Larry Doby, World War II Navy Veteran Who Helped Integrate Baseball, Awarded Congressional Gold Medal

Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony honor baseball player Larry Doby
House Speaker Mike Johnson of La., second from left, presents a Congressional Gold Medal struck to honor baseball player Larry Doby to his son Larry Doby Jr., second from right, during a ceremony at the Capitol, Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023, in Washington. Joining them are House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of N.Y., left, and Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., right. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

The reverse side of the Congressional Gold Medal awarded posthumously Wednesday to World War II Navy veteran and Baseball Hall of Fame center fielder Larry Doby depicts the moment in a sweaty World Series locker room 75 years ago when a photograph was snapped of a Black player and a white one embracing cheek-to-cheek in the sheer joy of a victory that transcended baseball.

Under the depiction of Doby and Cleveland Indians right-handed pitcher Steve Gromek embracing, there is an inscription chosen by Doby's family: "We are stronger together as a team, as a nation, as a world," which was his credo in life after taking on the task of becoming the first African American player in the American League.

That October day in 1948, Gromek had just outdueled Boston Braves righthander and 24-game winner Johnny Sain 2-1 to put Cleveland up three games to one in the World Series. The difference in the game was the rifle shot of a 425-foot homer by Doby, the first home run by a Black player in any World Series. Cleveland would go on to win the series four games to two -- the last time that the Cleveland team, now renamed the Guardians, would take the World Series title.

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The photograph of the Doby-Gromek embrace by the Cleveland Plain Dealer was distributed by The Associated Press and electrified the nation. ''That picture of Gromek and Doby has unmistakable flesh and blood cheeks pressed close together, brawny arms tightly clasped, equally wide grins,'' wrote Marjorie McKenzie, a columnist for The Pittsburgh Courier, an African American newspaper. ''The chief message of the Doby-Gromek picture is acceptance.''

"I don't know if America had seen many photographs of a Black man and a white man embracing one another before,'' author and historian Larry Lester, a curatorial consultant for the Baseball Hall of Fame, said in an article on the Hall of Fame's website. "It was a signature moment in the integration of baseball."

Doby would later say that hugging Gromek "wasn't planned. It just happened spontaneously.

"For me, that photograph was more rewarding than the homer. That was a feeling from within, the human side of two people, one Black and one white," he told The New York Times. "That made up for everything I went through. I would always relate back to that whenever I was insulted or rejected from hotels. I'd always think about that picture. It would take away all the negatives."

But Gromek had to face criticism and even death threats over the photo when he returned to his home in Hamtramck, Michigan. "Some of his friends really reacted negatively," his son, Greg Gromek, told The Guardian in 2016. "They said things that were sort of shocking to him. What bothered him was that these were his friends. He kept thinking, 'What kind of friend are you to say these things?' He even got death threats. That's what was really shocking."

The photo of Doby and Gromek is currently on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Doby would go on to finish a 13-year career in the major leagues in which he compiled a .283 batting average, with 253 home runs and 970 RBI. The left-handed hitting center fielder was chosen to play in seven All Star games and led the American League in home runs twice. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1998, five years before his death in 2003 at age 79.

'All I Wanted to Do Was Play'

At the ceremony in the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday for the presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award that can be given by Congress, House Speaker Mike Johnson said, "If Jackie Robinson broke down the color barrier, then Larry Doby cleared the wreckage."

Other speakers noted Doby's service as a World War II Navy seaman based on the Pacific Island of Ulithi, where he first had thoughts that he might have a chance to play in the majors.

Armed Forces Radio had announced that the Brooklyn Dodgers were going to sign UCLA football star and former Army Lt. Jackie Robinson to a contract to play baseball in 1946. If Robinson proved himself on Brooklyn's Montreal farm team, he might be called up in 1947 to break baseball's unofficial color line, which relegated Black ballplayers to the Negro Leagues.

Doby let himself think the door might open for him too if Robinson succeeded. "All I wanted to do was play," he later recalled.

