Sunday, January 23, 2011

64. Larry Doby: Playing For Uncle Sam

If you haven't noticed yet, sometimes I like to combine my love of baseball history with my other passion, military history. Although I'm not a big WWII aficionado, I do enjoy studying the role baseball played during that great conflict. It's hard to fathom these days, but back in the 1940's baseball was the only sport there was. Football and basketball were distant runners up for the title of "National Pastime." I know from my own family's experience as immigrants in the 1910's that learning the ins and outs of baseball was as important as learning English. In these times of hyphenated-Americans we forget that a mere 75 years ago that it was all an immigrant could do to try to blend into the fabric of their new country and become, above all, an American. Learning the game helped put an immigrant on the same level as a native, giving them at least one common thing to bridge the cultural gap between them. The rise of football, basketball and the dreaded soccer and golf has changed that whole dynamic, leaving nothing in its wake to fill the important role once filled by the game of baseball. Anyway, with that background, it is easier to see how and why the game played such a big part during the war. Not only did it help give servicemen and war industry workers much needed recreation and morale boost, but it gave the country a sense of stability - that the countries own sport, baseball, will carry on despite all the suffering and deprivations that grips the nation. The game helped people relax and be able to concentrate on the work needed to be done. One place that baseball played a major role was in the military. As early as 1941 the Army and Navy made an effort to field teams made up of the major and minor league players that found themselves in uniform. Every base had at least a single ball team and most ships and training bases had whole leagues, sometimes with first and second ranked divisions. The sport helped build an feeling of pride within the units and kept the men out of finding trouble during their off-duty time. While much has been written, especially recently, about major league players in the war, not much has been documented about the 119 negro league players who served during the war. Some of them eventually played on one of the many baseball teams fielded by their respective units. Although they did not get the same publicity as the special service teams that featured stars like Joe DiMaggio and Bob Feller, these teams helped build morale for the black soldiers and sailors during the war. This week I want to feature Larry Doby and his service in the U.S. Navy during the war. As a kid my Grandfather told me about seeing the great Newark Eagles play in Ruppert Stadium, specifically mentioning their star infielder, Larry Doby. Growing up in Northern New Jersey, I played ball on many of the fields Doby, who grew up in Paterson, did years before. Even many decades after his time as a high school athlete old-timers still talked about this incredible sports star.

Larry Doby was the best athlete Paterson, N.J.'s Eastside High had ever seen. Hell, he might even have been the best all-around athlete to ever come out of New Jersey for that matter. A good student with a personality that made him liked by everyone he met, Doby earned a staggering eleven varsity letters in baseball, basketball, football and track. To say he was a rising star would be an understatement to say the least. In the summer he played semi-pro ball around North Jersey, testing his skills against the best touring negro league teams like the New York Black Yankees and Cuban Stars. In the winter he played basketball with the Harlem Renaissance, a popular touring team.

Long Island University gave Doby a basketball scholarship - his dream was to become an athletics instructor and return to Eastside High to teach. A free education was nice, but he needed to make a living as well, so taking the name "Larry Walker" he signed with the Newark Eagles in 1942. The Eagles were a strong team featuring future Hall of Famers Leon Day and Monte Irvin. Doby quickly settled into the Eagles lineup and positively clobbered opposing pitching to the tune of .391 his rookie year. He cooled off a bit in 1943, batting a respectable .282, and along with Monte Irvin he brought a fresh, youthful atmosphere to a team of aging veterans.

Unfortunately World War II loomed over him and in 1943 he put his career on hold and enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

Adjusting to life in the segregated service was hard for Doby. Although he spent his early childhood in the south, he'd grown used to the relative freedom of urban New Jersey. It must have been even worse knowing that he could be called upon to give his life for the very same country that wouldn't allow him to drink from the same water fountain as a white man.

Taking his basic training at the massive Great Lakes Naval Training Center outside Chicago, Doby joined the base's Negro Varsity baseball team called the Great Lakes Sailors. Since 1942 when former catcher Mickey Cochrane took over the baseball program, the Great Lakes base continuously fielded virtual all-star teams stocked with former and future major league players. Bob Feller, Virgil Trucks, Johnny Mize, Walker Cooper, Gene Woodling, Billy Herman, Schoolboy Rowe and Ken Keltner are some of the bigger stars that played for the Great Lakes Bluejackets ballclub during the war. The team toured the Midwest playing against other teams from military bases and defense plants. The Great Lakes team was good publicity for the Navy and seeing famous ballplayers doing their part for the country's war effort just like everyone else did wonders for the nation's morale. The Great Lakes Bluejackets were a powerhouse and easily defeated all competition. But, like the Navy itself, the Bluejackets baseball team was segregated.

