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Box seat to history

Camden’s Larry Doby changed the face of the American League 70 years ago

Posted: July 3, 2017 2:53 p.m.
Updated: July 4, 2017 1:00 a.m.
Photo courtesy of the Cleveland Indians/

AMONG THE MANY CHANGES Camden’s Larry Doby had to make once leaving the Newark Eagles to play for the Cleveland Indians was going from shortstop in the Negro League to playing in the the outfield with Cleveland.

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(Editor’s note: Wednesday marks the 70th anniversary of Camden native Larry Doby’s breaking the American League’s color barrier when he played his first game as a member of the Cleveland Indians on Saturday, July 5, 1947.)

Weekend afternoon doubleheaders were once staples in baseball during an era which the sport’s purists still refer to as the “golden age” of the game. When the schedule for the 1947 American League season was released, hardly an eye was batted as the Cleveland Indians were slated to play a twinbill against the host Chicago White Sox in Comiskey Park the day after the Fourth of July. Not only were Saturday and Sunday double dips welcomed, they were somewhat expected by those who paid one price to attend two games played on the same day.

No fan holding a ticket to that Saturday afternoon contest, played on a humid mid-summer day on the city’s South Side, could have known they would be a witness to history. A day before the game, 24-year-old Larry Doby boarded a train from Newark, N.J., which would carry him to Chicago. It was an historic trip for the Camden native who, a day earlier, was playing shortstop for the Newark Eagles of the Negro League. Doby, who was batting .415 with 14 home runs to that point in the season, suited up for the opener of Newark’s Independence Day doubleheader. While his Eagle teammates played in the nightcap, Doby was already on the rails, accompanied by Louis Jones, an assistant to Indians’ owner Bill Veeck and a member of the organization’s public relations staff. Jones had been dispatched to Newark to help begin Doby’s acclimation process for his entrance into a new league and what would be for him a new and oftentimes cruel world.

No one on that westbound train besides Doby and Jones knew the purpose of their journey. Veeck did not leak word of his plans to integrate the junior circuit, which came 11 weeks after Jackie Robinson’s debut as a member of the National League’s Brooklyn Dodgers. And many, if not all, of Doby’s future Cleveland teammates were unaware of his impending arrival. This was a mission run under cover of the night in every sense of the phrase.

It was a whirlwind 48 hours for Doby, Veeck and Newark Eagles’ business manager Effa Manley. It was Veeck and Manley who finally came to a monetary agreement that Veeck would pay the Eagles what is believed to be $25,000  (some historians say upwards of $50,000) for securing the rights to Doby with an additional $5,000 bonus if he stayed with the Indians for 30 days. The deal came after Manley, who was elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006 --- eight years after Doby’s induction ---, held out hope that her team’s second baseman would get a deal from the New York Yankees who had an existing relationship with the Negro League franchise which sat on the southern side of the Hudson River.

The fact that Veeck paid Manley and the Eagles to gain Doby’s services was in stark contrast to Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey’s dealings with the Kansas City Monarchs, the Negro League organization for which Robinson played. Rickey, it has been written, never considered the Negro League an organized entity, as such, and therefore felt he could scoop up a player like Robinson without reimbursing the franchise. Rickey did so without repercussion to lock up Robinson.

It was an ironic twist that Rickey, who has been portrayed in both books and film as a man of high moral character, went in and took Robinson paying nary a dime to Monarchs’ owner J.L. Wilkinson while Veeck, oftentimes vilified by some in the baseball hierarchy for his wild and imaginative promotions to get people into stadiums, took the high road and went through all the proper channels in order to secure Doby’s services for the Indians.

“This was very important to dad,” said Mike Veeck, son of the late Bill Veeck, when asked the way his father was able to sign Doby. “It’s really interesting. Dad was inordinately proud of the fact that he gave Miss Manley $25,000. Dad paid for Larry’s contract. He didn’t pluck him out (of Newark.) He paid Miss Effa money. It showed respect for the minor league system. It showed respect for Larry and it showed, quite frankly, respect for Miss Manley.

“He was really proud of that.”

