Race car driver Juan Pablo Montoya has made the curious jump to stock car racing after a distinguished career in Formula One open wheel racing. One difference, he noted in a recent interview, is that in Formula One, the first, second and third place finishers are honored at the podium, whereas in America’s NASCAR only the first place winner is honored. Everyone else is considered a loser. Seems we as a culture are fixated on firsts, with little or no recognition of slightly less great achievements of the same ilk.
Sunday, April 15, marks the 60th anniversary of the day when Jackie Robinson debuted with the then Brooklyn Dodgers of the National League and broke the “color barrier,” becoming the first African American to play in Major League Baseball. Numerous ceremonies are planned for the 60th anniversary, and rightly so.
Note that 60 years ago the National and American leagues were very separate enterprises – there was no television to familiarize fans with the other league and no inter-league play during the regular season. This raises the question: who was the first African American to break the color barrier in the American League? The answer is Larry Doby, who debuted with the Cleveland Indians on July 5, 1947, less than three months after Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers. As the first African American to play in American League parks, Doby faced the same adversity as Robinson, including death threats, racist taunts from the stands, discrimination in hotels and restaurants and some fellow big-leaguers who adamantly opposed admitting African Americans to MLB.
Like Jackie Robinson, Hall of Famer Doby went on to have a distinguished big league career, and after his playing days he became MLB’s second African American manager when he was hired by the White Sox in 1978. (Coincidentally, this time Doby followed another African American named “Robinson,” Frank, who managed Cleveland in 1975.) Seems that in addition to ceremonies honoring Jackie Robinson’s 60th anniversary, shouldn’t we also take pause on July 5 to honor the 60th anniversary of Larry Doby’s breaking of the color barrier in the American League?
Last year marked the 70th anniversary of the 1936 Berlin Olympics where African American track star Jesse Owens won four gold medals and put a crimp in Hitler’s claims of Aryan superiority. But lost in most accounts is the fact that 18 African Americans represented the USA in Berlin in 1936, and that in addition to Owens, nine others also won Olympic medals. In total, the African Americans represented less than six percent of the US contingent of 312 athletes, yet they brought home 25 percent of the 54 medals won by America. In addition to Owens, gold medalists included Cornelius Johnson, Ralph Metcalfe (who also won a silver), Archie Williams and John Woodruff. Silver medalists included David Albritton, Matthew Robinson and Jack Wilson. African Americans James Lu Valle and Frederick Pollard, Jr. brought home bronze. May their names, and their epic sports achievements before a racist Nazi regime, never be forgotten.