In honor of Black History Month Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly and TEAM HOPE are recognizing African Americans from Paterson that have made an impact in the community and beyond.
TAPinto Paterson is proud to bring these stories to our readers.
As the second black player to make it to Major League Baseball, Paterson’s Larry Doby led an illustrious career that transcended beyond sports and entertainment and into the annals of our country’s history.
Doby was born in 1923 in South Carolina, where he lived before moving to Paterson at the age of 14. Attending Eastside high school, he left a mark as a generational athlete who played baseball, basketball, football, and ran track at an all-state level.
At Eastside, he found a lifelong friend in Joe Taub, who would go on to be a successful businessman as one of the co-founders of ADP and an owner of the New Jersey Nets. Years later, Taub recalled stories of Doby’s incredible athleticism to Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, who worked with the two on the dedication of Larry Doby Field and other youth programs in Paterson.
“Joe would carry Larry’s bag over to Eastside and watch him run the 100 meter and do the long jump, then finish and go play a baseball game. His athletic skills were incredible,” says Wimberly.
Unfortunately, the reality of growing up as an African-American in the 30s and 40s was that there was no escaping the indignities inflicted on him because of the color of his skin.
“When they were kids growing up in Paterson’s 4th ward, they would have to go to segregated movies. Larry would have to go upstairs and Joe downstairs,” says Wimberly. This was, of course, only a precursor to a life spent bristling against racial barriers, many of which he would shatter.
After high school Doby was given a tryout for the Newark Eagles Negro League baseball team that took place at the historic Hinchliffe Stadium. He played for the team for about a year, while also working towards a college degree. In 1943, he put his career on hold to serve the country in WWII as a member of the US Navy. He returned from duty two years later and resumed his career in the Negro Leagues until 1947.
Finally, on July 5, 1947, just eleven weeks after Jackie Robinson had famously broken the baseball color barrier, Doby made his major league debut for the Cleveland Indians, having been accompanied to the field by policemen. He only had one at-bat that day. He struck out.
Despite the inauspicious start, he soon found baseball stardom as a major contributor to the Indians’ World Series win the very next year. After that, his career took off. He played for fifteen years, was selected as an all-star nine times, was MVP runner-up and home run champion in 1954, and was eventually inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998.
Still, Doby’s most impressive achievement may be his endurance under intense antagonism from all sides. He took abuse from opposing players and teammates alike. Racial slurs and threats were a regular occurrence, and he was consistently segregated from the rest of the team, isolated and denied basic services.
He could not even escape discrimination in Paterson. After the Indians’ World Series win in 1948, the city hosted a parade in his honor. The warm welcome subsided soon after, when Doby and his wife Helyn tried to buy a home in an all-white neighborhood. A petition was created to keep them out, and residents only acquiesced after the mayor of Paterson intervened on Doby’s behalf.
Despite these setbacks, he persevered. Following a groundbreaking Major League career, he continued his work in baseball, becoming the manager of the Chicago White Sox in 1978. Later, working for his old friend JoeTaub, he served as Director of Communications for the New Jersey Nets from 1980 to 1989. Eventually, he retired to Montclair with his wife.
On June 18, 2003, at the age of 79, Larry Doby passed away. He was survived by five children as well as a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Among mainstream audiences, Larry Doby’s legacy has often been that of the second man. As the second black player in baseball, the initial energy had worn off. His face was never stamped on commemorative coins, nor was his number 14 retired by the entire league like Robinson’s. His name is often excluded from the history books.
But Doby’s life was no less remarkable. He was the first player to go straight from the Negro Leagues to the MLB, the first black player to play in the American League, the first to hit a home run in the World Series, and he and teammate Satchel Page were the first to win the World Series.
In many ways, Doby took a more difficult path than Jackie Robinson. Robinson had been hand-selected years before his debut. Players, fans, and the media had been warned of his impending arrival. Three months later, there was no warning ahead of Doby’s first game. He was signed two days before making his debut, and barely given time to prepare.
His struggles lacked the media attention and nationwide support of Robinson’s, and he often felt overlooked. “Jack and I had very similar experiences. And I wouldn't be human if I didn't want people to remember my participation,” he told the New York Times in 1997.
That isn’t to say he grew jealous or resentful of Robinson’s legacy. The two were friends who shared experiences, encouragement, and tips on navigating the hostile reality they both shared. After Robinson’s death in 1972, Doby served as a pallbearer at his funeral.
Modern supporters of Doby don’t seek to ignite a rivalry between the two, only equal recognition. “He left a mark on Aftrican-American history. Him and Robinson broke barriers. It’s something that everyone should know in Paterson and nationwide,” says Wimberly.
Some of that recognition came in 2002 with the dedication of Larry Doby Field in East Side Park. Wimberly marched alongside Doby during the parade and ceremony. “Thousands of people came out when we dedicated the field, you had celebrity after celebrity come out for tribute after tribute,” he says.
Wimberly views the legacy of Larry Doby as one of broken barriers, but also as a reminder that our work is not yet finished.
“As a country, we’ve made some accomplishments, like an African American president, but it should be the norm. It shouldn’t be a big deal that Barack Obama is the president, or this person is the CEO of American Express. It should be the norm,” he says.
Wimberly established a charity organization, TEAM HOPE, to give back to a community that is often overlooked. They established a scholarship fund to help local students with extra money for school. It raised $25,000 in the first year.
In addition to his relationship with Doby, he says he’s become friends with Larry Doby Jr. “I think that they’ve adopted me about part of the family,” he laughs. He tries to keep involved with the Doby family wherever possible.
Ultimately, Wimberly hopes to remember Larry Doby as the leader and pioneer that he was. “We’ve definitely evolved, but its because he opened doors not just for African Americans, but to so many people; men and women.”