Seaman Lawrence Eugene “Larry” Doby’s first realistic thought that they might give him a chance happened on the remote Pacific atoll of Ulithi, the Navy‘s staging base for the invasion of Okinawa during World War II.
A report on Armed Forces Radio announced that the Brooklyn Dodgers were going to sign UCLA football star and former Army lieutenant Jackie Robinson to a contract to play baseball in 1946.
If Robinson proved himself on Brooklyn’s Montreal farm team, if he could withstand the vicious taunts and shunning, he could make history as the first black major leaguer.
Brooklyn’s front office boss, Branch Rickey, believed Robinson would be ready to be called up to the big team in 1947 to break baseball’s unofficial color line, which relegated black ballplayers to the Negro Leagues.
Doby let himself think the door might open for him too. “All I wanted to do was play,” he later recalled.
Statue of Larry Doby outside of Progressive Field in Cleveland, Ohio.
The Navy, like everything else then, was segregated, but Doby was stunned to find that the color line extended to sports within the service, where he had to play on an all-black squad for base teams.
Doby was born in Camden, South Carolina, in 1923 but moved to be with his mother in Paterson, New Jersey, at age 14. Race was also a factor in New Jersey, but less so than in the South. At Paterson’s Eastside High School, Doby was a four-sport athlete.
When the Eastside football team won the state championship, Doby and his teammates were invited to play a school in Florida, but there was a condition: They couldn’t come with Doby. In solidarity with Doby, the team voted to reject the offer, and the game was never played.
Doby, 17, accepted a basketball scholarship to play at Long Island University in Brooklyn, but first, he played baseball that summer for the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League under the assumed name “Larry Walker” to keep his amateur status.
It was there that he had a gruff introduction to playing baseball for money from the legendary Josh Gibson, the catcher for Pittsburgh’s Homestead Grays. Gibson was so legendary that within the Negro Leagues, the fans sometimes referred to Babe Ruth as the “white Josh Gibson.”
As Doby recalled, “My first time up, Josh said, ‘We’re going to find out if you can hit a fastball.’ I singled. Next time up, Josh said, ‘We’re going to find out if you can hit a curveball.’ I singled. Third time up, Josh said, ‘We’re going to find out how you do after you’re knocked down.’ I popped up the first time after they knocked me down. The second time, I singled.”
Larry Doby in 1951.
Following his Navy stint, Doby rejoined the Newark Eagles in 1946 and had a stellar season, leading the team to the league championship. He attracted the attention of Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck, who had his own plan for breaking baseball’s color line.
On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson played his first game in the National League at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field. On July 5, 1947, in Chicago against the White Sox, Doby pinch-hit to become the first black player in the American League.
Doby played little his first year but had a breakout in 1948, leading Cleveland to its second (and most recent) World Series championship. Over 13 seasons, he was a seven-time All Star, hit 253 home runs and had a batting average of .283.
In 1998, Doby was voted into baseball’s Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee. He died in 2003 at age 79.
Recently, the Senate passed a joint bill to award Doby with the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian award alongside the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The citation directed “the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President pro tempore of the Senate to arrange for the presentation of a Congressional Gold Medal in honor of Larry Doby, in recognition of his achievements and contributions to American major league athletics, civil rights, and the Armed Forces during World War II.”
“For too long, Larry Doby’s courageous contributions to American civil rights have been overlooked,” New Jersey Republican Rep. Bill Pascrell said. “Awarding him this medal from our national legislature will give his family and his legacy more well-deserved recognition for his heroism.”
The silent treatment, except for ‘Yogi’
Jackie Robinson had warned Doby that it was going to be tough, but the first game was still a shock to him.
He went around the clubhouse to say hello and shake hands with his Cleveland teammates. He later recalled that he mostly received “cold fish” handshakes, and four of his teammates refused to take his hand. Two of those turned their backs on him, he said.
He went on the field to warm up, but nobody would play catch with him until veteran second baseman Joe Gordon came over to toss a ball.
Doby also was a second baseman, but later in the season, again against Chicago, he was told he would start at first base. He was humiliated when Cleveland’s regular first baseman wouldn’t loan him a first baseman’s mitt. Gordon went into the Chicago clubhouse to borrow one for him.
In the off-season, Doby was told to work on outfield play. He became Cleveland’s centerfielder for his breakout season in 1948 and remained one for the rest of his career.
