Larry Doby was another pioneer

Jackie Robinson rightfully has his place as one of the icons of our national pastime, but Larry Doby is also an important pioneer who deserves significant recognition as well. Doby was the first African American ballplayer in the American League and the second after Jackie Robinson in Major League Baseball. And like Robinson, Doby proved to be an incredible ballplayer along with being a great person. His accomplishments were recognized in 1998 when he was selected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee.

Cleveland Indians by their owner Bill Veeck signed Doby in 1947, eleven weeks after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Doby was a part of two incredible Indians teams. The Indians won the World Series in 1948 against the the Boston Braves. Then the Indians won a staggering 111 games and the American League pennant in 1954. Unfortunately they were swept by Willie Mays and the New York Giants after Willie’s iconic over-the-shoulder catch in Game One of that series. For obvious reasons, Doby remains a revered figure in Cleveland. Bill Veeck also deserves credit for his bold move. The video above offers a nice retrospective even if the narrator totally mangles the pronunciation of Veeck’s name.

Doby endured many of the same hardship endured by Robinson when he entered the league. But he also had the character to handle all of the adversity. In the end, his play on the field became the focus of his career. Doby hit .283 for his career and he slugged 253 home runs and drove on 970 runs in a career that spanned 1,533 games. He led the American League in dingers twice with 32 in 1952 and 1954m and he had a streak of at least 20 homers in each season from 1949–56.

Doby had some other interesting milestones as well. He was the third American to play professional baseball in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league. And, in another interesting twist, he was also the second black manager in the major leagues after Frank Robinson got the Cleveland job. It was the legendary Bill Veeck who also made this move, hiring Doby to manage the Chicago White Sox.

It’s a shame that sometimes Doby’s accomplishments are overshadowed by Jackie Robinson, but true baseball fans are very aware of what this man did for the game.

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Remembering Fred Merkle’s Boner

Baseball has always been a superstitious game. It contains a novelistic past of hoaxes, jinxes, theories, and rituals. No other sport contains such fantastical fables as the curses of the Bambino, Black Sox, and Billy Goat. As with baseball, numbers are closely tied to superstitions—the phrases “seven years bad luck,” “seventh son of a seventh son,” and “three times a charm” come to mind. As the season winds down, it’s interesting that analysts refer to the “magic number” that a division-leading team needs to reach before clinching a playoff birth.

The number “100” typically signifies something of importance, particularly milestones like birthdays or anniversaries. It’s no secret that this year will be the 100th anniversary of the Cubs’ last World Series championship. Since then the Cubs have experienced Billy Sianis and his goat, Leo Durocher and his impromptu vacation, and Steve Bartman’s web gem. However, in 1908, the Cubs were granted a rare stroke of luck. Two days ago marked the 100th anniversary of what’s known as “Merkle’s Boner.” On September 23, 1908, New York Giants first baseman Fred Merkle obliviously committed a blunder that helped the Chicago Cubs win the pennant, and subsequently, the World Series.

On that Wednesday in 1908, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, 19 year-old Fred Merkle knocked a single into right field, advancing teammate Moose McCormick to third. Al Birdwell followed with a single of his own, allowing McCormick to score what appeared to be the winning run. In the thrill of victory, Merkle joined his fellow Giants in celebration. Unfortunately, he did not touch second base. This mistake was labeled “Merkle’s Boner” (when “boner” was synonymous with “bonehead,” instead of today’s more comedic definition). Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers quickly noticed what had transpired. Evers was an ardent student of the game and knew the rulebook back to front. Although accounts vary, Evers supposedly retrieved the game ball and stepped on second base. Since Merkle had gone directly to the Giants clubhouse, his failure to advance from first to second technically kept play alive. Therefore, Evers forced him out by touching the bag. Of course, nobody noticed. As was custom, Giants fans swarmed the old Polo Grounds after every victory. Soon, Umpire Hank O’Day and the National League’s board of directors came to the decision that Merkle was indeed out. Taking the game into extra innings was rendered impossible, and the game was ruled a tie.

The following game, which determined who would play the Detroit Tigers in the World Series, took place on October 8th. Fans flooded Coogan’s Bluff above the Polo Grounds and climbed atop the grandstands, barricading the sellout crowd. The scene was rife for a riot of epic proportions—certainly the most perilous the sport had seen at that time. Though the Giants brought out their ace Christy Mathewson, he was pitching with a dead arm. After the Cubs secured a 4-2 victory, they immediately rushed to their clubhouse. Pandemonium quickly ensued. Trying to exit, various Cubs players felt the wrath of the New York fans. Pitcher Jack Pfiester was knifed in the shoulder while Frank Chance sustained injuries after a punch to the throat. It took an entire police squad with guns drawn to quell the mayhem.

Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine a ball game this out of control, with both fans and players contributing to this level of violence. With all that was riding on this game (and the fact that baseball was then the most popular sport in the country), it reduces the Pistons/Pacers fiasco to crying over spilt milk. The relationship between fans and players has always been fascinating, and it’s been displayed in dramatically different ways over the years. From this near bloodbath at the Polo Grounds, to Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron’s struggles, to the syringes thrown at Barry Bonds, fans have always made their presence felt. I’ve heard some of the nastiest things ever said at ball games and I’m always struck by two things. First is the often unexpected creativity involved, and second is the players’ ability to tune these insults out. Granted, today’s games are heavily monitored by security and there is only a slight chance of witnessing a violent altercation between a fan and player. (During the game I went to last Friday, stadium personnel guarded the entire field barrier when the teams switched sides.) Nevertheless, outlets such as chucking beer bottles, sending hate mail and email, and even blogging allow sports enthusiasts to place (or misplace) their anger. In examining this game from 1908, it’s unbelievable what used to happen instead.

The Cubs went on to defeat the Tigers in stride, capturing their second and last World Series championship. Now, a century later, it looks like the Rays, Red Sox, White Sox, Angels, Phillies, Mets, Cubs, and Dodgers will make the postseason. Of these teams, the Cubbies are the only one with a famous curse looming over their heads. It would be fitting to put it to rest on the 100th anniversary of their last championship. I don’t want to say anything else that could jinx their chances, so I’ll just leave it at that.

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