14 should be a number synonymous with change, revolution, and integration in baseball. It is a number that belonged to Larry Doby, the second African-American player in Major League Baseball, the man known for breaking the color barrier in the American League. Sadly, Doby is not remembered as he should be, as the junior circuit’s equivalent of Jackie Robinson.
On July 5th, 1947, Doby made his Major League debut, striking out as a pinch hitter. The following season, he hit .301 and helped lead the Indians to their most recent World Series title. Doby endured the same racism, segregation, and unfair treatment as Robinson, but he did not get a first ballot Hall of Fame induction or a feature film, though Doby holds the distinction of being the first player to make a direct transition from Negro League Baseball to Major League Baseball, courtesy of then-Tribe owner, Bill Veeck, who purchased him from the Newark Eagles for $15,000.
Doby was signed as a middle infielder for a team that already had Joe Gordon and Lou Boudreau, both eventually enshrined in Cooperstown. That made it difficult for the South Carolina native to find playing time, as he got just 33 plate appearances as a rookie. The following spring, Veeck brought Tris Speaker to spring training to teach Doby how to patrol center field. With a Hall of Fame on-field advocate in Speaker, Doby thrived as an outfielder, hitting 253 home runs and making seven consecutive All-Star teams.
Though Doby did not gain the attention of national media like Robinson had, his signing had a major impact in Cleveland. In her book, Integrating Cleveland Baseball, Stephanie Liscio explains that the Cleveland Call and Post, the city’s prominent African-American newspaper, became Doby’s biggest supporters when he debuted. The Call and Post focused on the Buckeyes, Cleveland’s Negro League team, up until Doby broke the color barrier, at which point the paper shifted almost exclusively to the city’s Major League team. Regarding his lack of media coverage compared to Robinson, Doby came to a realization later in life, figuring that “the media didn’t want to repeat the same story” of a black player overcoming extreme adversity in segregated America.
Aside from breaking the color barrier in the American League, Larry Doby was the second African-American manager in Major League Baseball and a naval hero in World War II. Being overshadowed by Robinson hurt his legacy, notably when it came to Hall of Fame voting. Doby never accrued more than 3.4 percent of Hall of Fame votes, getting dropped from the ballot after just two seasons. His number was not retired by the Indians until 1994 and he did not get into Cooperstown until 1998, one year after Jackie Robinson’s number was retired throughout Major League Baseball. In 2012, the Indians renamed a street adjacent to Progressive Field after Doby. These recognitions are not enough for a man who deserves more than being known as a footnote in baseball history.
While Jackie Robinson was trained in minor league baseball before making his Major League debut, Larry Doby was added to Cleveland’s roster just two days after signing his contract. American League fans and players had not seen an integrated roster prior to Doby’s debut, a debut that came eleven weeks after Jackie Robinson. Sentiments against African-Americans had not changed in eleven weeks, yet Robinson gets all the recognition while Doby is buried in the annals.
April 15th has become Jackie Robinson day, where every Major Leaguer wears 42 to honor Robinson’s contributions to the game. Larry Doby was the Jackie Robinson of the American League and it is about time he got some recognition for his actions. There is no reason Major League Baseball cannot give Doby a similar treatment as Robinson, retiring his number throughout the American League and mandating all players wear 14 on July 5th to honor his legacy. And maybe, just maybe, there will be a movie one day about a soft spoken Carolina boy who finally got the recognition he deserved, seven decades after he made history.