Thursday, June 19, 2003

Larry Doby

"Just remember that they play with a little white ball and a stick of wood up here just like they did in your league."
--Indians owner Bill Veeck to Larry Doby before his first major league game, as the first black player in the American League

"Lawrence, you are going to be part of history," said Veeck. "Part of history?" Doby later recalled. "I had no notions about that. I just wanted to play baseball."

History can be cruel to the also-rans, to those more workmanlike, less-charismatic lunch pail folk who do their job and miss out (in Larry Doby's case by just three months) on making history. Fact was, he missed out twice: just missed being the first black manager, too, to Frank Robinson (of the Tribe), just as he had 30 years earlier missed beating the iconic Jackie Robinson into the majors as a player.

Needless to say, it also didn't help that he played outside of New York, where the legend mill grinds on forever, making the Brooklyn Dodgers as real an entity to most of us today as any team that still exists.
But Doby, who died yesterday in New Jersey, was really a better story in many ways: his was a story about the forgotten second man, about race (of course), about playing outside of the media fishbowl and about the different challenges of the quiet man. And in Bill Veeck, he was blessed with an equally charismatic, legendary owner as was Robinson with Branch Rickey. Actually, Veeck beats them all--as a visionary (racial and otherwise) mensch decades ahead of his time, and of course as an enduringly wacky genius at promotion.

And so we wanted to make a modest little documentary about Larry Doby. My friend Mike Bacon was the TV guy, a genius with his craft, maybe the best pure television producer Cleveland has produced in the last generation. He began working for TV stations in Cleveland (Ch. 8 during its heyday) and elsewhere, and later grew restless and along with his wife Deb started his own production company, Classic Teleproductions in Twinsburg, the very name staking out their long-term vision.
In time, he would produce so much great programming that he won more Emmy Awards than most local TV stations, more than 50 and counting thus far.

But he was especially juiced about the twin themes of sports and race. He bore down on the Negro Leagues and related subjects for years, producing histories of the Urban League and a warmly sentimental documentary on Cleveland's Negro League team, the Buckeyes. And in Larry Doby he thought he had a great subject for a locally produced documentary that might have a national audience.

Anyway, around '96 we began talking about it, and then planning a bit. He had lots of great tape already in the can, of Jim Crow kinds of scenes, southern drinking fountains marked 'Colored Only' and the like. And he began taping some talking heads sounding off about Doby and his times. In time, he got the subject himself to reluctantly agree to begin opening up as well and tentatively talk before the camera.

We took that idea and some early tape to WVIZ, where the then-new GM Jerry Wareham was beginning to stake out his plans to put his mark on the station after the long, disastrous reign of his predecessor, the station's founder Betty Cope (whom I had mercilessly drilled in a Free Times cover story illustrated with a photo of poor Betty wearing a dunce cap). We were going to convince him that this might be of some minor national interest, this great historical subject in our back yard.

Anyway, the heavens intervened, and the Sunday before our Monday meeting with him, the New York Times happened to put a story about Doby right smack on the front page of the Sunday Times for about five million readers, which only added fuel to our suspicions that we were onto something. And we walked out of the meeting with a green light from Wareham to go ahead.

Many weeks later, after lots more interviewing--with the author of a 1988 biography on Doby and the peerless Morris Eckhouse of the Cleveland-based Society for American Baseball Research (among others)--and a day trip to Chicago's broadcast archives, where we found scads of material on Veeck (almost none of which made it in), Mike and his masterfully selected team of sound guys and tape guys and editors had rendered a great half hour of TV.

And not only did WVIZ run it locally, but Jerry Wareham (at the time president of the PBS affiliates around the country) helped pave the way for it to run on perhaps as many as a dozen stations in the county, including New York's WNET. And a year later, we all stood at a podium, in a surreal moment for me (old hat to Mike and his TV vets) and claimed our Emmy statues.

Anyway, today is Larry Doby's day. A gentle man, with sad eyes and almost a mumbling manner of talking, he grew resigned to being a less famous pioneer, but a pioneer nonetheless. "Jackie and I talked often...maybe we kept each other from giving up," Larry told the L.A. Times in 1974, shortly before he became manager of the Chicago White Sox. "The only difference was that Jackie got all of the publicity. You didn't hear much about what I was going through because the media didn't want to repeat the same story." In time, he made it into Cooperstown, though.
And that book I mentioned, "Pride Against Prejudice: The Biography of Larry Doby" lists on Amazon today for $64.95. What better tribute to the guy could you imagine?

By the way, our Doby program is due to air again on WVIZ soon, perhaps as early as tonight (Thursday). We'll keep you posted...


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