Like Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, the first African-American to play in the American League, also enjoyed a tenure in Montreal. His stint in Canada, however, came 23 years after he originally expected it.
As Jackie Robinson was starring for the Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate Montreal Royals in 1946, Doby was tearing it up with the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League. In the spring of 1947, Doby was told by future Dodgers great Roy Campanella that Branch Rickey was interested in signing him and bringing him to Montreal. But after reportedly speaking with Rickey, Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck convinced the Dodgers’ general manager that it was important for the Tribe to sign the 23-year-old and make him the first black player in the American League.
So just under three months after Robinson had broken the Major League Baseball colour barrier, Doby debuted on July 5, 1947. Pinch-hitting for Cleveland pitcher Bryan Stephens, the upstart outfielder struck out on three pitches against White Sox right-hander Earl Harrist.
Often overshadowed by Robinson, Doby likely had a more difficult time adapting to the big leagues than the Dodgers legend. Robinson had the benefit of playing in the integrated International League for the Montreal Royals for one season, before suiting up in the big leagues. Doby, on the other hand, came straight from the Negro leagues to the American League. When Lou Boudreau took Doby around the clubhouse and introduced him to his new Indians teammates, several refused to shake his hand. This resistance baffled Doby, who grew up in New Jersey, where he was the captain of many integrated teams. Sure, he had heard the taunts before, but he hadn’t experienced large scale racism until he came to the big leagues.
Unfortunately, that strikeout in his first at bat was a sign of things to come in his inaugural season with Cleveland. He would hit just .156 in 29 games with the Tribe in 1947. But the following year he would establish himself as a top-flight center fielder and help the Indians win their first World Series since 1920. His home run in Game 4 of the Fall Classic off of Braves hurler Johnny Sain proved to be the difference in the Indians’ crucial 2-1 victory.
An all-star in each of his next seven seasons, Doby topped the junior circuit in home runs twice (1952, 1954), hit over 20 homers in a season eight times and drove in more than 100 runs five times during his career. Doby also played for the White Sox and Tigers during his 13-season big league tenure.
It wasn’t until 1969, however, that Doby would come to Montreal. He became a scout with the Expos that year but would evolve into a respected hitting coach with the club from 1971 to 1973. He would return to coach the Expos in 1976, before he became the second black manager in major league history, when he piloted the White Sox for the last four months of the 1978 campaign.
Despite boasting offensive numbers (.283 batting average, 253 home runs, 970 RBIs) that are generally superior to Robinson’s, Doby wasn’t elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame until 1998. The Indians retired Doby’s No. 14 in 1994, but shouldn’t his number be afforded the same treatment as Robinson’s amongst American League teams? Robinson’s No. 42 was retired across Major League Baseball in 1997.
Doby passed away on June 18, 2003 at the age of 79.
Doby has always been one of my favorite players. Imagine the numbers he could have put up had he spent his entire career in the major leagues. I never knew how Doby’s career stats matched up with those of Jackie Robinson. Just goes to show you the difference between being the first and being the second.
Thanks, Kevin, for another well-researched and well-written profile.