Such figures lurch in history's shadows, much the way Larry Doby did in the half-century after his appearance as the second African-American player to compete in the Major Leagues. Sure, Doby was the first black player in the American League, but Jackie Robinson's sterling, Rookie of the Year debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and the legacy he built afterward tended to reduce Doby to an historic footnote, albeit an important one.
Award-winning sports documentary filmmaker Bud Greenspan's latest effort, "Pride Against Prejudice: The Larry Doby Story," which debuted on Showtime at 9:30 p.m. on Feb. 1, succeeds in placing Doby's life and achievements in the spotlight they deserve.
"This is an unknown black hero," Greenspan said. "He dealt with the same adversity and prejudices in his life and career as Jackie Robinson. But being second, he has been overlooked by many of us for a long time."
Greenspan, writer-editor Andrew Squicciarini and other Cappy Productions officials attended a special screening of the 90-minute film Wednesday at the Yogi Berra Museum at Montclair State University. The Hall of Fame catcher, his wife, Carmen, and Doby's children, Larry Jr., Leslie and Christina, also attended the screening.
"It was a good movie," said Yogi, an avid film fan who had a brief career as a critic. "I miss him. He helped me a lot over here."
Despite playing on opposing teams and Berra beating out Doby for the AL Most Valuable Player Award in 1954, the longtime New Jersey residents were close friends up until Doby's death in 2003 at the age of 79.
"I never asked a pitcher to knock him down," Berra said. "I'd tell him, 'We might come inside because he doesn't like the ball in there', but that was it. I always talked to players at the plate. He'd get tired of me asking about his family and say to the umpire, 'Tell him my family's fine and to shut up.'"
The film, narrated by Academy Award-winning actor Louis Gossett Jr., paints a vivid, grim picture of the world of segregation that made Doby's rise and those of other black ballplayers of that time remarkable. He was born in South Carolina but went to high school in Paterson, N.J., where he was one of 25 black children among 1,200 students. The segregated society Doby would first encounter while in the U.S. Navy during World War II came as a shock to him.
Doby recalls in the film that while the armed services were then segregated (which President Harry Truman ended in 1948), recreation periods were integrated. Doby became friendly with two Major League players, Mickey Vernon and Billy Goodman, and said that when he finally came to the Majors he received a dozen bats from Vernon.
"This is not a sports story, it's a civil rights story," Greenspan said of the film which will run some 23 times during February on various Showtime channels.
Baseball was every bit the American pastime following the end of World War II, and Robinson's historic signing in 1946 was of particular social significance. Doby was playing for the Newark Eagles, who won the Negro National League championship that year. Then a second baseman, Doby played alongside shortstop Monte Irvin. Both would have late success in the Majors as outfielders.
Robinson's success opened the doors for other Negro Leagues players, and Doby was the next to come through the big-league portal. Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck signed Doby and began a lifelong friendship, but Doby was not entirely welcome. Four Indians players refused to shake his hand. The player who first befriended Doby was Joe Gordon, which was ironic considering he played Doby's position.
"When I first came on the field before the game to warm up, nobody threw a ball to me," Doby said. "Then Joe Gordon came out and threw the ball to me."
The Indians moved Doby to first base, but the regular first baseman would not lend him a glove, so Doby had to borrow one from a player on the opposing team, the Chicago White Sox.
Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller said Doby played first base "no better than my kid sister," but praised his work to become an All-Star center fielder on an Indians team that won the World Series in 1948. Doby credited two other Hall of Famers, Bill McKechnie, the former manager who was then an Indians coach, and center-field master Tris Speaker for helping him make it as an outfielder.
On the field and around the clubhouse, Doby's life was mostly enjoyable, but the Jim Crow atmosphere around the country, especially in cities such as St. Louis and Washington, D.C., as well as the Indians' Spring Training base of Tucson, Ariz., made his existence unbearable. Black players often could not stay in team hotels or dine at certain restaurants with teammates. Flagging down taxis was a daily frustration.
Even the arrival of a black teammate in 1948, Negro Leagues legend Satchel Paige, gave Doby little solace. Doby the family man and Satch the catfish-cooking, woman chaser had next to nothing in common beyond skin color. It was said of Doby that he roomed not with Paige but with Satch's luggage.
A seminal event from the '48 Series was a famous newspaper photograph of Doby and Game 4 winning pitcher Steve Gromek happily embracing cheek-to-cheek.
"Whoever took that picture should have won the Pulitzer Prize," Feller said.
Veeck sold the Indians and later owned the White Sox when Doby was traded to Chicago. He also played in Detroit and did a second tour with Cleveland, where he helped break in a young pitcher Jim "Mudcat" Grant, who memories of that period are the most poignant in the film.
Grant, Irvin, Al Rosen, Ralph Kiner and Don Newcombe are among the other former players providing comment, as well as the Doby children, biographer Joseph Thomas Moore and writer-historians Jerry Izenberg, Russ Schneider, Lee Lowenfish and Larry Pearlstein.
They tell a story of a quiet but strong man proud of his heritage and accomplishments, including another "second," that of being the second black manager, with the White Sox in 1978, three years after Frank Robinson got the job with the Indians.
Doby's long wait to be recognized by the Hall of Fame ended in 1998 with his election by the Veterans Committee, one of which's members at that time was Berra, who said, "I don't know why it took so long."
Jack O'Connell is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.