.
The best that the Negro Leagues had to offer are now somewhat known to the more than the casual fan, but the details of their accomplishments are muddy and gray. Not to mention the complete veil that eclipses the careers of many of those players that were not stars of the league.
Two years ago I had the privilege to spend some time with a man named Samuel Jackson. Samuel spent three seasons pitching for the Philadelphia Stars during the tail end of the Negro Leagues in the 1950s. This elderly man came alive as he regaled me with tales of his games. There was an incredible life to his voice as he proudly pulled out old faded photographs of him in uniform along with his teammates.
With shaky hands, he handed them over for me to see. What stared back at me from those pictures was a young man full of life and hope, full of dreams and ambitions.
Samuel passed away in 2018 and with him went his memories. All of the things he had done, his dream and his hopes, passed with him. All that remains are those old photos. No one is left to remember him, his accomplishments, or his time with the Stars. His boyish grin and dazzling curveball are lost to time and his legacy passed away with him.
There are thousands of men just like Samuel Jackson that played the game as good as any man alive, but no one remembers. No one knows who they were or what they’d done. It is possibly the most tragic part of baseball history that these men are forgotten. That they never garnered the respect they deserved. That they never got to test their skills against the great white players in the Major Leagues.
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Today we frivolously throw around woo words like disgrace and travesty, but the real travesty is not only the segregation of America’s game but that the accomplishments and achievements of those men, men like Samuel Jackson, are largely forgotten. They’ve passed away with the men that played the game.