Of course, it had nothing to do with politics. It was about baseball — and laying a long overdue honor on a largely forgotten American hero.
On Tuesday, the House passed a measure that would award the Congressional Gold Medal to Larry Doby, the second African American to smash the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Joining the Cleveland Indians three months after Jackie Robinson appeared in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ lineup in April 1947, Doby shouldered through the same prejudice and hate that marked Robinson’s early days in the league.
But Doby was the first black player in the American League and the first to play on a World Series-winning team 70 years ago in 1948. (Robinson played for the losing Dodgers in the 1947 series.) But Doby has never received the historical respect he deserved. As Hall of Famer Bob Feller put it, Doby was the Buzz Aldrin to Robinson’s Neil Armstrong.
The congressional medal is a move to correct that record, and it’s receiving the support of members of Congress who might otherwise spend the legislative session sniping at one another. In fact, two Ohio politicians involved in the measure — Rep. James B. Renacci (R-Ohio) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) — will face off this fall in one of the most consequential Senate races of the midterm election season.
“A great step forward in honoring an extraordinary American — and one-time Ohioan,” Brown wrote on Twitter Tuesday.
“I am pleased that my colleagues voted to award Larry Doby the Congressional Gold Medal and further recognizing his incredible life and career,” Renacci, who spearheaded the House version with Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-N.J.), said in a statement.
A spokeswoman for Brown told Cleveland.com the senator hopes to have a Senate version of the measure passed this year. The proposal has 38 co-sponsors.
Doby, who died in 2003, was born in South Carolina and raised in Paterson, N.J. Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) are among the lawmakers backing the measure, NJ.com reported.
As The Washington Post’s David Maraniss recounted in a 1997 profile, Doby’s splash into the whites-only world of professional baseball was not a long-term plan, as it had been with Robinson. In July 1947, while the U.S. Navy veteran was playing second base for the Newark Eagles in the Negro Leagues, Indians’ owner Bill Veeck bought out Doby’s contract three months after Robinson’s debut.
“Did Jackie Robinson make it easier for me?” Doby told Maraniss, recounting the question he was often asked about the first summer. “I’m not saying people are stupid, but it’s one of the stupidest questions that’s ever been asked. Think about it. We’re talking about 11 weeks. Nineteen forty-seven. . . . How could you change that in 11 weeks? Jackie probably would have loved to have changed it in 11 weeks. I know he would have loved to have been able to say, ‘the hotels are open, the restaurants are open, your teammates are going to welcome you.’ But no. No. No way. No way.”
That season was a struggle on the field for Doby, who rarely found time in the lineup. In 1948, however, his stats improved after he was moved full time to the outfield. But the racial roadblocks continued. He was forced to room alone on the road, often in segregated hotels. Racist taunts rained down from the bleachers during road games. Opposing players spit in his face, and pitchers regularly winged fastballs at his head.
But in 1948, Doby took the field in a World Series when the Indians took on the Boston Braves. In game four, Doby knocked out a game-winning home run (another first). As Maraniss recounts, after the game, as the Indians celebrated, pitchers Steve Gromek hugged Doby for his home-plate heroics. The widely circulated photograph of the biracial embrace became “a signature moment in the integration of Major League Baseball,” according to the New York Times.
”That was a feeling from within, the human side of two people, one black and one white,” Doby said of the picture in 1994 at the Baseball Hall of Fame. ”That made up for everything I went through. I would always relate back to that whenever I was insulted or rejected from hotels. I’d always think about that picture. It would take away all the negatives.”
Doby went on to play in seven all-star games and later managed the Chicago White Sox. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998. And 71 summers after Doby changed professional sports, his fans can take a measure of satisfaction in seeing that in 2018’s snake pit politics, Democrats and Republican rivals can agree about something.
This post had been updated.