In addition to the opposition he faced within his own team, opposing players also would not talk to or associate with him — at first. But then came former Navy Gunner’s Mate Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra — the man, the catcher, for all seasons.
When Berra’s New York Yankees came to town to take on the surging Indians in 1948, the first chat between Berra and Doby made the front pages. Berra talked to everybody but on the field, the chatter had a dual purpose for Berra: he also wanted to distract the hitter. It didn’t take Doby long to catch on.
Doby told the umpire to tell Berra to shut up. Berra told the umpire that he was just trying to be friendly. The umpire told them both to shut up.
The next day’s papers showed photos of what appeared to be a dustup between the first black player in the American League and the famous Yankee. They would become best friends and laugh about it in later years.
“I felt very alone” in the first two years in the major leagues,” Doby later told The New York Daily News. “Nobody really talked to me. The guy who probably talked to me most back then was Yogi, every time I’d go to bat against the Yankees.”
Statue of Hall of Famer Larry Doby in Cleveland.
He continued, “I thought that was real nice but, after a while, I got tired of him asking me how my family was when I was trying to concentrate up there.”
Berra later recalled with a laugh: “I know at least one time I didn’t interrupt his concentration. The time he hit that homer to center field in the old Yankee Stadium,” he said of Doby’s prodigious shot in the spacious ballpark.
When Doby died of cancer in 2003 at age 79, Berra said, “I lost my pal. I knew this was coming, but even so, you’re never ready for it. I’d call him, and he’d say he didn’t feel like talking, so I knew then it was bad.”
Things only veterans can share
Following his playing, managing and coaching days, Berra opened the Yogi Berra Museum Learning Center in Montclair, New Jersey, where Berra and Doby were neighbors.
After Doby’s death, Berra dedicated a wing of the museum to Larry Doby featuring memorabilia from his career and the Negro Leagues.
When Berra died at age 90 in 2015, then-President Barack Obama called him “an American original — a Hall of Famer and humble veteran, prolific jokester, and jovial prophet.”
“He epitomized what it meant to be a sportsman and a citizen, with a big heart, competitive spirit, and a selfless desire to open baseball to everyone, no matter their background,” Obama said.
No one knew that better than Doby. He also knew there were things that still haunted Berra from World War II that he could speak of only to another veteran.
At an American Veterans Center conference in Washington, D.C., in 2010, Berra hinted at what those things were.
He had been assigned as a gunner’s mate to what he called a “rocket boat,” a gunboat launched at the beachhead for the June 6, 1944 invasion of Normandy in World War II.
Berra recalled the big mistake his ship made as the invasion boats rumbled ashore.
“We had orders to shoot at anything that came below the clouds,” he said. They fired and downed the first plane they saw, which turned out to be an American aircraft. However, they managed to rescue the pilot.
“I never heard a man cuss so much,” Berra said. “We got him out of the plane but, boy, was he mad.”
He said, “It was like the 4th of July to see all them planes and ships out there. I stood up there on the deck of our boat” to watch. The officer told him to get down “before you get your head blown off.”
Statue of Hall of Famer Larry Doby in Cleveland.
Berra was slightly wounded on D-Day but later declined being put in for a Purple Heart. He said he didn’t want his mother in St. Louis to find out and become upset.
Then, while speaking before the crowd of veterans, he grew emotional. “We picked up some of the people who got drowned,” he said. Then Berra, the non-stop talker, stopped talking.
Later, he told a reporter there were some things he would talk about only to his friend, Doby, and, as they both aged, they spoke nearly daily, either on the phone or in person. They hung out together at Berra’s house, or messed around in his garage, until Berra’s wife, Carmen, started finding things for them to do.
Then they headed to Doby’s house, until Doby’s wife, Helyn, also started finding things for them to do.Their last escape would be the local American Legion post to talk about baseball and the Navy, Berra recalled.
In the newest museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, a photo of Doby is prominently displayed: it’s from the 1948 World Series when Cleveland beat the Boston Braves for the championship.
The photo shows Doby hugging Cleveland pitcher Steve Gromek. Doby had just hit a homer to give Gromek and Cleveland the winning margin in Game Three.
Doby told The New York Times, ”I hit a home run off Johnny Sain to help Steve Gromek win, and in the clubhouse, the photographers took a picture of Gromek and me hugging. That picture went all over the country. I think it was one of the first, if not the first, of a black guy and a white guy hugging, just happy because they won a ballgame.”
This article originally appeared on Military.com. Follow @militarydotcom on Twitter.