Bill Veeck’s decision to sign Larry Doby, who was born and raised on Market Street in Camden before moving to Paterson, N.J., when he was 14, was hardly a knee-jerk reaction to Robinson’s signing with the Dodgers in what was a well-orchestrated move by Rickey. Robinson signed his first contract with Rickey and the Dodgers’ organization on Nov. 1, 1945. In 1946, he was sent to Brooklyn’s farm team in Montreal, playing a full season for the Royals before making his debut with the parent club on April 15, 1947.

For more than a year, Brooklyn had people around Robinson to help him learn the ropes. By the time he arrived at Ebbetts Field for his first game, Robinson knew some of his teammates and was indoctrinated in the Dodger Way. Doby had none of that. He was thrown into the fire without having spent a day in the Indians’ minor league system before his first game that afternoon in Chicago. He had an inauspicious start to his career; striking out in his first at-bat as a pinch-hitter in the day’s first game.

“That’s why, in my opinion,” said Mike Veeck who is part-owner of five minor league or, independent league baseball teams including the Charleston RiverDogs, “Larry Doby has never gotten his due. When Jack Robinson was called up, they really did have a plan. He was surrounded by people. He had relationships. He had a college education and he had fair warning of many things to expect.”

Compare that scenario to that of Doby. On his first day with the Indians, without ever taking a trip to the minors and being accompanied to the stadium by Jones, Bill Veeck and two plainclothes police officers hired by Veeck, Doby was put under the bright lights.

Mike Veeck said his father never hesitated in putting Doby into the pressure cooker from the get-go.

“He felt that (Doby) was ready or, he would have never done it,” he said of Doby who, led the Newark Eagles to the Negro League championship in 1946, after serving in the United States Navy. 

Especially in the early days of his career with the Indians, Doby endured just as much, if not more, injustices as did Robinson. He was forced to stay in different hotels and eat in different restaurants than his Indian teammates. He was subjected to brutal catcalls --- and sometimes, worse --- from the stands. He had his own teammates and players from other teams turn their backs on him.

Through it all, however, Doby had one person in his corner. That was Bill Veeck.

“Larry was kind of thrown into this crucible and the contact that he had the most with was my dad,” Mike Veeck said as to his father’s befriending his team’s newest and most controversial player. “The relationship that they had was so unusual; it was best illustrated by Larry Doby loved Miles Davis and Dad loved Satchmo (Louie Armstrong.) Larry Doby really couldn’t understand Dixieland (music) and dad certainly didn’t understand what Miles Davis was so upset about. That’s very telling in their relationship.

“Dad would fly to various cities in the Rust Belt, where change came a little bit slower shall we say, and he would spend the evening watching Larry perform and then after, they would go to hear music and have a couple of beers so (Doby) had constant company. It forged this, cast in steel if you will, relationship that only ended with dad’s death and probably didn’t really end there.”

While Doby took the brunt of the insults and other atrocities, Mike Veeck said the residual effects spilled out onto Helyn Doby, the couple’s children and Bill Veeck. “Just imagine how Helyn felt and their children watching her beloved and watching this happen,” Mike Veeck said with his voice trailing off.

Bill Veeck was the one person, aside from Doby’s wife and their family, who stayed by his side through thick and thin both during and following his playing career. Veeck, who was 33 at the time he signed Doby, was a baseball lifer whose only interruption from the game came when he refused to accept a deferment from military service in 1943. Rather, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and demanded to be sent to a war zone. After basic training, he was shipped to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.

That stiff upper lip paid off for Bill Veeck a few years later. It turned into another life lesson for his son who would follow in his father’s footsteps.

While Doby was putting up with told and untold insults on the field, Bill Veeck was not exactly living the good life off it. A steady stream of letters came his way in the days and months after signing Doby.

“Dad got 20,000 pieces of hate mail … horrible, horrible things … and he answered every one of them,” Mike Veeck said. “He said to me, ‘It’s interesting, Miguel. The cowards never sign their name.’ I never forgot that.”

Bill Veeck’s start in baseball came when he worked for his father, Bill Veeck Sr., a Chicago sportswriter who would write columns dispensing his opinion on how he would run the Chicago Cubs if given the opportunity. The elder Veeck’s chance came when the team’s owner, William Wrigley Jr., took Veeck up on it and made him the team president.

