Monday, June 14, 2010

Larry Doby - A Picture of Beauty, Genius and Wonder

October 9, 1948. 81,897 people filled Cleveland Municipal Stadium to watch game 4 of Major League Baseball's World Series between the Cleveland Indians of the American League and the Boston Braves of the National League. More people were at that game than at any other game in the history of the World Series up to that time. The Indians held a tenuous 2-1 lead in the best of seven series.

In the bottom of the 4th inning there were 2 outs and the Indians were clinging to a 1-0 lead. 24-year-old Larry Doby of the Indians dug into the batter's box at home plate and faced pitcher Johnny Sain of the Braves. Doby threw right and batted left. His arcing swing was a beautiful thing that helped him hit .301 with 14 home runs in 121 games during the season. He hit .396 over the last 20 games and that helped his team beat out the Boston Red Sox and make it to the championship series.

On the second pitch, Sain wound up and threw the ball toward home plate. Doby swung his and, "Crack!" the ball took off toward right center field. The crowd held its collective breath and let out a mighty roar as the ball sailed 420 feet into the stands for a home run. It was the decisive run in a 2-1 win for the Indians, a victory that put them ahead 3 games to 1 in the World Series they would win in game 6 in Boston.

In the Cleveland clubhouse after the game a photographer took a picture of Doby and winning pitcher Steve Gromek hugging tightly and grinning broadly tenderly cheek to cheek. That picture was broadcast over NBC, CBS, and ABC that night and published in all of the major newspapers the next day.

I think in pictures and this picture helps me write about the Civil Rights Movement in my home State of South Carolina. You see, Larry Doby was black and Steve Gromek was white. Gromek was from Hamtramck, Michigan and Doby from the Jim Crow South of Camden, South Carolina. One year earlier, on July 5, 1947 at Cominsky Park in Chicago, Illinois, Doby had become the second African American behind the great Jackie Robinson of the immortal Brooklyn Dodgers to play for a Major League Baseball team and the first African American to play in the American League. The year the picture was taken was arguably the defining year of the proverbial 'hard row to hoe' of early Civil Rights Movement. John Egerton poignantly and persuasively helps us see this in his opus that won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, "Speak Now Against The Day: The Generation Before The Civil Rights Movement In The South." It was a picture of beauty, genius, and wonder. It was a revolutionary picture because it showed the world that white supremacy and racism was being overcome.

In "Pride Against Prejudice: The Biography of Larry Doby," Joseph Thomas Moore's insightful and wonderful book about Doby's life and times, Doby says, "The picture was more rewarding and happy for me than actually hitting the home run. It was such a scuffle for me, after being involved in all that segregation, going through all I had to go through, until that picture. The picture finally showed a moment of a man showing his feelings for me. But the picture is not just about me. It shows what feelings should be, regardless of differences among people. And it shows what feelings should be in all of life, not just in sports. I think enlightenment can come from such a picture."

This blog is "a short history of losing." American culture defines a 2nd place finish as a loss. Larry Doby was the second African American player to integrate Major League Baseball. He followed Frank Robinson as the second African American manager in the major leagues. Because he was second he is often overlooked and forgotten. When he laced up his well-worn cleats and stepped into that batter's box in Cominsky Park in 1947 he also stepped into a people's history of baseball, a history that is a broader part of a people's history of the United States that shares the stories of women, factory workers, African Americans, Native Americans, and immigrant laborers, a history and stories that show losing can be transformed into winning through courage, commitment, compassion, and creativity. Lately, bad news has been coming out of South Carolina. I am thankful for the good news of South Carolinian Larry Doby's life and work. I hope to continue that good news through my writing and teaching.

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