The Second Pioneer

All they ever wanted was the opportunity, simply the chance to showcase their abilities.

However, for sixty-three years, Major League Baseball stubbornly refused. So, African-American players – many among the greatest to ever play the sport – were forced to participate outside of the game’s brightest spotlight. And they had to collectively endure this ignominy knowing that their rightful notoriety, the records they would have set and the glory they would have earned, was given to others for decades.

When the moment finally came for integration, two men faced the monumental task of proving the worthiness of those denied the opportunity and of confirming the promise of those who would get the chance if the duo succeeded. And the two pioneers essentially led parallel baseball lives – their courage tested by unprecedented pressure and resistance over the same nerve-wracking season. However, only one of them is universally recognized for the achievement.

On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson leapt into the abyss.

He was the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues since Fleetwood Walker appeared in 42 games for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association in 1884. When Robinson stepped on the field that spring afternoon as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, he had no way of knowing what would be waiting for him. So, he just laced up his spikes and went out and played – a black man on a green field and as alone in those spikes as any player ever on any baseball diamond in history. One small step for baseball, and one giant leap for social justice.

Some make the claim that 1947 marked the year that Major League Baseball opened its doors to African-American players. However, be very clear on this. No one ever opened any door for Jackie Robinson. At best, that door was grudgingly left unlocked. And even that action required some measure of chance.

Brooklyn general manager Branch Rickey had to risk his professional standing and reputation, which he had spent decades building, to unlatch the game’s segregation deadbolt before anyone could stop him. It was up to Robinson to kick that door open and walk through. And the ugliness and vitriol he found on the other side was stifling. Jackie Robinson played baseball in a furnace that season.

He was jeered relentlessly by opposing players and fans, and the words had barbs – jagged racial claws designed to penetrate the psyche. The worst of it came in Philadelphia. In an early season game against the Phillies, Philadelphia manager Ben Chapman unleashed a torrent of vile epitaphs at Robinson all afternoon. And he did so with such fervor it was as if he had lost his mind – which, in a way, he had. After all, unfettered racism requires at least a touch of insanity.

However, Chapman’s vulgarity stunned even Robinson’s Brooklyn teammates, some of whom had circulated a petition before the season started urging management not to allow a black man to be part of the team – friendly fire that hadn’t an ounce of friendliness in it. Now, though, they became incensed at the insults blaring from the Philadelphia dugout. Perhaps hearing such intolerance in the extreme finally brought clarity to what Robinson was truly up against.

Although he eventually earned the acceptance of his teammates from that ugly afternoon onward, Robinson was still principally alone. Meals and lodging could be denied with a shoulder shrug but no remorse. Venomous letters snaked their way through the mail system, threatening violence and death but lacking the senders’ identities – the anonymity confirming the cowardice of the authors.

Robinson braved it all knowing that the world was watching everything he did. Judgements would be passed and futures would be built based on how he carried himself on and off the field. As it turned it out, his pioneering moments in baseball weren’t really about the game at all. The diamond was just a proving ground for a much larger audition – the role of a social and professional equal. And he was the only one who truly understood what pressures and obstacles challenged him every moment of every day he underwent that relentless scrutiny. The utter sense of isolation must have been overwhelming.

However, on July 5, there was another player who walked through Major League Baseball’s most unforgiving doorway and also somehow found the strength to keep playing.

Lawrence Eugene Doby made his Major League debut precisely 82 days after Jackie Robinson made his. Signed by the Cleveland Indians, Doby became the first black player in the American League, while Robinson remained the lone African-American in the National League.

And like Branch Rickey in Brooklyn, Cleveland owner Bill Veeck had to be willing to accept whatever personal and professional consequences came his way by signing Doby.  Still, it was entirely up to Doby to withstand the inevitable storm once he put on a big league jersey.

However, a funny thing happened on the way to the history books. While Jackie Robinson’s groundbreaking efforts are justifiably lauded for the courage and strength he showed the world during that simmering summer of 1947, Larry Doby has inexplicably faded from view despite going through a similar trial.

After all, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for things to have been made substantially easier for Doby than Robinson in the space of those 82 days. The ugly racial anger did not stop at Jackie Robinson’s feet. So, when Larry Doby stepped onto the field as a Major League player for the first time, he also wasn’t immune from the glares and humiliating insults. Nor was he readily accepted in his own locker room. When he extended his hand to introduce himself to his new teammates, some of them refused to return such a simple courtesy.

The abuse and anger must have hurt just as much in a Cleveland uniform as they did in Brooklyn flannels.

But Doby just kept playing baseball. Like Robinson, he did so with such resolve and dignity that his detractors appeared all the more bitter and small-minded for belittling him. And both men knew that their accomplishments on the field would not only inspire others to follow them but also definitively put to rest the notion that their race was in any way an intrinsic hindrance to their abilities. So, the pressure to succeed was enormous, because the consequences of failure would have been devastating.

However, each dealt with that unenviable burden in vastly different ways. Robinson channeled his understandable rage directly into his game, playing with a fury and fearlessness that hadn’t been seen in the big leagues before – and, perhaps, hasn’t been seen since. He used his speed to intimidate defenses, daring them to try to throw him out on the base paths. Stealing home is widely considered the riskiest base running move in the game, and Robinson achieved the feat 19 times in his 10-year career. In fact, his steal of home in the opening game of the 1955 World Series remains one of the iconic images of the sport.

Conversely, Doby took a steadier approach, fluid and patient at the plate. However, when the moment was right, he could flash his considerable power. He led the American League in home runs twice and drove in over 100 runs five times in his 13-year career.

And it was there for everyone to see – power and speed, thunder and lightning on a baseball field. Both players thrived when it was imperative that they succeed. Robinson finished his brilliant career as a six-time All-star, a National League MVP, and a two-time batting champion. For his part, Doby was named to seven All-star teams and hit 253 home runs. And both men were eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame, recognition that they were each among the very best to ever play the game.

More than that, they helped to change the way America treated its differences. For those who think sports are superfluous – and, admittedly, they often are – there are moments when they transcend the playing field and create lasting impact, like the summer two men demonstrated how grace and honor could trump selfishness and hate. It was that rare instance when sports heroes truly did something heroic.

For that, they should be inexorably linked to one another – a pair of solid gold cufflinks on baseball’s most elegant tuxedo.

However, one has, unfortunately, been separated from the other along the way. And the meager space between their big league debuts hardly explains how differently each man has been regarded by history. While there is an undeniable tendency to place a premium on the first to accomplish anything, it remains a mystery why, in this case, that premium has all but erased the historical memory of the next in succession.

Perhaps, geography played a part in the disparity of recognition. Fair or not, headlines in New York tend to overshadow headlines from just about anywhere else in the country. Maybe the electrifying style of Robinson’s game, his irresistible energy on the diamond, captivated social stenographers to such an extent that Doby’s more understated persona was steamrolled by the time the story of 1947 was ready to be committed to record. Or it truly could be as simple as celebrating who was first and casting the rest into the shadows.

Whatever the reason, the fact remains that, save 82 days, the two men counted on to legitimize the principle of equality on a baseball field – and the whole of American society, for that matter – did so at the same time and under virtually the same hostile circumstances. And the way they are collectively remembered should reflect that symmetry and not the imbalance of lionizing one but ignoring the other.

The honored spotlight given to Jackie Robinson need not be dimmed in any way, just widened enough to include the strong and steady power hitter from Cleveland who co-authored one of America’s most important chapters. Certainly, Larry Doby is owed at least that much.