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Nightengale: As First African American Cubs Play in World Series, Larry Doby’s Legacy Alive in Cleveland

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Cleveland Indians player Larry Doby gets a single in the 1954 World Series. Doby broke the American League color barrier in 1947. Photo: AP

Chicago Cubs leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler knew that with every step he took from the on-deck circle Tuesday, until the moment he reached home plate, history would be recorded.

Sure, it was a magical moment for the Chicago Cubs, who are in the World Series for the first time since 1945, playing Game 1 against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field, but this meant much more.

This was the first time a black man ever wearing a Cubs uniform participated in a World Series game.

“It’s awesome to be the pioneer, the very first one,” Fowler says. “It’s great just being here in the World Series, but to add that aspect of it definitely makes it that much better.

“You look at that, and you’re like, `Wow.’ “That’s when it really sinks in, and it’s like,`You are the first African-American to play in a World Series as a Cub.’

“It’s crazy to even think about that.’’

And yes, it will happen in Cleveland, where Larry Doby broke the American League color barrier in 1947.

“My dad would have been so extremely proud, so proud,’’ Larry Doby Jr. told USA TODAY Sports. “I’m sure he has a huge smile on his face. He wouldn’t be wishing them any luck, but with what he went through, and his friendship with Ernie Banksand Billy Williams, he would be thrilled to see them in the World Series, playing against his Indians.

“He just wouldn’t want them to beat his Indians.’’

It was Jackie Robinson who broke the color barrier in 1947, and less than three months later, Doby arrived to play for owner Bill Veeck and become the second African-American play to play in the major leagues. Doby, coming directly from the Negro Leagues, broke down all of the same racial barriers as Robinson, fought the same stereotypes, only in a different league, and integrated different cities. He passed away in 2003.

“Jackie got all the publicity for putting up with ’’ Doby once said, “but it was the same thing I had to deal with. He was the first, but the crap I took was just as bad.

“Nobody said, ‘We’re going to be nice to the second black.’’

His son, who made the seven-hour drive from his home in Montclair, N.J., to be here for Game 1, remembers the stories, and all of the pain his father endured over the years, just as Robinson, only in different cities.

“My dad was just overshadowed because he was the second,’’ said Doby’s only son, who works as a stage hand for Billy Joel and Madison Square Garden. “We thought he should have been recognized more. But it bothered us more than it bothered him. He was very happy to get that opportunity from Mr. Veeck.

“He knew that if he were successful, it would open doors for others to come after him. If he did a good job, and the Indians won, it would show that blacks and whites can get along together, and all of the barriers would be broken.’’

Doby, who spent 13 years in the major leagues and was inducted into the Hall of Fame, will forever be remembered in Cleveland for Oct. 9, 1948. It was the day he homered off Johnny Sain, the first African-American to do so in a World Series game, leading the Indians to a 2-1 victory in Game 4 over the Boston Braves.

Two days later, they were World Series champions.

It remains their last title.

“I wish I knew where that ball was,’’ said Doby Jr. “I don’t know if anyone does. It belongs in the Hall of Fame. In Cleveland. Somewhere.

“It was such a historic homer.

“But if my dad were alive, he would tell you that he’d be more proud of what happened afterward, and seeing the doors he opened.’’

Indeed, the next time the Indians made the World Series in 1954, they had five players of color on their team.

Chicago Cubs leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler. Photo: hngn.com
Chicago Cubs leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler. Photo: hngn.com

The Cubs didn’t even integrate until Sept. 14, 1953 with Ernie Banks and Gene Baker.

Now, here are the Cubs, fielding a team with four African-Americans – Jason Heyward, Addison Russell, Carl Edwards Jr. and Fowler – and eight Latin players.

Oh, how have time times changed.

“It’s mind-blowing,’’ Edwards said. “It’s like breaking another barrier.’’

These players weren’t even born while Robinson was still alive. They just know about Robinson and Doby from their history books, and the stories shared by parents and grandparents along the way.

“To be in this situation is a joy in itself,’’ Russell said, “and very humbling and honoring. But to be in the record books for something spectacular like that, it’s huge not only for me, but for my family, and some of the other guys’ families as well.’’

It really never dawned on them until they won the pennant Saturday night that they would be the first African-Americans to wear a Cubs’ World Series uniform, almost forgetting that the last the Cubs were in the Series, the game was all-white.

“A lot of people broke down a lot of barriers just for the love of the game,’’ Heyward said. “This is respecting our family’s name, respecting our organization, respecting our teammates, and respecting the game of baseball.

“It’s a humbling experience knowing that we’re the first.’’

And heart-breaking knowing that Banks, who played 19 seasons for the Cubs, won two MVP awards, and reached the Hall of Fame, never even set foot in the World Series.

Now, he’s not alive to see it, passing away last year, and buried a few blocks away at Graceland Cemetery.

“Ernie’s probably looking down at us right now with a smile on his face,’’ Fowler said. “It takes a special person to do that, I always say, about the whole Jackie Robinson thing. Obviously, times have changed, but I still feel the same way. It’s an awesome opportunity.

“I won’t take it lightly.’’

Neither will the guy carrying the World Series ticket in his hand, sitting in the stands, savoring the moment with the other Indians fans.

“It’s just so special that it’s happening in Cleveland,’’ Doby Jr. said. “Cleveland was always a special place for my father and our family. This city embraces us. And my dad loved this city

“I wish my dad were alive to see it today, he would be so excited, but I know he’s watching.

“I just know it.’’

By Bob Nightengale

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter @BNightengale

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