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Mudville: July 23, 2024 5:46 am PDT

Retire 14

BY KEVIN KERNAN

Larry Doby is often referred to as Jackie Robinson’s wingman, but he was much more than that.

Major League Baseball owes a huge debt of gratitude to Larry Doby, a gentleman ballplayer who had nerves of steel. This Friday, July 5th marks the 77th anniversary of Doby becoming the first Black player in the American League, playing for the Cleveland Indians against the White Sox at Comiskey Park; a mere 11 weeks after Jackie first played for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Back then there was a big difference between the National League and the American Leagues. Larry was only 23 when he made his major league debut. Jackie was 28.

Larry had to fight his own battles against racial prejudice. I remember sitting down with Larry in his Montclair, NJ home in 2002 when he told me in his most dignified manner, “Looking back now I have no idea how I got through those times. God got me through those days.’’

Everything that was thrown his way, Larry Doby endured, and he exacted his own form of payback. “I had to take it, but I fought back by hitting the ball as far as I could,’’ he said that day. “That was my answer.’’

The perfect answer.

Playing a full MLB season for the first time in 1948, Doby’s graceful swing helped lead the Indians to the World Championship, batting .301 with 66 RBIs in 439 at-bats, 14 home runs, 54 walks, 83 runs, 23 doubles and nine triples.

Larry Doby was a complete ballplayer and a complete man.

Through the decades, everyone who knew Doby marveled he was all class – and that was evident in every conversation I had with him throughout the years.

Doby passed away on June 18, 2003, at the age of 79.

I would love to see MLB retire his number, not only for Doby’s sake – but for baseball’s sake. Fans and players need to know more of the Larry Doby story.

I’ve been fortunate to meet a lot of great people in my career, and Larry Doby is right at the top of the list. Cleveland retired his number 14 in 1994 in a wonderful ceremony that featured everyone from Bob Feller to Joe Morgan. The organization in 2015 unveiled a bronze statue of Larry Doby outside Progressive Field. Cleveland has done a tremendous job honoring him and will do so again on Friday, celebrating the 30th anniversary of his number being retired by the team, back when they were the Indians.

Members of the Doby family are much like their dad: total class.

“Kevin, you knew my father, I remember you in his Nets days, when he worked for the Nets, you were around so that was a long time ago, so you knew him,’’ Larry Doby Jr. told BallNine. “He was not one to toot his own horn. He was very comfortable with his position in history – being second – he was comfortable with that. He knew that he wasn’t going to get so much of the accolades, and he also knew he went through the same stuff. But he was not going to toot his own horn, so in his spirit, I feel like I can’t, but I will say this: There was talk when he first passed away that they were going to retire his number in the American League. There was a little rumbling for that.

“We were overjoyed that that was a possibility,’’ Larry Jr. said calmly. “It didn’t happen. So, all I can say is that we are very happy with the way Cleveland honors him constantly and never forgets him. That was a love affair with that city and anything else that Major League Baseball sees fit to do we would certainly welcome it.’’

Again, total class.

Wouldn’t it be great if MLB did more to honor Doby? I would love to see MLB retire his number, not only for Doby’s sake – but for baseball’s sake. Fans and players need to know more of the Larry Doby story.

(FILE PHOTO: Date Unknown) Satchel Paige (seated) and Larry Doby of the Cleveland Indians have a moment in the clubhouse. (Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images)

Retiring Doby’s number will not diminish the great honor that was bestowed upon Jackie. In my mind, it enhances it. All the players wear 42 on Jackie Robinson Day – April 15th. That number is retired across the game.

The same should happen to Larry Doby’s No. 14 on July 5th.

Larry Doby fought the same fight, and, in some instances, I would imagine, it was more difficult for Larry.

The debuts were separated by only 11 weeks in 1947 and back then the American League and the National League were two separate entities.

In reality, Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby are 1 and 1A.

At the least, MLB should allow the Guardians to all wear No. 14 every year on Larry Doby Day. You’ll remember last year that was not allowed to happen, so Cleveland manager Terry Francona drew the No. 14 on his cap as his personal homage to honor Larry.

Teaching history of the game to players and fans is a good thing –embrace it – isn’t that what MLB at Rickwood Field this year was all about? Having No. 42 and No. 14 retired across baseball would be a wonderful tribute and a way to teach the history of the game and the history of America.

Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby are the founding fathers of Black Americans playing Major League Baseball.

I am not alone in this thinking. I spoke to Tim Wiles; the distinguished former Director of Research at the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum and he offered up a historical view.

“I would personally support retiring Larry Doby’s number,’’ Wiles said. “Although I am not a fan of retiring Babe Ruth’s or Roberto Clemente’s numbers. Ruth did great things for the game and Clemente did great things for the game and humanity. But to me, retiring Ruth’s or Clemente’s number diminishes the singularity of Robinson’s honor. But I am in favor of extending that to Doby because he did all the same stuff 11 weeks later, and gets almost no credit for it. And he kind of went it alone, whereas Branch Rickey had developed, for what it was worth, a support system for Jackie. (Indians owner) Bill Veeck was a great guy but he just kind of hired Doby and said, ‘Have at it. Good luck kid,’’’

In that 1948 Word Series, by the way, Doby’s home run in Game 4 off Johnny Sain gave Cleveland a 3-1 lead over the Boston Braves and marked the first World Series home run hit by an Black ballplayer.

