Zalusky, Part 2: Doby's short, bittersweet stint as Sox skipper

  • White Sox outfielder Larry Doby in March 1957.

    White Sox outfielder Larry Doby in March 1957. Associated Press

 
Updated 1/22/2022 7:04 PM

When Bill Veeck signed Larry Doby as the first Black player in the American League in 1947, he immediately rushed him onto the major league roster with the Cleveland Indians.

In 1978, Veeck, now the White Sox's owner, once again hurried Doby onto the major league stage -- this time as the second Black manager in the big leagues. But as successful as Veeck's gamble turned out in Cleveland, with Doby contributing to a World Series winner in 1948, this time he fell short of success.

 

Doby's only managerial experience included two seasons at Maracaibo in the Venezuelan Winter League and a partial season at West Palm Beach in the Class A Florida State League.

For Doby, who had been the Sox batting coach since 1977 and already had two tours of duty with the Sox as a player in the 1950s, his elevation was bittersweet.

Doby told reporters he was confident he could do the job, but he said he was hurt at having to replace Bob Lemon, a teammate during his years in Cleveland.

"Only I will ever be able to know the real problems I faced (as a Black man) at that time. I really needed a friend then and Lemon was it."

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When Doby was hired on June 30, one of the players, Eric Soderholm, told reporters that the managerial change was welcomed by most players, saying some had been confused about their roles under Lemon.

Unlike the fanfare surrounding Doby's integration of the American League, his status as the second Black manager registered barely a blip. In a city five years away from a racially charged mayoral election, the consensus among Sox fans canvassed by the Chicago Tribune was, in the words of one fan, "Hey, who cares if he wins?"

As for the players, Ralph Garr, a member of the 1978 team, said in a recent phone conversation, "He already was a coach and respected by all the Black and white guys on the baseball team."

In a recent phone interview, Soderholm recalled, "I personally loved Larry Doby. He and I had a mutual affinity for Bill Veeck," who had given Soderholm a chance to play after he was coming off serious knee surgery and who was Doby's eldest daughter's Godfather.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Soderholm said Doby "spent a lot of time with me on my hitting, and I thought he was a terrific hitting instructor, one of the best I had ever come across. And he had that easy going, fun loving kind of personality. He always had a smile on his face. He was always laughing."

As an instructor, "He was a predominant believer in the top hand in the batting stroke," Soderholm said. "He was always big on quick hands, quick hands. Wait as long as you can and then fire that top hand on the ball."

But hitting is only one aspect of the game, and Doby needed to handle other aspects, including pitching, as skipper.

"It's such a difficult job. And now it's even more difficult than ever before. But it was a very difficult job back then," said White Sox broadcaster Steve Stone, a starting pitcher on the 1978 team. For Doby, it was especially demanding "going from a hitting coach, where you're responsible for obviously maybe 60 percent of the baseball team and going to a guy who has to kind of relate to pitchers, understand pitchers, and then go through the actual strategies of the game and everything that goes with it. I think it was difficult. I think without any experience, it was even more difficult."

Doby was familiar to Stone not only as a coach, but as a part of his childhood memories. When growing up as a fan in Cleveland, Stone said, "I remember the Al Rosen, Bobby Avila, 1953-1954 Indians, the winning of 111 games, the outfield, and Larry Doby was a big part of that."

Stone was descended from a family of rabid Indians fans. In fact, his mother and father attended a game the night before Stone was born.

When his grandfather told his mom, "You could give birth any moment," she said, "Yes, but if I do, Bill Veeck will probably give me and my child a lifetime pass to the Indians. So I'll chance it."

One of the challenges Doby had to face as a new manager was in-game decision making.

"It comes down to decisions you have to make on the fly that you haven't ever had to make before," Stone said.

Stone said Minnesota manager Gene Mauch "had this reputation of being able to steal signals. So Larry did not want Gene to steal his signals. And so there were only a couple of pitchers in our rotation who were capable of doing this. And one was Ken Kravec and I was the other one.

"And so we would go to Minnesota -- and in those days in the old Met stadium, the dugouts did not attach to any type of locker room or anything else. So there was a bathroom at the end of the dugout. Larry would stand in the door of the bathroom. And then he would yell out (the signals). Ken Kravec and I every other day were in the middle of the bench. And Larry would yell out what he wanted to do, what kind of signal he wanted to give to the hitter. And Bobby Knoop was the third base coach. So Larry would go, 'Take.' And then I would do something which alerted Bobby Knoop that it was a take.

"Well at times, Larry didn't get the message to me in time for me to get the message to Bobby -- or Kravec to get the message to Bobby. And Bobby would just look in the dugout and then kind of dismissively wave his hand and give the signal to the hitter. But Larry was very concerned that Gene was going to steal the signs."

On October 19, Veeck announced that Doby, whose managerial record was 37-50, would return to his role as hitting instructor, while shortstop Don Kessinger took over as manager. Other staff changes included promoting minor league manager Joe Sparks to coach. Tony La Russa succeeded Sparks as Iowa Oaks manager.

Doby faced his dismissal philosophically.

"That's baseball. There's not much I can say or do about it."

Veeck admitted he made a mistake. "I took a man away from doing what he does best -- instruct hitters -- and asked him to manage."

As Stone sees it, though, "Because of Bill Veeck, Larry got a shot to do something that very very few people ever get a chance to do. That in itself was a wonderful experience for him."

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