By the time he was 11, Bill Veeck Jr. was selling popcorn at Wrigley Field before later being given other chores with the Cubs. He was a ticket seller and junior groundskeeper and is credited with planting the ivy which continues to be Wrigley Field’s trademark. It was also while working for his father that a young Bill Veeck learned a lesson in humanity which stuck with him for the rest of his life.

Mike Veeck then relayed a story which he has only told to a few people.

“One day,” he said, “my grandfather took him into the box office and said to Bill, ‘Dump all the tills (the registers) on that table.’  And, my dad dumped all this money onto this big accounting table in the back room of the box office.

“Then, my grandfather said to him, ‘What color is that money?’ My father said, ‘It’s green.’ Then my grandfather asked him, ‘Now, what color is the man or woman who put that money in there?’ My father looked at my grandfather and he said, ‘I don’t know.’ And my grandfather, very wisely, said, ‘Never forget that.’”

An astute businessman, in 1942 Bill Veeck Jr., formed a syndicate and purchased the Milwaukee Brewers, then a struggling AAA franchise. Using his flair for promotions, Veeck turned the franchise around. Having done that, he set his sights on the big leagues and turned his attention to the Philadelphia Phillies which lost 111 of 154 games in 1941 under owner Gerry Nugent who was looking to get out from under debt. The chain of events is included in Douglas M. Branson’s book, “Greatness in the Shadows; Larry Doby and the integration of the American League.”

Veeck’s plan was to buy the Phillies and stock the team with stars from the Negro League. Veeck made one mistake, however, in the process. He informed a Philadelphia sportswriter of his plans. The scribe got word to then-baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis of Veeck’s plans who, Veeck believed, relayed the plans to National League president Ford Frick. By the time he arrived in Philadelphia the next day to try and put his ownership plans to work for the Phillies, Veeck learned that overnight, the team had been taken over by the National League and that a new ownership search would be conducted. That new owner would not be Veeck, a visionary if there ever was one in baseball.

This entire episode, mind you, came some five years before Robinson’s heralded debut in Brooklyn.

“Dad was colorblind because he was not blind to talent,” Mike Veeck said of his father’s nearly supplanting Rickey as the man who would be regarded for integrating major league baseball. “He understood that this was going to open up a whole new and affordable group of talent.”

When asked if his father harbored any ill feelings or, was frustrated that Bill Veeck was not the man to erase baseball’s color line, Mike Veeck said there was no way he could answer that question objectively given it being his father. Mike Veeck took the high road in putting his blinders on in giving a response.

“If I answer objectively as a guy who makes his living in this game,” he said, “you can’t take anything away from Jack Robinson. The Veecks would not ever want to do that. Dad, specifically, never addressed it in terms of comparison shopping, ‘Would I have been the first.’ He was just glad it happened.

“He would look a little bemused that everyone would believe that (William D.) Cox, I believe the name of the gentleman they engineered the sale (of the Phillies) to, offered less than dad and his group were willing to pay. It seemed like a hurried job.

“But (integration) happened. It was wonderful that it happened and even then, it was long overdue.”

Just as Bill Veeck will go down in baseball annals as the second man to bring a player of color to the game, Doby was the perfect fit for his role in baseball history. Like Robinson, Doby was stern and proud of his heritage but he also had a softer side. He was someone who could and had to roll with the punches and did so throughout his 13-year major league career which included 10 seasons with the Indians, three with the White Sox along with an 18-game stint with the White Sox in 1959. After playing in the American League, in 1962, he and Don Newcombe became two of the first American players to play in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball League with the Chunichi Dragons.

In his Hall of Fame career in the Major Leagues, all spent in the American League, Doby batted at a .283 clip with 253 home runs, 243 doubles, 52 triples while driving in 970 runs. He was a seven-time All-Star selection and put together eight 20 home run seasons and drove in 100 or more runs in a season five times. His best single season came in helping Cleveland to the 1954 American League pennant when he batted .272 with 32 home runs and have a career-best 132 runs batted in. He finished second in that year’s AL most valuable player voting to his good friend Yogi Berra, whose Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center in Little Falls, N.J., includes a Larry Doby Wing which was opened following Doby’s passing in 2003.

