Jackie Robinson is one of the two or three most commonly known figures in baseball of all time. This is due in part to his Hall-of-Fame playing career and to him integrating the game when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Not nearly as much attention has been paid to the man who came right after him and became the first black player in the American League—Larry Doby. Seeking to remedy this is Douglas M. Branson’s Greatness in the Shadows: Larry Doby and the Integration of the American League (University of Nebraska Press, 2016).
Branson contends that Doby has been largely ignored when the platitudes are doled out about the best and most influential players in baseball history. Although the former outfielder is also in the Hall of Fame (but not until 1998; nearly 40 years after he retired from playing), this contention is entirely accurate.
The bulk of Greatness in the Shadows is an effort to bolster Doby’s legacy. In addition to discussing his reputation as being a good person at length, there is an examination of his statistics, which are very good but pale in comparison to many of his Cooperstown brethren because his career ended somewhat abruptly in his mid-30s, as he was slowed by injuries.
Some of Branson’s arguments are simple yet totally valid. As he points out, everybody remembers who was first but rarely recall or care who was second. Doby faced similar challenges and barriers as Robinson, debuting with the Cleveland Indians just months after his National League counterpart, but received just a fraction of the attention—both in the moment and in remembrance.
While this book has plenty of positive notes, it also goes off the tracks in places. In an effort to canonize Doby, Branson leaves no stone unturned. This includes examining some of the outfielder’s peers and offering arguments of why they may have received credit that detracted from Doby. When talking about Willie Mays and how the legendary outfielder dealt with segregation as minor league player, he suggests the experience may not have been as bad some historians/writers may have you believe because the food at the boarding houses, where black players had to stay instead of at a hotel with their white teammates, was “far superior to hotel fare of the time.” This seems like an unnecessary and ineffective way of making his argument.
Some of Branson’s other arguments are compelling but fly in the face of popular baseball history. Doby toiled in relative obscurity in large part because he played the bulk of his career in Cleveland, which was a secondary media market. He was also frequently overshadowed by other players who were either more flamboyant or held in higher regard by journalists. It is noted that pitcher Satchel Paige (a teammate of Doby) has much higher renown despite a reputation for selfishness, and having a playing record that he does not believe stands up to the legend (i.e. a losing career major league record of 28-31).
Outfielder Mickey Mantle is another example proffered in the case for Doby. While Branson does not deny he was a great player, he also believes his gregarious nature enhanced his legacy, such as exaggerated home run distances, and elevated him to god-like status to the detriment of Doby.
Stat heads might argue that Doby was a great player who just doesn’t measure up numerically to the all-time greats. Unfortunately, Branson largely passes on this area, admitting he doesn’t fully understand newer advanced statistics, and also claiming the outfielder played in more of a pitching era where advanced statistics are not as readily available. However, a quick review of a site like BaseballReference.com gives a lot of good information demonstrating Doby was a titan in his day.
Ultimately, Branson has put a lot of good research and thought into supporting Doby as deserving a greater place in baseball history. Not all of his contentions hit the mark but there is plenty to chew on, and any baseball fan would do well to learn more about the dynamic outfielder who helped transform the game.
Disclaimer: I was provided with a free advanced copy of this book, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.
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