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Doby dead at 79

Posted: Thursday, June 19, 2003

NEW YORK Hall of Famer Larry Doby, the first black player in the American League, died Wednesday night after a long illness. He was believed to be 79.

Doby died at his home in Montclair, N.J., said his son, Larry Doby Jr. Doby was a seven-time All-Star in a 13-year career, almost all of it spent in the outfield for the Cleveland Indians. He helped lead the Indians to their last World Series title in 1948.

On July 5, 1947, just 11 weeks after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier, Doby joined the Indians.

There are discrepancies over Doby's age. Total Baseball listed his birth date as Dec. 13, 1923, while the Baseball Encyclopedia had it as Dec. 13, 1924. Even Doby's friends weren't sure of the exact date.

Though he would go on to hit .283 with 253 home runs and 969 RBIs in a big league career that lasted through 1959, his locker room reception that first day in the majors was chilly. Some teammates would not even shake his hand.

''Very tough,'' Doby once recalled. ''I'd never faced any circumstances like that. Teammates were lined up and some would greet you and some wouldn't. You could deal with it, but it was hard.''

He was voted into the Hall of Fame by its Veterans Committee in 1998.

''Larry and I were very good friends,'' Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller, Doby's teammate in Cleveland from 1947-56, said Wednesday night.

''He was a great guy, a great center fielder and a great teammate. He helped us win the pennant in 1948 and the World Series. My thoughts go out to his family,'' he said.

St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa was a coach for Doby after he replaced Bob Lemon as the Chicago White Sox manager on June 30, 1978.

''I got to know him in '78. He brought me up to coach first for him, so I was with him for half a year. Man, that's really bad news,'' La Russa said.

''I kick myself. I saw his son early in the year and I asked him for his number and I didn't call him. And I regret it,'' he said.

Doby's No. 14 was retired by the Indians in 1994 47 years to date after he signed his contract with Cleveland.

''He was a great and honorable man and did a tremendous amount for the game of baseball and the Cleveland Indians organization,'' team vice president Bob DiBiasio said. ''He was a pioneer in the game and a pioneer of a man. He will be missed.''

Feller remembered some of the difficulties Doby faced when he entered the league.

''It was tough on him,'' Feller said. ''Larry was very sensitive, more so than (Jackie) Robinson or Satchel Paige or Luke Easter or some of the other players who came over from the Negro Leagues. He was completely different from Jackie as a player. He was aggressive, but not like Jackie was.''

While Robinson's ascension to the majors was widely recognized, Doby received relatively scant attention.

''Don't forget Larry Doby,'' Willie Mays once told The New York Times. Referring to white players who had helped Robinson, he added, ''From what I hear, Jackie had Pee Wee Reese and Gil Hodges and Ralph Branca, but Larry didn't have anybody.''

In his first decade with the Indians, Doby was kept apart from his teammates eating in separate restaurants, sleeping in separate hotels even during spring training. From players and fans, he was the frequent target of racial taunts.

Despite provocation, Doby kept his temper, heeding Bill Veeck's advice when the Indians' owner bought Doby's contract from the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League.

''He sat me down and told me some of the do's and don'ts,'' Doby once said. ''No arguing with umpires. Don't even turn around at a bad call at the plate and no dissertations with opposing players either of those might start a race riot.''

Doby seldom expressed bitterness about the discrimination he endured.

''We can see that baseball helped make this a better country,'' Doby said in a speech to a college audience after his playing days were over. ''We hope baseball has given (children) some idea of what it is to live together and how you can get along, whether you be black or white.''

Still, some rancor remained.

''There's something in the Bible that says you should forgive and forget,'' Doby told the New York Post in 1999. ''Well, you might forgive. But boy, it is tough to forget.''

Said longtime Milwaukee Brewers broadcaster Bob Uecker: ''He's one of the last of an era of guys who came through those tough times. He was always a nice guy, but he was one tough dude.''

Doby was a 22-year-old second baseman when the Indians signed him. Two seasons later, as the team's starting center fielder, he helped Cleveland win the World Series, hitting a home run in Game 4.

''Larry Doby could do everything hit, run, field and throw,'' said Yogi Berra, a Veterans Committee member.

Doby hit at least 20 home runs in eight straight years back in an era where home runs were not as common as they are now. He led the AL in homers in 1952 and 1954 hitting 32 each season and led the league in 1954 with 126 RBIs.

Doby played in six straight All-Star games. In 1949, he, Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe became baseball's first black All-Stars.

''It was a great feeling for me to look across the diamond and see other black faces,'' Doby told Ebony magazine in 1999. ''I think I was more excited after the game after thinking about the history, but that day looking across the diamond and seeing those guys I no longer felt like I was all alone.''

Newark Star-Ledger columnist Jerry Izenberg, a close friend of Doby's, was called by the family about his death. Izenberg recalled walking with Doby through the Hall of Fame on his induction weekend at Cooperstown, N.Y., and watching the former player stop at an exhibit featuring pictures of great black teams.

''Do you have any idea how many of these guys belong in here as individuals?'' Izenberg remembered Doby saying.

In 1943, Doby recorded another first he became the first black to play in the American Basketball League, a forerunner of the NBA, as a member of the Paterson (N.J.) Panthers.

Doby was born in Camden, S.C., the son of a semipro baseball player who died when Doby was 8. He moved with his family to Paterson in his teens.

In 1942, at 17, he joined the Eagles, playing under the name of Larry Walker to protect his amateur status and playing his first pro game at Yankee Stadium.

He attracted the interest of Cleveland, where he was a teammate of Paige, by hitting .414 with 14 homers in his final season in Newark. Both totals were tops in the Negro National League.

Also that year, he led the Eagles to the Negro World Series championship. His Newark career was interrupted by two years in the Navy.

Doby ended his major league career in 1959 with the Detroit Tigers and White Sox.

With the 1978 White Sox, he became only the second black to manage a major league team, following Frank Robinson.

His post-playing days also included coaching and front-office stints with the White Sox, Indians and Montreal Expos.

Doby capped his baseball career by working in the commissioner's office in New York.

Doby also worked in the late '70s as director of community relations of the NBA's New Jersey Nets and got involved in a number of inner-city youth programs.

Doby, of Paterson, and his wife, Helyn, had five children. She died of cancer in 2001.

Years after his career, Doby recalled the day Veeck signed him.

'''Lawrence,' he's the only person who called me Lawrence 'you are going to be part of history,''' Doby said Veeck told him.

''Part of history? I had no notions about that. I just wanted to play baseball.''



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