Doby's numbers, attitude speak volumes

Doby's ways speak volumes

Larry Doby wasn't a good ballplayer, or a very good ballplayer.

He was a great one.

This is where we start, at recognizing the man for what he achieved, not only as a symbol. It was important to him that his career would be measured fairly, something that came across in hours of conversations over several years in a New Jersey basketball arena, where we met in 1985.

Doby was employed at the time by the NBA's Nets in a community relations position, a role made for one of the state's best-known -- and very best - people. He'd moved to Paterson, N.J., as a kid, from South Carolina, carving out a prominent niche as a young athlete.

In 1947, young Larry made another move, from Newark in the Negro Leagues to Cleveland in the freshly integrated Major Leagues.

Eleven weeks after Jackie Robinson began blazing his trail in Brooklyn, Doby did the same hard, necessary work. The leagues were different, but the games -- and the cultural trials and tribulations -- were identical.

Just as Robinson never had it made, Doby had to endure untold indignities to achieve his goal. He became a great player, and that is how he should be remembered, along with his social pioneering.

His Indians will be honoring Doby by acknowledging his retired No. 14 in an Aug. 10 ceremony commemorating Doby's 1947 debut. He deserves to stand alongside Robinson, a man he admired, in our hearts and minds.

"I went through everything Jackie did," Doby confided one night. "It just didn't get as much attention, mainly because Jack was first but also because of where he was, in New York.

"That was OK by me. I just wanted to play the game. That's all I ever cared about."

He became a friend, a confidant. Our conversations began with excursions into his past -- his Negro League tales involving characters like Satchel Paige and Luke Easter were enthralling -- but soon expanded into the personal realm.

"I went through everything Jackie did. It just didn't get as much attention, mainly because Jack was first but also because of where he was, in New York. That was OK by me. I just wanted to play the game. That's all I ever cared about."
-- Larry Doby

Larry's compassion and wisdom served as elixirs, antidotes. He was a guide, a mentor.

Sitting there in the press dining room before and after games, he would take a thorny problem -- usually something family related -- and mold and shape it into something manageable. He did this often, always in a soothing, calming manner.

Larry Doby made it to the Hall of Fame in 1998, five years before his death. It's a very good thing he lived to see the Veterans Committee selection.

Those wintry conversations frequently took him back to the summer of his life, when he was young and strong and swift. He was proud of his accomplishments, yet never boastful.

A review of his career shows he was the American League's premier center fielder for a seven-year stretch, starting in 1949, before Mickey Mantle's full-blown emergence in the mid-'50s.

In his "Win Shares" book, Bill James calculated that Doby was the league's most productive position player in 1950 and '52 and its premier defensive outfielder in '54. There was, it should be noted, an MVP award or two in there that Larry felt he'd earned.

In 1950 -- two years after breaking in as a full-time Indian and helping the club win the World Series -- Doby was fourth in the AL in batting, fourth in slugging and first in both on-base percentage and OPS (on-base plus slugging).

Highly selective, he was way ahead of his time as a hitter. Unfortunately, sabermetrics were not yet in vogue.

Doby finished eighth in the MVP balloting.

An elite defender with speed, a strong arm and a rare feel for the game, he came back with another big year in '51, finishing second this time in OPS. He did not get an MVP vote.

His 1952 campaign featured his first home run title. He finished second in RBIs, first in runs scored, second in OPS -- and 12th in an MVP race claimed by Philadelphia pitcher Bobby Shantz.

"I thought I deserved it that year," Larry said matter-of-factly, without emotion.

Cleveland won 93 games, 14 more than Philadelphia.

After slipping somewhat in 1953, Doby rebounded with a flourish. He was simply tremendous for the Tribe's pennant-winning club in 1954, leading the AL in homers (32) and RBIs (126).

And he finished second in the MVP race, to the Yankees' Yogi Berra.

"You can't change history," Larry said. "I know in my heart what I did."

There was no trace of bitterness in the man. He understood, as did the incomparable Buck O'Neil, that negative emotions are counterproductive and can shorten life spans.

Like Buck, Larry lived a long time, to 79, enriching countless lives along the way.

One of the many Negro League stars Larry loved talking about was third baseman Ray Dandridge, the Brooks Robinson of his day. At an All-Star Game after his Hall of Fame induction, Dandridge beamed as he talked at length about how lucky he'd been to have played in the company of all those Negro League greats.

"We loved what we were doing," Dandridge said. "It was an exciting [brand of] ball we played, and we entertained a whole lot of people. Sure, it would've been nice to play in the Major Leagues, but we had a good life. Don't let anyone ever tell you otherwise."

Larry Doby, 22 and sensitive when he reached Cleveland, absorbed his share of abuse from fans and opponents. Second baseman Joe Gordon, a man he lovingly spoke of, was especially important in easing Larry's burden with his friendship. It was similar to Pee Wee Reese's relationship with Robinson.

Any scars on Doby's psyche had lifted by the time we met. He made the conscious choice to take the high road through life, uplifting those lucky enough to come into his orbit.

Second to none, a great ballplayer and wonderful man, Larry Doby endures as an inspiration.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.