Eleven weeks to irrelevance   

Updated: July 13, 2007, 3:26 PM ET

  • Comment
  • Email
  • Print
  • Share

In the days following baseball's last great event, an event where Barry Bonds was given a standing ovation and Willie Mays rode around in a pink Caddy tossing balls to fans and police officers, in the wake of a three-part series celebrating Hank Aaron on "SportsCenter," something huge was missing.

It's been 11 weeks since Jackie Robinson was nationally celebrated for breaking the color barrier in baseball. Eleven weeks since baseball stopped everything it was doing to celebrate the man who changed not only America's game, but America itself. Various players on every MLB team donned No. 42 jerseys and tributes were made at ballparks all across the county for a man who changed the way America looked at black people, how America looked in the mirror.

It's been 11 weeks and still it's as if the "other one" never existed.

See, 60 years ago something else happened. Something that should have been recognized by MLB, something to which all of us should have paid tribute. See, 11 weeks after Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, another man like him took the field in Cleveland.

"This is not a sports story, it's a civil rights story," documentary filmmaker Bud Greenspan said of Larry Doby, the man he would eventually do a documentary film on, the man who 11 weeks after Robinson made history, made history himself by becoming the first black player in baseball's American League.

Larry Doby

AP Photo

Larry wore the same brave face as Jackie Robinson in 1947.

But second-place finishers in this country are suckers. And so are those who make the story of history less simple than it needs to be. This happens sometimes in America. Those who don't come first or don't do things a certain way get lost. They disappear.

In much the same way the entire civil rights movement has been reduced to one man and one speech, or the boycott that started that movement has been reduced to one woman who got arrested for not sitting in the back of a bus, or the history of soul music has been reduced to one record label as if Stax and Chess Records didn't exist, or the history of black cinema will be reduced to one director and no one will know the significant contributions of F. Gary Gray or Kasi Lemmons, or 60 years from now the entire black presence in American politics will be reduced to one presidential candidate (see the pattern … see where I'm going with this?), in much the same way baseball has reduced the integration of its sport and the importance of it to this country to one person. It's as if the game -- much like this country's history has shown -- only has room to tell one story.

And if you happen to be the person who came behind that chosen person or if your story isn't "sexy" enough for the masses, you become an afterthought in America's history. Or as Manning Marable says, "Historical memory is always selective."

Larry Doby lived the same life Jackie Robinson did. And he lived it at the same time. Their career stats are scarily similar. Robinson played 1382 games; Doby played 1533. Robinson's lifetime batting average was .311; Doby's was .283. Robinson's numbers include 137 homers, 734 RBIs, 197 steals, .474 SLG%; Doby's include 253 homers, 970 RBIs, 47 steals, .490 SLG%. Doby was a seven-time All-Star in his 13-year career, Robinson was a six-timer in 10. Doby helped lead the Indians to their last World Series title in 1948, hitting a home run that won Game 4. He won two home run crowns (1952 and 1954). In 1954, he finished second in the AL MVP voting (to Yogi Berra) when he led the league with 32 home runs and 126 RBIs. Robinson won the NL MVP in 1949.

Larry Doby

AP Photo

There's no reason why Larry had to waited this long to get into the Hall of Fame.

(Unlike Jackie though, Larry didn't have an entire year to prepare for his entrance into the majors. Robinson signed his original contract in 1945 and didn't take the field until 1947 while being "groomed" by Dodger owner Branch Rickey to get ready for what he was about to face during his career. Doby never had that luxury. He signed his contract on July 1, 1947 and took the field only four days later.)

According to Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller, who played with Doby for 10 years, "Larry Doby was a better baseball player than Jackie Robinson."

And here it is, the 60th anniversary of Doby doing the exact same thing Jackie Robinson did, going through the exact same "things" Jackie went through -- the spit that hit Doby's face was just as wet, the death threats just as real, the taunt of "nigger" just as painful. Once Doby was asked how bad was it and he responded, "It was every bit as bad as Jackie went through, but Jackie had already gone through it, so I had no publicity." Yet we act like he didn't matter … or worse, exist.

It's not like hatred can disappear in 11 weeks.

Don Newcombe gave us an insight into the untold truth and into why Doby supporters shouldn't be surprised by the lack of leaguewide honors in Cal Fussman's "After Jackie." "Look at how long it took them to put Larry Doby in the Hall [of Fame] and he only got in because he came through AL president Gene Budig's office," Newcombe said. "What stopped them from putting him in earlier, when he could have enjoyed and benefited from it, when he could have made some money, like all of the other Hall of Famers do? They didn't give it to Doby when he had the chance to benefit from it."

Two things helped Doby get into the Hall of Fame. One was the book "Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and the American Culture: 1997," where writer Peggy Beck highlighted, "Larry Doby's experiences just after signing a major league baseball contract differed from those of Jackie Robinson's" and "it could be argued that Bill Veeck [who signed Doby] worked on the integration of baseball before Branch Rickey." The second was Ira Berkow's Feb. 23, 1997 article on The New York Times front page: "He Crossed the Color Barrier, but in Another's Shadow." Both put guilt on the Hall and Doby was elected the next year in 1998 -- 36 years after Jackie Robinson.

So here we are again. The July week that marked the monumental 60th anniversary of Larry Doby's own Jackie Robinson story has come and gone. Sure there was Greenspan's documentary film ("Pride Against Prejudice: The Larry Doby Story") released earlier this year on Showtime, and yes, there's Art Rust Jr.'s great "'Get that nigger off the field!': A sparkling, informal history of the Black man in baseball," but there was no national remembrance of the secondary life Doby had living in the shade of Jackie Robinson's glory. No Jonathan Eig books released for this moment, no Time magazine "Where Have We Gone, Mr. Robinson?" stories, no Dave Anderson columns, no HBO "Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush" series. On August 10th, the Indians do plan to honor Doby by having every player and coach wear No. 14. August 10th? Why not this week or on July 5th? Once again, more questions than answers.

The game didn't give Doby credit then and it's not giving it to him now. Once again, he is virtually ignored.

Eleven weeks.

It's amazing how one man's life can become virtually extinct in that short amount of time. It's amazing how a man's life and significance to an entire country and a sport can just disappear.

What Larry Doby really is is a reminder of our true birthright in America and what can happen once it's decided that someone else has already been selected to represent a people's history.

Scoop Jackson is a columnist for Page 2 and a contributor to ESPN The Magazine. He's also the host of ESPN Original Entertainment's "NBA Live: Bring It Home". Sound off to Scoop here.


Comments

You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?