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Who was Larry Doby?

Chris CroweChris Crowe is professor of English at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah and the author of Presenting Mildred D. Taylor (Twayne 1999) an historical novel for teens, Mississippi Trial, 1955 (Dial 2002), and Getting Away with Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case (Dial 2003). His most recent book is Just as Good: How Larry Doby Changed America’s Game (Candlewick 2012.) I met Chris several years ago at the annual NCTE conference and discovered that we shared a deep interest in historical writing and research. At this year’s conference in Las Vegas, Chris and I will be joined by author Dean Hughes to present a session on YA Literature & War. This week, Chris takes time out from his busy professor’s schedule to answer questions about his latest book and his writing life:

Just as GoodQ. For those who may not have heard of Larry Doby before, can you briefly introduce him?

A. Larry Doby was the first African American player in the American League, signing with the Indians just a few weeks after Jackie Robinson started the 1947 season with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the National League. Unlike Robinson, who had a full season in the minor leagues to get accustomed to playing with white players in front of white fans, Doby had no preparation for entering the all-white Major Leagues. He played his last game for the Newark Eagles in the Negro Leagues on July 4, 1947, and joined the Indians for a game against the Chicago White Sox on July 5. It was a tough transition, and Doby had one of the worst seasons of his career—and his lack of success reinforced the lie that racist MLB team owners perpetuated: Jackie Robinson was a fluke; there were no other MLB-quality players in the Negro Leagues. 1948 would be different. Doby batted .301, hit 16 homeruns, and led the Indians to the World Series. His homerun in the crucial Game 4 against the Boston Braves won the game and propelled the Indians to win the Series. They haven’t won one since. 

Mississippi TrialQ. What made you choose to write about Larry?

A. I first came across Doby when I was researching my books about Emmett Till. Emmett was a big White Sox fan. In reading the background of the White Sox in the 1950s, I learned that Cleveland had traded Doby to the Sox at the end of the 1955 season, and that set me off on a new track. His success exposed the MLB owners’ lie about African American ball players and started the real migration of African American players from the Negro Leagues to the Major Leagues. Unfortunately, he played in Jackie Robinson’s shadow, so his story isn’t as well known as it should be. I like telling overlooked or forgotten stories. 

Q. You played football at BYU when you were an undergraduate student there. Were you interested in baseball then as well?

A. Ha! My miserable baseball career ended when I reached the Pony League. I was always a lousy hitter and a mediocre fielder, so I knew I had no future in baseball. I have, however, always been a follower of baseball, in part because in so many ways it really is America’s game. These days I follow a few teams, but I’m more interested in baseball history. 

Q. Any kind of research always brings surprises. Can you tell us about something that surprised you about Larry, or Larry’s life, as you wrote this book? 

A. In addition to being the second African American player to enter the modern Major Leagues, Doby was also the second African American to manage a MLB team and the second African American to play in the Japanese Professional Baseball League. I was also surprised to learn that before he entered WWII, he had a brief stint as a professional basketball player. 

Q. To which contemporary player would you compare Larry Doby? Why?

A. There aren’t many barriers left to break in MLB, but in some ways Doby reminds me of Ichiro Suzuki. Suzuki wasn’t the first Japanese player in MLB, but he was the first really successful Japanese player, and his success created opportunities for other Japanese players to join MLB teams. 

Q. Any advice for educators who, like you, want to write for young people?

A. My biggest challenge is finding the time (and the discipline) to sit down to write. Teachers have so many things going on every day that it’s hard to imagine having time to write. I’ve learned, though, that when I maintain a consistent writing schedule, I’m a much happier person. Of course, regular writing leads to steady output, too. Teachers have a real insider’s advantage when it comes to writing for kids because they know that audience better than almost anyone else.

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