Review of Greatness in the Shadows

Branson, Douglas M. Greatness in the Shadows: Larry Doby and the Integration of the American League. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. Pp. 336 + Photographs, Tables, Notes, Bibliography, Index. $34.95 Hardcover.

Reviewed by Josh Howard

As Douglas Branson himself admits, Greatness in the Shadows is not a biography. Instead, his work is an analysis of the literature—or relative lack thereof—on Larry Doby, including works on his baseball career, relevance as a civil rights pioneer, and relation to other early men who broke baseball’s color barrier. As Doby was the first African-American man to play baseball in the American League, debuting for the Cleveland Indians in 1947, he faced many of the same challenges also faced by Jackie Robinson who debuted for the Dodgers just a few weeks prior. Despite their similar experiences, few books, commemorations, or films document or honor Doby’s career in comparison to the extensive cultural productions on Robinson. Branson of course notes this and uses it as motivation. His primary goal is to correct this discrepancy somewhat, strongly making the argument that Doby has been neglected by the baseball establishment for far too long and is more than deserving of a place alongside Robinson in the upper echelon of civil rights sports figures. Branson also grew up a Cleveland Indians fan cheering Doby throughout Cleveland’s successful late-1940s and 1950s campaigns. Even though he admits there may be bias, he argues that Doby should be seen as a near-equal of Robinson, not as a second- or third-tier Civil Rights sports figure.

To tell Doby’s story, Branson places his career narrative alongside those of his baseball peers who Branson specifically identifies as some of the greats: Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Jackie Robinson. Branson reminds us that Doby was nearly the statistical equal of these three on-field greats and makes this point by exploring the contexts of each players’ legacy. For instance, in comparing Doby to Mantle, Branson picks apart Mantle’s career, statistics, and character, but dedicates more effort to explaining why Mantle was remembered for so long as an “ever-burgeoning legend” whose “legend and aura…largely blocked the view” of Doby’s accomplishments (170). Branson dedicates a significant chunk of the book to exploring just what it meant for Doby to live and play ball in the cultural shadow of Jackie Robinson, which created a different set of pressures with each moment of success met by Robinson. Branson also evaluates and complicates the legacies of other baseball figures surrounding Doby’s career, notably Branch Rickey, portraying the man who signed Jackie Robinson as both a progressive baseball executive and an aggressive poacher of Negro leagues talent and peddler of “baseball flesh” (12).

As Branson demonstrates, the reason for Doby’s lack of attention in American public sport history have been identified by other writers: Doby played in Cleveland (as opposed to somewhere like New York), the Indians were good (but not great like the Yankees), and Doby was a good center fielder (but not a great one like Mays or Mantle). In addition, Branson pinpoints Satchel Paige as another factor limiting the importance of Doby. Paige was brought into the Indians organization just one year after Doby, and although Paige was still Major League quality, the “aura and antics of Paige overshadowed Doby” (xiii). In other words, Paige’s “clowning around” may have diminished the attention and respect paid to Doby.

For fans and historians of baseball, Branson’s book will be of great interest. For the fan, Branson covers some lesser known aspects of Doby’s life, such as his interaction with Cleveland media and club trips to Japan, which will be of great interest to fans of the Negro leagues, integration-era baseball, or the Cleveland Indians. Brandon’s writing style is also highly accessible as each chapter is broken up into a series of sub-chapters, thus making it very easy to digest this work just a few pages at a time. As this work is not a true biography, the narrative structure suffers somewhere. Dozens of related individuals are discussed in relation to Doby—usually through statistics or anecdotes—and each are easily digestible individually. However, this cavalcade of baseball’s past is difficult to parse as a unified whole. Further, as the book is not arranged chronologically, Branson often repeats these statistics and anecdotes in chapters with overlapping themes, thus causing more difficulties. For the historian, Branson nicely outlines a new historiography of Doby’s career that dovetails nicely with broader literature on the Negro leagues and early baseball integration, especially the scant pre-existing literature on Doby such as Joseph Thomas Moore’s biographical work. However, a slight shortcoming in this work is the lack of an overarching historiographical essay. Branson’s work to place Doby within the overall landscape of baseball’s legacies is commendable, yet there’s little sense as to how Moore’s biography or Branson’s own work fits within broader literature beyond revising Doby’s memory and inserting his career into civil rights history.

Overall, this book is a must-read for anyone with even a passing interest in integration-era baseball. Yes, Jackie Robinson was the first and has received the lion’s share of attention, but Doby was no footnote in history. Doby broke the color barrier in American League cities just as Robinson did in the National League. In an era of mass media and interleague play, we tend to focus on Robinson, but Branson so clearly reminds us that Doby experienced many of the same trials, all the while putting up statistics that rivaled true greats. Branson makes his case expertly: Doby deserves to be placed alongside Robinson, Mantle, and Mays as critical figures of baseball’s past.

I agree with Branson that Doby’s legacy has not received its due. Major League Baseball should take heed. Jackie Robinson Day celebrates are fantastic, but it’s time to expand the day’s scope and perhaps even change the way each individual franchise celebrates the day. For instance, why not celebrate April 15 as “Larry Doby Day” in American League parks next year? Why not affirm that April 15 is now Larry Doby Day in Cleveland (or establish July 5 as a similar day)? There are more creative ways to recognize this past and for Major League Baseball and its franchises to interpret the segregated past. Recognizing Larry Doby could be an excellent first step in complicating the narrative. If professional baseball wants to be more inclusive and solve its declining importance in America, Larry Doby should be recognized as the hero he is, that before moving on to include other important names like Roy Partlow and John Wright in a richer, more inclusive, and ultimately more honest public history.

Josh Howard is Assistant Professor of Public History at Lamar University. Howard has an upcoming article in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography on amateur baseball and “gentlemanliness” in Appalachian Virginia and created The Wendell Smith Papers, a digital archive and exhibit at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

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