A baseball legend labelled No. 2

The only time in my life that I placed a call to Montclair, New Jersey, the voice that answered was Larry Doby’s. It was one wintry night, he had been the hitting coach for the Montreal Expos, who hadn’t done much hitting (nor fielding nor pitching) in his final season, and his name was in the news.

With the usual number of major-league managing vacancies, Doby’s name was being mentioned. This was significant because (a) his last job was with the team I covered, and (b) he was black, and Cleveland had hired Frank Robinson as the game’s first black manager.

While rejecting Larry Doby.

He was a Cleveland coach when the Indians (now Guardians) fired Manager Ken Aspromonte. Instead of giving Doby the opportunity to break that colour barrier, they gave it to Frank Robinson. Doby quit and joined the Expos.

A little perspective is important. Every baseball fan knows Jackie Robinson was the first black player — 75 years ago this week — with the Brooklyn (now Los Angeles) Dodgers. Studious fans know that three months late Doby did the same thing in the “American” League, in all the stadiums that never saw Jackie Robinson.

Doby was No. 2. When it came to black managers, another Robinson was first and Doby eventually became baseball’s second, with the Chicago White Sox. Before that happened, along came me with the phone call. One of my opening questions was, naturally, about his becoming a black manager.

“Are you saying I should get the job just because I’m black?” he asked, approximately and vehemently. “That’s an insult. If I get a manager’s job, it should be because I’m qualified.”

Doby was correct. I knew him as well as a baseball beat reporter knows a hitting coach in just one season. How I wish I’d made time to know him better, to sit with and talk not just baseball, but life.

I’d have surely discovered he was the first player to go directly from Negro Leagues to major leagues, one of the first two (teammate Satchel Paige the other) to win a World Series and a Negro League World Series, and how only four ever did — yet he was the last of them elected to the Hall of Fame.

Maybe I’d have discovered that he fought in one World War as his father had in the other one, or that he suffered the same racial abuses Jackie Robinson did, in silence, because he and Robinson regularly talked about protecting the future for black players to come, like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.

There has been a book, a movie, a stamp, a day, a street name and a retired number in Doby’s honour. As a manager he lasted only 87 games, just 37 victories, thanks to an injury-riddled roster: “When you have to use people you hope can play, rather than those you know can play,” he said, “you are in a bad situation.”

On April 15, every major league player wears Robinson’s No. 42. Wouldn’t it be appropriate if all American League players switched to Doby’s No. 14?