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Years after his death, Larry Doby is still teaching us important lessons

HENDERSON, N.Y. — It was just two paragraphs in the local paper, announcing that the late Larry Doby will be awarded the Congressional Medal posthumously in the nation’s capital next summer. He was the black man from Paterson, N.J., who integrated the American League in 1947, just six weeks after Jackie Robinson had done the same in the National League.

He came to the Cleveland Indians that summer with a warrior’s heart, a gifted athlete’s skill and the ill wishes of a significant number of his own teammates — to say nothing of the rest of the league.

In 1947, he was the personification of a dream long delayed and damn near denied. But he beat them all, and I must admit that the brief news article triggered a tsunami of memories from the backroads of my mind — starting with the day he came into my life.

It was a Sunday morning in December when he rang my doorbell. I had watched him play with the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League when I was a kid. I had occasionally covered him while he played for the Cleveland Indians. We barely knew each other.

But there he was standing in the doorway and asking me, “What are you doing tonight?”

“Nothing much,” I said.

“What do you drink?” he asked.

“If it’s wet,” I told him, “I’ll drink it.”

“See you at 7,” he said, and then he was gone.

It was a night I will never forget. We sat in the kitchen and talked and talked and talked. When the sun came up, the bottle was empty and we were still talking.

He never did say through our years of friendship why he came there that night. I have to think it was simply because I was the hometown columnist and he had read me for years and decided I could be trusted.

In any event, he told me about things bottled up inside him for years. Things I never knew and things he never said.

He told me about the Eagles and how through his entire baseball career he had never been happier then when he rode their bus with teammates who, like him, played the game 365 days a year, following the sun from old Ruppert Stadium in Newark to the sun-baked diamonds of Cuba and Mexico and Venezuela and anywhere they could play the game they loved. It wasn’t about money. It was about the game.

“We were barred from organized ball because we were black,” he said. “We knew it. We didn’t talk about it. We didn’t think about it. But then a great man named Bill Veeck bought my contract from the Eagles and made me a Cleveland Indian.’’

Then he talked about the pain of what became his trial by fire.

“When the manager brought me around the locker room to meet the players, I was humiliated. All but three turned their back on me. Joe Gordon, the second baseman, Mike Hegan, the catcher, and Bill McKechnie, a coach, were the only ones who shook my hand. When I walked up the tunnel and onto the playing field, nobody would throw me a ball. I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ Then Joe Gordon walked by, punched me in the arm and said, ‘Hey, rookie you gonna warm up or are you just going to admire your new uniform?’ I had a friend for life.

“I couldn’t dress in the locker room in Jim Crow Washington. I had to walk down the street with my spikes around my neck. But I knew where they sat the blacks and when I hit a home run I knew that noise was coming from the center-field bleachers.”

He told me how the manager sent him up to pinch-hit for a guy with two strikes on him. He told me how the manager put him at first base, a position he had never played. And how the regular first baseman said, “No, I ain’t gonna loan you my glove. You ain’t putting your hand in it,’’ and he had to borrow one from the other team.

And what hurt the most, he explained, was the guy in St. Louis who stood up in the first row and screamed at him about his wife, Helyn and the sex he insisted he had with her.

“I said, ‘The hell with the whole damned thing.’ I had one foot over the rail and the suddenly I was flying in the air and landed back on the field with McKechnie on top of me, saying, ‘One more foot up there and you’ll be out of here. You’ll never play again. They don’t want you here. And on top of that, we’ll never get another black player. Just calm down.’

“He saved it all for me,” Doby said, “and I know that because everything I have today came from the game.”

When he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998, I was amazed at the impact of his speech. He said it all in just six minutes. Despite the horrendous hand he had been dealt, Doby finished on this note:

“You know, it’s a very tough thing to look back about things that were probably negative. You put those things on the back burner. You are proud and happy that you’ve been a part of integrating baseball to show people that we can live together, we can work together and we can be successful together.”

It was at that point that this huge crowd interrupted him with a standing ovation. It was as though they and Doby clearly shared a basic truth the rest of America – black and white – had yet to learn.

Jerry Izenberg is Columnist Emeritus for The Star-Ledger. He can be reached at jizenberg@starledger.com.

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