Cleveland hasn’t won a World Series since.

Larry Doby #14 of the Chicago White Sox swings at the pitch during an MLB Spring Training game against the New York Yankees on March 12, 1956 in St. Petersburg, Florida. The Yankees catcher is Yogi Berra #8. (Photo by Hy Peskin/Getty Images)

In 1954 when the Indians won the AL pennant and 111 games in a 154-game season, Doby slugged 32 home runs and drove in 126 RBIs. Remember his words to me in 2002: “I fought back by hitting the ball as far as I could.’’

Doby played 13 years in the majors, batting .283 and his swing produced 253 home runs and 970 RBIs. In 1998, Doby was elected to the Hall of Fame.

A seven-time All-Star, Doby played for the Indians from 1947-55 and again in 1958.

Larry Doby’s legacy lives on in his loving family and members of the Doby family will be in Cleveland on Friday when Doby is again honored by the team.

Larry Doby Jr. is 66 and works for Billy Joel.

“I’m one of his road crew,’’ Larry told me. “I’ve worked for Billy for over 25 years. It’s been a great run. We’re about to finish our residency at the Garden, which has gone on for 10 years and nobody thought it would last that long. It’s been a great ride; great crowds and it’s been really fun to be a part of that. We’re going to miss that, but we are still touring elsewhere. Billy doesn’t seem to be slowing down so I consider myself very fortunate to work for him.’’

What a life. His father was a baseball icon, and he has worked for a musical icon for 25 years. Larry Doby Jr. has had a front row seat to American greatness.

His father was a star player at Eastside High in Paterson, NJ. Larry Doby met his wife Helyn at Eastside.

They had five children, four girls and Larry Jr. “Growing up that was fun except when you wanted to get in the bathroom,’’ joked Larry Jr.

“I am in awe of what my father accomplished, because the stuff he went through is so foreign to me,’’ he said. “He couldn’t sleep in the same hotels, he couldn’t eat in the same restaurants, like that’s crazy. I always say that he is very lucky that he had teammates that cared about him and wanted him to succeed because though he stood in that batter’s box by himself, everybody knows how hard it is to hit a baseball, some people say it is the hardest thing in sports, and when you are trying to do that and you have people on your own team who don’t want you to succeed, that’s crazy. He did it himself and I give him all the credit but the fact that he had Bob Lemon and Jim Hegan and Steve Gromek and Joe Gordon rooting for him, that made it easier for him to succeed – and obviously my mom and Mr. Veeck were also his biggest cheerleaders. But if you don’t have guys in that locker room who want you to succeed, especially in baseball, I’d say it’s almost impossible.’’

(From left) Mrs Rita Walker, Larry Doby of the Cleveland Indians and his wife Helyn Doby circa 1949. (Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images)

Bob Feller, who died in 2010, once said of Doby, “He was a great American, he served his country in World War II, and he was a great ballplayer … just as good of a ballplayer (as Jackie), an exciting player and a very good teammate.’’

“My mom was one of a kind,’’ Larry Jr. said of Helyn, who died in 2001 at the age of 76. Helyn was a positive person who always looked to the future, saying, “There’s always tomorrow.’’

“First of all, she is from a family of 10, my father was an only child so that difference was huge,’’ Larry Jr. explained. “I remember complaining to my mother something about my room and she said, ‘At least you have your own room.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh you had to share a room,’ and she was like, “I had to share a bed.’ There were three bedrooms. There was the parents’ room, the boys’ room, the girls’ room. There were seven girls and three boys. She she said she would go to sleep, and she would have feet in her face because people would sleep opposite like that. I didn’t believe her and later on my aunts would go, ‘That was true.’

“My mom was extremely proud of my father. She was all about family and she was his guiding light and all those other things. They started dating in high school and it lasted 55 years after they were married. She was a wonderful woman and obviously I was a momma’s boy, I was the only son and I’m not afraid to admit that.

“My father could not have done it without God, without Mr. Veeck and without my mom.’’

I will leave the last word to baseball historian Dave Kaplan, the founding director of the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center and currently a consultant to the Charles J. Muth Museum of Hinchliffe Stadium. Hinchliffe Stadium, which has been completely renovated, is where Larry starred in baseball and football for Eastside High and was where he aced his tryout for the Newark Eagles.

“This was a guy who was basically Jackie Robinson’s partner,’’ Kaplan said of Doby. “Larry was a reserved guy who didn’t make waves, so he has really been lost to history. I can’t emphasize that enough. In 1949 Ebony Magazine in the May issue noted, ‘Although Robinson pioneered in the majors, probably Doby has been a more important factor in sending club owners into the chase for Negro talent.’

“Jackie has his day where all players wear his No. 42; Larry should have his day where all the players wear No. 14,’’ Kaplan added. “Jackie is mythologized and rightfully given his place in the Civil Rights movement, but Larry Doby is really second to none. You can’t short shrift this man. He went through as difficult a journey as Jackie did, he had no preparation for the abuse he was going to receive when he got to the majors, and he just handled himself with incredible dignity and humility and really paved the way.’’

Larry Doby did pave the way. He fought back with dignity, just like he told me back in 2002, “By hitting the ball as far as I could.’’

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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