The Great Lakes Naval Training Center facilitated the basic training of black sailors as well, but they had their own training companies, their own barracks and starting in 1944, their own baseball team. Officially called the Negro Varsity Team, they also featured a heavy contingent of professional ballplayers. The pitching staff included Herb Bracken of the Cleveland Buckeyes, Luis Pillot of the Cincinnati Clowns and Johnny Wright, the veteran Homestead Grays star. Catching them was former Chicago American Giant Leroy Clayton. The outfield boasted Leroy Coates and Bill Randall of the Homestead Grays and the infield had Al Paschal and Stephen Summerow of the Cleveland Buckeyes and Earl Richardson and Larry Doby of the Newark Eagles.

The Negro Varsity team competed in the Midwest Servicemen's Baseball League which in 1944 consisted of 6 teams from both the Army and Navy. Besides official league games the Sailors played against a long list of other non-affiliated military, semi-pro and defense plant teams.

With Larry Doby playing shortstop, the Great Lakes Sailors went on an 18-game winning streak through June and July. In addition to a great season, seven players from the team were selected to play on the Midwest League All-Star team in a game that pitted them against the all-white team from the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. Lead by former A's catcher Mickey Cochrane the white Bluejackets were practically a major league all-star team and at that point had an undefeated record of 14-0. Herb Bracken pitched a masterful one-hitter against Cochrane's team but still lost 3-0 due to that single hit, walks and fielding errors. Despite this heartbreaking loss, the Negro Varsity team had a final record of 32-10 for 1944. Unlike the white Bluejackets team which kept meticulous statistics, no comprehensive batting or pitching records exist for the Sailors although it is known that Johnny Wright's record stood at 18-3 and Herb Bracken was 13-1 at the conclusion of the season. These two men's performance in front of an integrated audience helped them get the publicity that led their eventual signing to play in the minor leagues when it was integrated in 1946. Infact Johnny Wright was signed by Brooklyn at the same time Jackie Robinson was.

At the conclusion of the season, Doby was shipped overseas and stationed on a remote island in the South Pacific called the Ilithi Atoll. The island had a good harbor and was used as a staging base for the invasion of the Philippines. Doby and hundreds of other negro sailors were posted there to act as manual laborers loading and unloading the continuous stream of war material that flooded the tiny island. By sheer coincidence two former major league players also found themselves on this miserable piece of real estate, Mickey Vernon of the Senators and Billy Goodman of the Red Sox. Vernon became the athletic director on the island and all three men found themselves playing on the base's integrated softball team. The three men quickly formed a bond and the three sailors would take turns throwing baseball batting practice for each other keeping their skills sharpened as best they could. The two white players knew the way the wind was blowing regarding integration and did their best to encourage Doby. They knew he had the skills to make the major leagues one day. It was on Ulithi Atoll that Doby heard that the Brooklyn Dodgers had signed a black ballplayer named Jackie Robinson.

In June of 1945 the U.S. Navy officially abolished segregation of its sailors and blacks were finally given the same treatment as whites. Unfortunately it did not seem to apply to the Great Lakes Bluejackets baseball team. Unlike the Center's football team which was integrated by coach Paul Brown, the baseball team now led by Cleveland Indians superstar Bob Feller remained an all-white affair during its final season.

Larry was discharged from the service and his old friend Monte Irvin encouraged him to join him in the Puerto Rico Winter League. The island at this time had a highly competitive winter circuit that attracted the best players of all colors. Both Irvin and Doby joined the San Juan Senators. When he arrived in San Juan Doby was at a crossroads as to whether or not to pursue a career in baseball or complete his college education and return to his beloved Eastside High as a teacher. The answer came to him after he tore apart league pitching: in 153 at bats Doby averaged .349, knocked in 42 runs and belted 12 home runs. His little winter sojourn in Puerto Rico encouraged him to stick with baseball.

The integration of The American League was right around the corner...

If you are interesting learning more about the role of baseball in WWII and about the major and minor league players who served during it, you absolutely have to check out Gary Bedingfield's website at A Brit, Gary is THE man to talk to when it comes to baseball during the war and his site features in-depth articles about hundreds of players who found themselves in the service during the war. Gary is also an author of two indispensable books on the subject, "Baseball's Dead of World War II: A Roster Of Professional Players Who Died" and one of my personal favorites, "Baseball In World War II Europe (part of the Images of Sports series)."


  1. I have a signed baseball from the Great lakes Blue Jackets that my father-in-law had stashed away for over 60 year. It is signed by many of the players including some of the hall of famers. It is in great shape -- if you are interested in this ball call Mike Sopher 734-735-6434.

  2. Nice writeup--and I agree, Gary Bedingfield's site reflects an amazing amount of scholarship. A must-read.

  3. Thanks Matthew, you always have the kindest things to say about my posts!

  4. Another outstanding post! (I'm always partial to the ones involving New Jersey.) I hope this Doby card makes into the next run of printed cards ...