On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson played his first game in the National League at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field. And on July 5 that same year, Doby pinch-hit for Cleveland in Chicago against the White Sox to become the first Black player in the American League.

Robinson went on to lead Brooklyn to the National League pennant in 1947 while Doby struggled, was used sparingly and batted only .156. But the two men were alike in suffering the boos and bottles from the stands, and the beanballs and spikes to the shins on the field, as the first Black players.

Most opponents, and even teammates, would not talk to or associate with Doby in his early years at the major league level, but an exception was former Navy Gunner's Mate Lawrence Peter "Yogi" Berra, the garrulous catcher for the New York Yankees.

When Berra's Yankees came to town to take on the surging Indians in 1948, the first chat between Berra and Doby made the front pages. Berra talked to everybody, but on the field, the chatter had a dual purpose of distracting a hitter.

It didn't take Doby long to catch on. He told the umpire to tell Berra to shut up. Berra told the umpire that he was just trying to be friendly. The umpire told them both to shut up.

The next day's papers showed photos of what appeared to be a dustup between the first Black player in the American League and the Yankee catcher. They would become best friends and laugh about it in later years when they were neighbors in Montclair, New Jersey.

"I felt very alone" during his first two years in the major leagues, Doby later told The New York Daily News. "Nobody really talked to me. The guy who probably talked to me most back then was Yogi, every time I'd go to bat against the Yankees. I thought that was real nice but, after a while, I got tired of him asking me how my family was when I was trying to concentrate up there."

Berra later recalled, "I know at least one time I didn't interrupt his concentration. The time he hit that homer to center field in the old Yankee Stadium."

When Doby died of cancer in 2003, Berra said, "I lost my pal. I knew this was coming, but even so, you're never ready for it. I'd call him, and he'd say he didn't feel like talking, so I knew then it was bad."

Two Veterans

Following his playing, managing and coaching days, Berra opened the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center in Montclair. After Doby's death, Berra dedicated a wing of the museum to him, featuring memorabilia from his career in the majors and the Negro Leagues.

When Berra died at age 90 in 2015, then-President Barack Obama called him a humble veteran "who epitomized what it meant to be a sportsman and a citizen, with a big heart, competitive spirit, and a selfless desire to open baseball to everyone, no matter their background."

No one knew that better than Doby, and he also knew there were things that still haunted Berra from World War II that he could speak of only to another veteran.

At an American Veterans Center conference in Washington, D.C., in 2010, Berra hinted at what those things were. He had been assigned as a gunner's mate to what he called a "rocket boat," a gunboat that pounded the beachhead for the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion of Normandy.

Berra recalled the big mistake his ship made as the invasion boats rumbled ashore. "We had orders to shoot at anything that came below the clouds," he said.

They fired and downed the first plane they saw, which turned out to be an American aircraft. However, they managed to rescue the pilot. "I never heard a man cuss so much," Berra said. "We got him out of the plane, but boy, was he mad."

He added, "It was like the 4th of July to see all them planes and ships out there. I stood up there on the deck of our boat" to watch. The officer told him to get down "before you get your head blown off."

Berra was slightly wounded on D-Day but later declined being put in for a Purple Heart. He said he didn't want his mother in St. Louis to find out and become upset.

Then, while speaking before the crowd of veterans, he grew emotional.

"We picked up some of the people who got drowned," he said. Berra, the non-stop talker, stopped talking.

Later, he told a reporter there were some things he would talk about only to his friend, Doby, and, as they both aged, they spoke nearly daily, either on the phone or in person. They hung out together at Berra's house or messed around in his garage, until Berra's wife, Carmen, started finding things for them to do.

At the presentation ceremony in the Capitol, Larry Doby Jr. said that "Yogi was one of the good guys" who helped his father make the transition from the Negro Leagues to the major leagues, and he also gave a shout out to Lindsay Berra, Yogi's granddaughter, who was in the audience.

She later posted on X that she was honored to be present for the award to a baseball legend, "civil rights pioneer and Grampa Yogi's great friend, Larry Doby."

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