Mike Veeck said Larry Doby was the perfect foil in the American League to Robinson.

“Larry was the perfect guy to be number two. I know this on a religious and biblical level,” he said. “He was number two as a manager (becoming the second African-American manager in baseball history when he took over as skipper of the White Sox in 1978.)  It’s very possible that he could have been very bitter about either one of those things but he wasn’t.”

Mike Veeck said there were no airs about Larry Doby. That could have stemmed from the fact that he was comfortable being who he was and in his own skin.

“The reason he means so much to me personally is that it’s very hard to relate to number one,” Veeck said. “It’s very hard to relate to Bob Dylan winning a Nobel Prize and being the poet laureate to a couple generations. Jack Robinson was kind of this mythical figure. Larry Doby was high school-educated, was in the service and was a man we could all relate to; I think that helped.

“If Mr. Robinson broke the barrier then Larry pushed the door down and held it open so that people could stream in.”

Among those players was Henry Aaron who gave a tip of the cap to Doby on the eve of Doby’s Hall of Fame induction in 1998. The one-time home run king said men like Doby made his passage into baseball much easier since the way had already been paved. He said there was very little difference between Doby and Robinson.

“They’re both the same,” Aaron said in a 1998 interview with the Chronicle-Independent. “There was a tremendous amount of pressure on both of them because they were the only (black players) there. That put much more pressure on them.”

What nobody could take from Doby was that in 1948, as a member of the Indians, he helped lead Cleveland to its second and most recent World Series title. By doing so, Doby was one of the first two black players to play in the fall classic and, subsequently, be fitted for a World Series ring. The other was his teammate and roommate on the road, Satchel Paige.

The 1948 World Champion Indians proved Bill Veeck’s acumen as a judge of talent. Like his signing of Doby and first having the idea to have the designated hitter be part of American League baseball, that part of the story is oftentimes subjected into footnote form as people like to talk about Veeck’s sending 3-foot-7 Eddie Gaedel to the plate in 1951, when Veeck owned the St. Louis Browns or, various other stunts. “Once dad had Edward Gaedel at the plate,” his son said, “that gave owners legitimate reasons in their mind, not in our minds, to hate him.

“The things that he did like assembling ballclubs … he was a great baseball guy. He was a great judge of talent. He did, occasionally, fall in love (with a player’s talents.) Even the year that Larry was part of that ’48 Indians’ team, Satchel went 6-1 with a two-something ERA. Dad was a keen judge of talent and signing Larry was just another aspect of baseball which was lost. How much he loved the game, how much he did for the game and the contributions that he made to the game were always forgotten compared to the antics, if you will, which I believe the other owners like to talk about. They downplay his baseball and business acumen and lose it in cheap theatrics.”

While Paige appeared in 21 games with seven starts for Cleveland in the 1948 season, Doby was a rock. In his first full season in the major leagues and after being moved to the outfield from his natural position as a middle infielder, Doby played in 121 games, hit 14 home runs while driving in 66 runs. In the six-game World Series with the Boston Braves, he batted at a .318 clip with a home run. In game four, his solo home run in the bottom of the third proved to be the game-winner in a 2-1 Indians’ win.

“Everybody could associate with a winner,” Aaron said of Doby’s role in opening the door for more black players due to his playing on that championship team. “But Larry not only had to be a good ballplayer, he had to be a good citizen, too. He had to giggle and grin at people who you knew didn’t want you to do good.”

Mike Veeck said Aaron was hardly the only baseball great who looked up to Doby as someone who helped change the game and make it the true national pastime. He relayed two stories which, he said, he had kept to himself before this interview. Both involved the Veeck and Doby families, who continue to be close friends.

“We were lucky enough, the last Cooperstown trip we took, to share it with the Doby daughters and Larry,” he said. “Larry was an impeccable dresser and he had this chocolate, cocoa-colored, suit on and he was holding court; there’s no other way to say it.

“My wife Libby was seated on his right hand side and he had his daughters on his left around him in chairs. Baseball is a small community and, one-by-one, the giants of the game came up and they said, ‘Hey, thanks big man. Thanks for opening this up for us.’ It was guys like Henry Aaron, (Willie) McCovey … it was guys who were baseball cards to me.

“It pleased Larry. The smile on his face was beatific.”

The second story Veeck told was of his being on a plane on December 18, 2003, the day Doby passed away. When he arrived at the airport to end his trip, he was informed of the news. By the time he got to his house, his wife, Libby, had written a letter to the Doby family about how much she admired their late father.

“Libby never met my dad but she met Larry, as well as it was possible,” he said. “Libby wrote a letter and it spared nothing.”

The letter came from someone who was outside the original Doby-Veeck circle and told Doby’s children how strong and impressive their father was and the impression he made on her. The letter went on to say that she could never have imagined what Doby went through and why he had to endure what he did in coming to the big leagues. “It was brutally honest,” Veeck said of his wife’s heartfelt note.

A year later at a ceremony to honor the Doby family, Veeck attempted to read the letter verbatim. It took all he had within him, he said, to make the words come out as his emotions got the best of him. “I was gagging as I read it. It was that hard-hitting. It was poignant but I got through it,” he said.

From recalling that day with emotion creeping into his voice, Mike Veeck told another more cheerful story about the Doby and Veeck families and their sometimes mischievous fathers and how they tried to blur the color lines inside and outside of their own homes.

“Larry and dad loved to send us over to the local country club to try and go swimming knowing that, number one, they would try and drain the pool or, kick us out,” he said while laughing. “Dad and Larry just thought that was hilarious.”


It will be 70 years on Wednesday since Larry Doby helped chart a new path for baseball players of color. Much has happened over that time, yet, Mike Veeck said, some things have stayed the same. If the Larry Doby were here now, he might not like what he would see, said his dear friend.

“I think that Lawrence Eugene Doby is needed now more than ever which, I think, is absolutely preposterous that I’m saying that,” Mike Veeck said. “But the lessons that dignity, the quiet courage and the resolve are traits right now which all of us, not just the millennials, but you and me and our elders would do well to emulate.

“I think he would be shocked that we’re not further along than we are.”

Mike Veeck continues to honor the life and memory of Larry Doby at each of his franchises. The RiverDogs, like the Indians, have retired Doby’s number 14 jersey. Recently, the Charleston organization rededicated Doby’s Deck at Joseph P. Riley Park. “Every one of the teams that I’ve had any association with over the years has a Doby area, a Doby celebration or a Doby something or other, so much so that he would probably get tired of it,” Veeck said.

What Mike Veeck and his business partners have done and continue to do in making sure the legacy and accomplishments of Larry Doby are not forgotten. In his book on Doby, Branson wrote that some 55 books have been written on Jackie Robinson while Hollywood has produced two movies and there has been one television show chronicling his career. In contrast, only two books have been penned on Doby, whose statue, unveiled in 2016, greets fans coming into Progressive Field in Cleveland. Statues of Doby were previously erected in Camden and Paterson, N.J. In 2007, “Pride Against Prejudice: The Larry Doby Story” was produced by Showtime and narrated by Louis Gossett Jr.

Just as the title of Branson’s book implies, Larry Doby’s accomplishments are oftentimes shadow by those of Robinson. It would appear Doby has not gotten his just due from people inside and outside of baseball.

“Absolutely. Absolutely,” Mike Veeck said of that statement. “It’s a huge advantage that baseball, as a sport and as an industry and a historical marker for our times, has made a huge mistake on not telling this story more. It’s important. It’s real important.

“Larry Doby is an icon. It’s important that people … it’s important that you write this story and that people read it and realize that he was kind of like every man. I couldn’t have done it but once in a while, I’m vain enough to think that I would have been like that if I were him.”

Along with his father, Larry Doby is someone who helped shape Mike Veeck’s life. He continues on a journey to live up to the standards which those two men set for him. In the instance of Doby, however, Mike Veeck marvels -- to this day -- as to how one man endured so much bitterness and hatred and came out with his head help high.

It is a lesson in both dignity and courage.

“He was never bitter. Other people might have snapped and things like that but Larry didn’t,” Veeck said.

 “There’s a great lesson here; being number two in classy fashion and still being a pioneer. He really did it all … a man in full.”



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