Forgotten American Hero: Larry Doby

ehind every great hero is another great hero. Have you ever heard the name Jackie Robinson? You’re probably from another planet if you haven’t. Ever heard the name Larry Doby? Well, you’re probably from this planet if you haven’t.

On June 1, 1947, exactly 11 weeks after Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball, a man named Larry Doby broke the color barrier in the American League, taking the field for the Cleveland Indians. A native of Camden, S.C., Doby became the first African-American to play for the American League. While he changed history, moving baseball and society forward, his legacy has been obscured by America’s fascination with Jackie Robinson. Make no mistake about it, Robinson is a true American hero and icon; but Larry Doby deserves to be a part of America’s collective memory about baseball because of his contribution to the sport and subsequently American society.

Like Robinson, Doby played in the Negro Leagues. Raised in Paterson, N.J., Doby joined the Newark Eagles at age 17, leading them to the Negro League Championship in 1946. In 1947, he was signed by the Cleveland Indians and in 1948, Doby became the first black player to hit a home run in the World Series between Cleveland and the Boston Braves, which is the last time the Indians held a World Series title.

According to MLB.com, “Doby was a seven-time All-Star who batted .283 with 253 home runs and 970 RBI in 13 Major League seasons. The power-hitting center fielder paced the American League in home runs twice and collected 100 RBI five times, while leading the Indians to pennants in 1948 and 1954.”

Like Robinson, Doby suffered many injustices by being jeered by spectators, banned from hotels and restaurants and on the receiving end of threats and hate mail. Robinson received support from his fellow players Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges and Ralph Branca, but Doby received little to none from his.

Through it all, Doby endured, having a fantastic career in baseball. He was the third American to play professional baseball in Japan’s Nippon Professional League. After retiring, he was a coach for the Montreal Expos and Indians, becoming manager of the White Sox in 1978. He was the second African-American to become a manager in Major League Baseball, ironically behind Frank Robinson, who was the manager of the Cleveland Indians. Doby was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998 and passed away in 2003.

While Robinson is celebrated, the contributions of Larry Doby are overshadowed at best and overlooked at worst. This is the tragedy that occurs when we allow others to choose our heroes for us. Before you start the hate mail, Jackie Robinson is undoubtedly one of the greatest American figures in modern history. I’m not trying to take anything away from him.

What I’m saying is that often when one person or story is held up, another is held down. Rosa Parks was not the first woman to refuse to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Ala. Nine months before her, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on the same bus system. Parks’ act of defiance sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which is why she is referred to as the “mother of the civil rights movement.” While Rosa Parks is part of our American history, how many people have even heard of Claudette Colvin?

Thomas Edison is credited with inventing the motion picture camera. While he was a great scientist, inventor and entrepreneur, his assistant William K. Dickson actually invented the motion picture camera — the kinetograph. It is Dickson’s celluloid film that set the standard for 35 mm that is still used today, but it is Edison who gets the credit because he owned the patents. It is Edison who is taught in classrooms, while Dickson is largely overlooked or ignored.

I could go on and on, but I won’t. I’m sure you get the gist. The point is that our society is so wedded to stories of triumph, that we often overlook those who were directly and indirectly involved with those triumphs.

Change and progress does not happen in a vacuum. When change actually appears, there has typically been something else driving it. Sometimes that “something else” is actually someone else. Typically, media institutions and those imbued with power dictate our collective history and choose our heroes. Often we follow along, not challenging or calling for the inclusion of others who have made a difference in our lives.

While many wear Robinson’s No. 42 each year to commemorate breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball, I’m going to rock my Larry Doby No. 14 Cleveland Indians jersey. Not in protest but in celebration of the collective effort it took to change baseball and society itself.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is cultural critic for Creative Loafing. She writes the blog Tune N and is a regular contributor to TheRoot.com.

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