The book: “Greatness in the Shadows: Larry Doby and the Integration of the American League”
The author: Douglas M. Branson
The vital statistics: University of Nebraska Press, 336 pages, $34.95. Released April 1.
Find it: At Amazon.com, at Powells.com, at Vromans.com, at the publishers’ website.
The pitch: The upcoming celebration of Jackie Robinson Day seems to be something not all that momentous an occasion for for Branson, the University of Pittsburgh’s chair of law who has written 19 previous books on subjects we have not really looked up yet has decided he’ll try to do something with the legacy of Larry Doby.
If this is to be tried in the court of public opinion, we’re not sure if Doby would have done better with a court-appointed defender.
In a repetitive, error-filled and a presumptuous effort, not just to give Doby credit for having to go through as much as Robinson did in breaking the major league color barrier in 1947 but also to speculate as to why Doby may have been overlooked, Branson comes up with that he calls his “thesis.”
So, the question here isn’t to chronicle Doby’s career (even though that’s what the title implies) but to really “explore just why Larry Doby remains so obscure or, if not obscure, so much in the shadows” of baseball history.
This could have been done in a chapter, maybe two, if this was a true biography, which Branson also contends this is not.
So what is Branson’s reasoning for the disconnect, as long as you’ve got our attention here?
= First, Doby was second, and that never amounts to much in the “barrier breaking” world of acknowledgement. Given that Doby played his first game in Cleveland on July 5, 11 weeks after Robinson’s arrival, but only hit .156 in 29 games mostly as a pinch hitter, there was no AL Rookie of the Year award awaiting him.
(In fact, there was only one Rookie of the Year award given that first time. Robinson won it with 15 first place votes to 13 for Larry Jansen with the New York Giants. The highest AL player to get a vote was pitcher Spec Shea of the New York Yankees).
= Doby didn’t really get comfortable in his surroundings until the next season as he helped get the Indians to the World Series after he was moved from the infield to the outfield.
= Cleveland owner Bill Veeck loved the 23-year-old Doby, but he loved the idea of the 41-year-old Satchel Paige playing for him even more, bringing the iconic Negro League pitcher on in ’48 and really trumpeting him more to the media. Sorry, Larry.
= The Cleveland media, Branson then decides, wasn’t sophisticated enough to realize Doby’s historical feat. Nor could it match the firepower of what the New York media was doing for Robinson.
= Mickey Mantle was the real star of the American League at the time. And then Willie Mays came along.
= Branch Rickey really wasn’t as noble in his cause to sign the first black player, but really someone who wanted cheap labor. Veeck was really the one who could have done it first, but he was afraid everyone would think it was another publicity stunt. He ended up signing Doby, a teammate of Don Newcombe with the Newark Eagles, before Rickey could add him to the Dodgers’ roster.
Questioning RIckey’s motives is one thing. But it just seems out of place in a book where you’re trying to raise and praise the level of Doby’s accomplishments by tearing down someone else.
Side by side, Branson points out that Doby’s career stats were on par, if not better, than Robinson’s, yet Robinson was voted into the Hall of Fame when eligible by the writers; Doby had to wait for a special committee to elect him much later in life, almost as an afterthought. Fair enough.
But the problem the reader has is that Branson seems perturbed, for the most part, that the man he declares to be his boyhood “hero” (page 4) as he grew in Dayton, Ohio, was so ignored by historians that this is could be his way of balancing the scales.
Yes, there are some 50-plus books written about Robinson, and only one (“Pride against Prejudice: The Biography of Larry Doby,” by Joseph Thomas Moore in 1988, re-released as “Larry Doby: The Struggle of the American League’s First Black Player” in 2011) about Doby.
Branson also seems to have a large disconnect about how his “hero” was later regarded as a trailblazer. Branson didn’t realize that at the time? Maybe he didn’t see the comic book version of Doby’s life that came out in 1950 (see photo above).
For some reason, George F. Will and Terry Pluto give glowing recommendations for this on the jacket cover. Perhaps they didn’t read the whole manuscript and were just enamored by the idea of the book.
(By the way, Veeck once sent a midget named Eddie Gaedel up to bat in a game, not Eddie “Pagael” as Branson writes).
Branson may feel, as he paraphrases others words, that fame and celebrity are confused with accomplishment, and with Doby, it was the other way around: What he accomplished didn’t bring “anything remotely resembling proportionate recognition … In some small part, this book attempts to add to recognition of Doby’s accomplishment and to dispel, perhaps, the large void that has persisted in American history.”
A 3400-word essay bio on the Society of American Baseball Research might have done a much more efficient job of accomplishing that. Kind of like what was done here.