With all the ugliness and despair that has consumed the nation’s politics recently, it would be easy to overlook a singular, inspirational point of light that emerged from Congress last month.
Lawmakers put aside the rancor to honor baseball legend Larry Doby, the first black player in the American League who followed Jackie Robinson in breaking down baseball’s color line.
Doby, a seven-time All-Star who broke into baseball with the Cleveland Indians two months after Robinson played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers, was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal — given to those “who have performed an achievement that has an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized as a major achievement in the recipient’s field long after the achievement.”
New Jersey Congressman Bill Pascrell, who helped push the recognition for Doby, spoke about Doby’s courage and character when he announced the award — news that got lost in the business of Capitol Hill that speaks to neither courage or character.
“What Larry faced would have broken most men and women,” Pascrell said in his announcement. “Unspeakable racism, threats of violence, and shunning from even his teammates. But he endured because of unshakable courage and incredible character. And through his strength, American civil rights were advanced forward,” Pascrell added. “Larry Doby was a great man and a hero.”
He did this in Cleveland, where the great Bill Veeck bought Doby’s contract from the Newark Eagles in the Negro National League after the 1947 season started. Doby’s first game was July 5, and, like Robinson, he encountered racism from both teammates and opponents.
If his fate had been a little different, Doby would have made history right here in the District of Columbia, as the first black man to play for the Washington Senators.
Doby, who passed away in 2003, served in World War II as a physical education instructor. While serving in the Pacific, he met Mickey Vernon, who had spent five years with the Senators before joining the Navy in 1944. Serving together, Doby and Vernon began a lifelong friendship. When they were done, Doby went to play for the Eagles and Vernon sent him some bats as a gift. “It was a gift I’ll never forget,” Doby said.
Vernon hoped Doby would be using those bats as a teammate in the District.
During the war, he wrote Senators owner Clark Griffith about Doby’s baseball abilities, suggesting the owner sign him. But Griffith — who profited from baseball’s color line with the presence of the great Negro League team, the Homestead Grays, playing many of their games at Griffith Stadium — ignored the advice.
It wouldn’t be until Sept. 6, 1954, when Cuban-born Carlos Paula made his Major League Baseball debut that the Senators would finally would break their own color line. By that point, Doby had made six American League All-Star teams and led the league in home runs twice and RBI once. Knowing that Vernon had made a plea for him to join the Senators and it was ignored, Doby took particular pleasure in coming to the District and beating up on the woeful Senators.
He wasn’t alone.
There was a young man who grew up in Washington and would go to Griffith Stadium to watch him play who also took pleasure in Doby’s pleasure — a young man who would go on to become an black icon in his own right, Hall of Fame basketball coach John Thompson.
In a conversation on my podcast, Cigars & Curveballs, Thompson talked about what Doby meant to him as a young black man — and what he still means to him today:
“Baseball was the sport that got me involved in sports,” Thompson said. “In those days, kids in my neighborhood didn’t play a lot of basketball. I think Elgin (as in NBA Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor) started particularly a lot of the African-American kids playing (basketball). I used to go up to Griffith Stadium with my Dad. The team we used to root for because they had the second African-American to play in the big leagues and they had African-Americans on their team. Doby was somebody who I heard discussed in my family all the time, I heard people talking about him on the playgrounds. He was somebody who I would go to see play.
“The only games that I ever saw were when the Cleveland Indians came to town and hear my Dad talk about him, so much to the point that I have a small statue of Doby in my house now. You hear people talk about how athletes have responsibilities because young kids watch them. Larry Doby was the perfect realization of that statement to me, because I didn’t even know the man and I worshipped the guy.”
Many years later, Thompson, while coaching Georgetown, got his chance to meet — and thank — Doby.
Doby grew up in New Jersey, was the director of communications and community affairs for the New Jersey Nets from 1980 to 1990. During that time, while Georgetown was preparing for a game against Seton Hall, Thompson finally met his childhood hero.
“Somebody came in and mentioned that Larry Doby was sitting up in the stands watching the practice,” Thompson told me. “I stopped the practice and made the kids go up and meet him and shake his hand, because he meant so much to me in terms of looking forward and aspiring to have role models. Doby was as important in my life, No. 14, as Elgin Baylor was as I got older. The inspiration that most African-American kids got, those inspirations came from athletes and entertainers, primarily. The man meant so much to me without me really getting to know him, but I knew what he accomplished and how he carried himself.”
Doby never got his opportunity to play for the Washington Senators, but his presence was felt in this city — and it went far beyond the baseball diamond.
⦁ Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons, Saturday and Sunday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast every Tuesday and Thursday.
Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC.