As MLB celebrates Robinson, Doby gets overlooked

Every April 15, Major League Baseball has all of its players where No. 42.

The league celebrates the anniversary of the big-league debut of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American player of the 20th century.

Robinson is always celebrated, as he should be. And that honor extends beyond a day. Every club in Major League Baseball has No. 42 — Robinson’s number with the Brooklyn Dodgers — retired. Robinson is the only player in the major leagues so honored.

The last player to wear No. 42 — aside from on April 15 or the following day — was Mariano Rivera. He wore the number before MLB retired it, and kept it for the remainder of his career.

Much is written about Robinson. There are plays about him, movies about him, and there were songs written about him.

Again, I think that’s all great. For what Robinson went through, and for what he accomplished, he deserves all the praise and honors he receives.

But every April 15, when I watch the games, the interviews, the celebrations, someone always seems left out.

Larry Doby.

Doby was the second African-American player in the big leagues in the 20th century. He debuted July 5, 1947 for the Cleveland Indians against the Chicago White Sox.

Often, Doby is referred to as the second black player.

It’s technically accurate. But it also overlooks something important.

Doby was the first African-American player in the American League.

For the last 22 years, the only real difference between the American League and National League is that one uses the designated hitter and the other doesn’t.

We’ve had interleague play so long it’s difficult for today’s fans to remember a time when it didn’t exist.

There’s interleague play every day. There are no league presidents anymore, nor are there separate umpires for each league. It’s all been consolidated. Also in that time, two franchises — the Milwaukee Brewers and the Houston Astros — have switched from one league to another.

So in today’s world, a Major League player is a Major League player.

It wasn’t like that in 1947.

In those days, the AL and NL teams used the same rules. But they might as well have existed on different planets.

There was no interleague play. When Doby came to the Indians in 1947, the only time he might have seen Robinson or played against him outside an exhibition was at an All-Star Game or a World Series.

For the 1947 season, Doby — like Robinson — was essentially alone.

In fact, according to an article by Dave Anderson of the New York Times, when Doby was introduced to his teammates before his first game with the Indians, four of them refused to shake his hand.

He also didn’t have the immediate success Robinson had. While Robinson hit .297, stole 29 bases and helped the Dodgers to the National League pennant, Doby struggled initially.

In his rookie season, the then-infielder hit .156 with no homers in 29 games.

And the Indians weren’t as good. They were 80-74 and finished fourth in the American League.

One of the things about Robinson was that he quickly thrived in Brooklyn. His critics would have a hard time criticizing his play after his rookie season.

That wasn’t the case with Doby.

In Rick Swaine’s 2009 book “The Integration of Major League Baseball, a Team by Team History,” Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby once said Indians owner Bill Veeck did the African-American race “no favor” by signing Doby, and that if Doby were white, “he wouldn’t be considered good enough to play for a semi-pro club.”

Turned out, Hornsby was wrong.

Really wrong.

In 1948, Doby hit .301 with 14 homers and 66 RBIs.

He was joined late in the season on the Indians by another star from the Negro Leagues — Satchel Paige.

Paige went 6-1 with a 2.48 ERA.

It’s doubtful that without the contributions from Doby — or Paige, for that matter — that the Indians would have won the World Series in 1948.

We from Cleveland are still waiting for the team to win another.

Doby had a great career. He made seven consecutive All-Star teams, all with the Indians. He went on to play in the bigs for 13 seasons, also playing for the White Sox and Tigers.

He hit 253 career homers and was a .283 lifetime hitter.

His baseball story didn’t end there.

In the middle of the 1978 season, Veeck — then running the White Sox — hired him to be the second black manager in the big league history. He went 37-50 with the White Sox the rest of that season, and was not re-hired. He continued to work in pro sports, and died in 2003.

I don’t want to argue that Doby has been disrespected, so much as overlooked. I was at Jacobs Field on July 3, 1994, when the Indians retired his No. 14.

And yes, he does have a statue at Progressive Field.

But sometimes I do wonder.

Why was Doby’s number not retired until 35 years after his retirement?

Why was he not voted into the Hall of Fame until 1998, 51 years after his debut?

And why did the Indians build a statue to commemorate Jim Thome — a nice guy, a great home run hitter, a Hall of Famer, but no trailblazer — before Doby?

When I watch Robinson be honored, I find myself wondering why the Indians — and MLB — don’t celebrate Doby every year.

When the Indians celebrated the statue unveiling, all the Tribe players wore No. 14 — Doby’s number.

I don’t know why it’s not a yearly thing.

Baseball fans should be reminded of not just the sacrifices Robinson made, but also of the sacrifices of the other African-American players who competed in the era.

No one should ever forget Jackie Robinson.

But Larry Doby needs to also be remembered.

And celebrated.

Zach Baker is the sports editor for The Advertiser-Tribune.

Contact him at:

zbaker@advertiser-tribune.com or on Twitter @Zachthewriter