Playing Hardball

updated 05/09/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/09/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Most people can name the first man to walk on the moon (Neil Armstrong) but how many can name the second (Buzz Aldrin)? Think of Larry Doby as the Buzz Aldrin of the national pastime. In July 1947, 11 weeks after Jackie Robinson made history by becoming major league baseball's first black player, Doby joined the Cleveland Indians, making him baseball's second black player and the first in the American League. Robinson thrived in the spotlight; Doby, a quiet man, spoke most eloquently with his bat, earning a place on six All-Star teams and helping the Indians win the 1948 World Series.

The subject of a new biography, Pride Against Prejudice, by author Joseph Thomas Moore, Doby, 64, grew up in Paterson, N.J., and became a star second baseman for the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues. "Few papers covered our games, but we still attracted crowds of 50,000 for weekend doubleheaders at Yankee Stadium," says Doby, who now lives in Montclair, N.J., with his wife, Helyn, 62. He clearly recalls the summer day in 1946 when the Indians first came a-courtin'.

One of the Indians' public relations men took me to see a Yankees game and said, "Can you play this kind of baseball?" What a strange question! I figured I could play baseball as well as anyone, regardless of skin color, and told him so. A week later, on July 4, 1947, the same guy came to see me play a doubleheader. In the first game I belted a home run. By the time the second game got underway, I had left to catch a train for Chicago, where the Indians were playing the White Sox.

When I arrived the next day, the Indians' owner, Bill Veeck, greeted me with a contract for $5,000 a season. He had already investigated my background and seemed impressed that I didn't smoke, swear or drink coffee, let alone alcohol. But when I was taken into the clubhouse to suit up for a game that afternoon, the reception was much less cordial. A lot of players looked the other way, and some refused to shake my hand.

In the seventh inning I pinch-hit for the pitcher and struck out. The crowd remained very quiet, and nobody on the team said a word as I walked back to the end of the bench, where I sat alone. It didn't dawn on me until later that I had made history. Since Robinson played for the Dodgers in the National League, I was not just the second black major leaguer. I was also the first black to play—and to strike out—in the American League.

I was benched most of that first season, which was hard to accept because I had played every day in the Negro Leagues. And when we traveled, I got heckled by bench jockeys on opposing teams. They'd yell stuff like, "You belong in the National League with the other nigger!" That year Robinson and the Dodgers won the pennant and just barely lost to the Yankees in a seven-game World Series. After the season Robinson and I barnstormed the South with a black all-star team, and people flocked around him everywhere we went. He was made for the spotlight, but I was never a public crusader. My way of fighting racism was to do it individually, privately.

The next season I got off to a good start and was named a starting outfielder. And my status as the only black on the team changed when Satchel Paige joined our pitching staff. Satch was always joking about his age, which no one knew, but it had to be more than 40. He often had problems with his stomach and used to burp so loud that you could hear him all the way to the dugout. It was so bad one day that one of the guys took a glass of bicarbonate of soda out to him on the mound. Satch liked that kind of clowning, and in some ways his presence was a relief. But in other ways it made my situation on the team more difficult because I wouldn't do a lot of skinning and grinning just to make white folks laugh. And unlike Satch, I wasn't about to allow anybody to touch the top of my head for good luck.

By the end of the '48 season, I started to get more respect because my teammates realized I could help put money in their pockets. Down the stretch I hit close to .400 to help us win the pennant. Then, in the fourth game of the World Series, I hit a game-winning 420-foot home run, and we went on to win the Series, four games to two, over the Boston Braves. Afterward the town of Paterson gave me a tremendous welcome-home parade. But when I tried to use the extra $6,772 I'd earned to move my family out of a small rental apartment and into a house previously owned by an elderly Jewish couple, the happy feelings disappeared. Some folks circulated a petition saying they didn't want a black in their neighborhood. We finally bought the house, but only after the Mayor of Paterson intervened on our behalf.

Throughout my career I felt I could not afford to express my anger at racism, but I found I could relieve the pressure by hitting that white ball a little harder. Less than a year after our World Series win, I fled the clubhouse before a game in Washington, D.C., because some of the guys were watching Amos 'n' Andy. I responded during the game by hitting a 500-foot home run, the longest of my career. Still, there were times I almost came uncorked. I'm convinced some pitchers threw at me and other blacks more often than at whites. Toward the end of my career, Art Ditmar of the Yankees knocked me down with a pitch, and I charged the mound and hit him. That was the first time a black threw a punch in baseball. I don't regret it because I think it helped clear the air and put us all on a more equal footing.

I left baseball in 1959, hurting from a lot of small injuries. Two years later I became a pioneer again as the second major leaguer, after my friend Don Newcombe of the Dodgers, to play in Japan. The Japanese treated me with great kindness during my year there, and I felt like a kid again. But my ultimate ambition was to manage a major league team, and in 1978, after years of coaching in the minors and teaching batting in the majors, I got my chance. My old mentor, Bill Veeck, hired me at midseason to manage his new team, the Chicago White Sox.

I inherited a losing team. But as the season wound down, we won 25 games against 20 losses, and I was already looking ahead to the next year. After the season, however, Veeck called me into his office to tell me he was letting me go. He said, "I'm not going to discuss why, because if we do, we'll both start crying." It was all over in 10 minutes. I know Veeck wanted to give me a better shot, but the franchise was losing money, and I suspect he was overruled by stockholders who wanted a quick change.

I was surprised a year ago when Al Campanis of the Dodgers' front office said blacks lacked "some of the necessities" to become managers or general managers in baseball. Ironically, Campanis had played with both Jackie Robinson and me on a postseason barnstorming team. He's basically a decent guy who knows there are capable blacks around, but he's not very good at handling tough questions from the media. Managing, of course, is a power position, and until blacks are accepted in that role, baseball cannot really be called the ail-American game. In the meantime, I've found great personal satisfaction overseeing a New Jersey Nets community basketball program for 500 kids. Most don't even know that I was the second black player in the major leagues. Nor would they understand some of the adversities I faced. Most of the bigotry kids face today is more subtle. During my era signs told us where we weren't welcome. Now people may greet you with a smile—but when asked to treat you as a true equal, some will still lead you straight to the nearest exit.

From Our Partners