Lots of current ballplayers face all sorts of challenges. It's easy to root for the ones trying to make it back after injuries, or those in recovery from drug addiction or alcoholism, the latter condition until fairly recently assumed to be a work-related perk for ballplayers, rather than a disease.
Then there's the struggle the most courageous of them wage to escape perpetual adolescence. As former Major League pitcher Bill Lee once put it, most of baseball is sitting around spitting and laughing at stupid things. It's easy for at least the more fortunate Major Leaguers to keep adulthood at bay for whole decades.
Larry Doby, who died at the age of 78 on Wednesday, didn't have that luxury. In 1947, as the first black player in the American League, Doby endured insults and abuse, and, like Jackie Robinson in the National League, he could not respond to the thugs, yahoos, and morons responsible. Years later, Doby acknowledged the pain. "The things I was called did hurt me," he said. "The things people did to me, spitting tobacco juice on me, sliding into me, throwing baseballs at my head. I was raised to respect people. I found out that all people are not raised that way."
Like Robinson, Doby found hostility even in the clubhouse of the team that employed him. Like Robinson, he played brilliantly anyway, earning a spot on the All Star Team seven years in a row, leading the league in on-base percentage once, runs batted in once, and homeruns twice. He hit .318 in the 1948 World Series, helping the Indians to the most recent championship the team has won. In 1950, the Sporting News ranked him ahead of Joe Dimaggio and Duke Snyder as a center fielder. Doby was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1998 by the veterans committee.
But he was second. "You didn't hear much about what I was going through," he said years later, "because the media didn't want to repeat the same story." The story belonged to Jackie Robinson.
Ironically, Doby was also the second black manager in the Major Leagues. His tenure in 1978 at the end of the bench for the White Sox was short and undistinguished but for one neat coincidence. One of the players on the Chicago bench that year was Cleveland native Larry Doby Johnson, who, obviously, had been named for the first black player in the American League. The Journeyman catcher only played in three games, but his presence must have been a gratifying reminder that 30 years earlier, somebody had decided to honor the achievement of one of baseball's determined pioneers.
This program aired on June 20, 2003. The audio for this program is not available.