by Vern Morrison, Digital Production / Electronic Course Reserve Associate, Michael Schwartz Library
On this date in baseball history, seventy years ago today, a 23-year-old man made his major league debut at Comiskey Park as a pinch-hitter for the Cleveland Indians. Wearing the number 14 on his uniform, he came to bat in the seventh inning of a game in which the Indians were trailing the White Sox, 5-1. With runners on second and third, a base hit would have put the Indians back in the game. Unfortunately for himself and for the Indians, the batter struck out, and the Indians went on to lose, 6-5.
It wasn’t an auspicious debut, but it was an historic one. That pinch-hitter was Larry Doby, and his appearance in the game made him the first African-American to play for an American League ballclub. Six weeks earlier, Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers, a National League team, became the first African-American to play in a major league game.
Doby had a tough time with the Indians in 1947. The day after his debut, he started in center field for the Indians, getting one hit in four at-bats. It was the only game he would start all year. In 29 games, nearly all of which Doby was used as a pinch-hitter, he got only five hits in 32 at-bats.
Like Robinson, Doby faced a lot of racial animus from spectators and opposing players. He was spat on, and he received hate mail, some of which included death threats. It would have been easy for Doby to have decided being a member of the Indians wasn’t worth going through all that.
But he persevered. Indians owner Bill Veeck and team manager Lou Boudreau believed in Doby, who was the team’s starting right fielder on Opening Day, 1948. Doby appeared in 114 games in 1948, playing right and center field, and had a solid year, batting .301 and helping the Indians win their first American League pennant and World Series since 1920.
Doby went on to have a sensational 13-year career, most of it as a member of the Indians. In 1954, when the Indians won 111 of their 154 games, Doby led the league with 32 homers and 126 RBI. His last game was on July 26, 1959. In 1994, the Indians retired his uniform number of 14. No Indians player will ever wear that number again. Doby was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998.
Doby died at his home in New Jersey in 2003 at the age of 79. In 2015, the Indians erected a statue of Doby outside of Progressive Field. He will be remembered and revered by Cleveland Indians fans as long as the game of baseball is played.