GOODYEAR, AZ – America’s past time takes us back to the desert in the late 1940’s for spring training and a pivotal moment in history. It was during that time when baseball coincided with racial turmoil and segregation in the country. And it was during that time when one player stepped up to the plate and shattered glass ceilings…and home runs.
The start of better days ahead for racial integration in sports came about in 1947, when yes — Jackie Robinson became the trailblazer for African Americans in the majors. And just eleven weeks after Jackie, outfielder Larry Doby was signed by the Cleveland Indians from the Negro League and became the second African American to play Major League Baseball and then eventually the second African American manager of an MLB team.
“Doby comes into the big leagues as a player behind Jackie Robinson and as a manager behind Frank Robinson, which in a large way is why he seems to get forgotten—he’s always number two,” Charlie Vascellaro, a baseball historian, said. “But, there’s no understating Larry Doby’s significance with regards to the history of Major League Baseball…Guys like him had to succeed and he was thrown into the fire.”
Doby was the first African American in the American League and the first in Arizona’s Cactus League, where he prepared for the season with the Indians in 1948.
Fast forward to today in Goodyear, Arizona at the current Cleveland Indians’ spring training facility. It’s a Monday morning—the start of another season as manager Terry Francona, who’s won a World Series before, prepares for the full swing of another season. But he’s apart of a clubhouse that honors Doby’s name and isn’t forgetting their past as a ballclub.
“I don’t think Larry Doby gets enough attention,” Francona said. “ Just because he was the second African-American to do it doesn’t mean he didn’t endure every single thing that Jackie Robinson and a lot of other guys did.”
Vascellaro said Indians’ owner at that time, Bill Veeck, moved the Indians to Arizona from Florida for spring training because of the Jim Crow laws still in place in Florida and hoping Arizona would be more hospitable for a player like Doby. Vasceallaro said it was that way on the field but not all the time off the field, where it “took a while” for integration to fully get there.
“The fact that Cactus League baseball happened in 1947 here in Arizona for the first year officially and that the integration of baseball all took place in that same year, those are not coincidences,” Vascellaro said.
Vascellaro said it was African American players like Doby, Willie Mays, Monte Irvin, and Ernie Banks—whom all played in the Cactus League during that time period, who helped eventually bring integration.
Not only was Doby a trailblazer, along with fellow African American players, but he was also a good baseball player. Doby is in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, was a seven-time All-Star, was the American League leader in home runs for two seasons, and led the American League in RBI’s for a season and runs for a season.
“He was halfway through the ’47 season (in the Negro League) when his contract was purchased by Bill Veeck, the owner of the Indians, and then he joins the Indians halfway through the ‘47 season,” Vascellaro said. “In ’48, his first year with the club, they win the World Series and he has the highest batting average of any player in the World Series. Wins game 4 of the World Series with a solo home run in the bottom of the ninth inning. Famous picture of Larry Doby and Steve Gromeck, it’s kind of a defining moment with regards to the integration of the Major Leagues and Doby kind of making a grand statement.”
Francona said it was because of what players like Robinson and Doby went through that opened the door for so many other players. Players like current Indians outfielder Greg Allen, who is also African American.
“Individuals like myself would not be here today had it not been for them,” Allen said. “Not only that but everything that they had to endure in a time like that where there was so much weight on their shoulders. They were able to shoulder the burden so that people like myself could later on in life. So, more than anything, if I could I would just say thank you to those individuals and individuals like themselves who really had to set the tone and be the kind of person that not everybody has the ability and character to be for the greater good.”
Doby’s legacy is being carried on today with players like Allen and manager Francona, who helped start the Larry Doby Youth Fund, raising $1 million with players, staff, and fans in 2016 before their AL Division Series for inner city youth. This season, the Indians plan to use the rest of those funds for their MLB All-Star legacy project.
Francona said for the Indians, Doby’s name is special and thought it appropriate to name the fund after him.
“We’re in a sport where for a while there we only allowed one segment of our population to play, it’s humiliating,” Francona said. “But, because of what Jackie did and then following him, Larry, now anybody—it’s if you’re good enough—it’s not the color of your skin.”
“My story and the story of others who are in this position is the fact that in the face of adversity, finding ways to persevere, finding ways to overcome, showing some resilience and really never taking no for an answer, finding a way,” Allen said.
Bob DiBiasio, Indians senior VP of public affairs, called Doby a close friend of more than 30 years. He remembers Doby as “an incredible gentleman” who’d sit in the dugout and chat with the current players talking baseball with a smile on his face.
“He just wanted to look at the positive aspect that he was able to create change, have a significant impact on the game of baseball and society,” DiBiasio said.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame listed this in his bio: “Upon his death in 2003, President George W. Bush remarked “Larry Doby was a good and honorable man, and a tremendous athlete and manager. He had a profound influence on the game of baseball”.
The Cactus League inducted Doby, Ernie Banks, Monte Ervin, and Willie Mays to their Hall of Fame in 2017; in 2018 inducted Frank Robinson and vendor Derrick Moore; and this year inducted Ken Griffey, Jr. and “Fergie” Jenkins.
“It was a very difficult time for a lot of the folks that came here to play the game but they are trailblazers and they set the trend moving forward for us at the Cactus League, so we’re very fortunate to have had them here and honor them,” Jeff Meyer, Cactus League executive director, said.
Today, both on the field and off the field, Allen said carrying on that legacy is by giving back, being empathetic with those around you, understanding that everyone is different, not everyone will have the same background but that that “doesn’t lessen the value of any individual.”
“We’re all extraordinarily made and the more time we take to show that and be open to that, the better off the world will be,” Allen said.