I shall preface this column with the understanding that I don’t wish to be excessively critical of Jim Thome or his career in Cleveland. Indeed, like many, he was my favorite Indian from the earliest years which I can recollect. Unfortunately, my tone or at least prose is unavoidably loaded with criticism and irritation towards the honoring of Jim Thome. If this note makes you immediately click off the page, I understand completely.
The irritation regarding this statue has more to do with those who haven’t been honored by the Indians organization than Thome himself. The most egregious being the Indians near avoidance of honoring Larry Doby. There are a few others which I believe have legitimate stakes to being more deserving of a statue than Thome but in the majority of the space I am afforded, I will be attempting to make a comprehensive case for the recognition of Doby.
Recognition itself seems too meager a term to adequately remember Doby, as his character, talent are the model on which one would build a player. Before waxing about Doby’s social and human impacts, I deem it necessary to take a look at his statistical production for a few specific reasons.
Whatever opposition one may have to Clarence Thomas and his jurisprudence, he has long opposed affirmative action legislation because he believes it has led to the degradation of what he rightfully earned as an individual. Unfortunately, this stigma exists at college acceptance time, when Caucasians deride the disadvantage of checking that box.
In many ways, this fallacious and bigoted approach has attached itself to Larry Doby’s playing career and legitimacy as a hall of famer. While I believe a statue honoring the second or most influential of all time should be built because of his role in the desegregation of baseball and his role in the civil rights movements, his excellence on the field should not be tossed aside.
Thus, before touching Doby the human being, let us first appreciate Doby the Hall of Fame talent.
Indeed, it is somewhat obvious that I cherry picked a bit, as I decided to use Doby’s 10 year peak in order to demonstrate his elite skill. Of course, Doby makes it fairly easy, as during those 10 years he averaged a tick over a 5 WAR per year.
In terms of defensive capacity, we have fairly limited information mostly based on first person accounts, the eye test. Many deemed him to be an average to a tick above average defender. Of course the power production in center field was his defining characteristic.
Secondarily, one of Doby’s key skills, on-base percentage, is one which was almost completely unconsidered and undervalued until at least the early nineties. Though in many ways, walk rate is still scorned for inefficient and sexy measurements like RBI.
Indeed, Doby is what advanced front offices dream about at night; an up the middle athlete with plus power and elite on base ability. Unfortunately, I can do little to speak of what he was in terms of subjective enjoyment, many who witnessed Doby are fading into the annuls of time much the way he has.
In order to create some contextual comparison, I inserted the following graphic comparing Doby to contemporary, fellow member of the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, Duke Snider.
(Courtesy of Fangraphs)
Obviously, Snider was able to maintain his peak over a longer period of time, three years on the front end as well as two on the back end. These are not to be underrated with the proviso that Doby probably could have been productive at 21 or 22 if he had been allowed to play MLB. His 23 year old season should be tossed away because of a small sample as well as obvious challenges. When looking at wRC+ as well as wOBA, we see a player often producing 40-60% above league average. Secondly, his yearly WAR averages are between all-star and super star.
As for his role in the success of good teams Doby was one of the best position players on the Indians 1948 World Series winner, contributing a key home run in a 2-1 win in Game Four. In 1954, on arguably the greatest team to lose a World Series, he was the best or second best position player. This team had an impeccable if not ungodly collection of pitching talent which must be noted.
Indeed, we have a Hall of Famer on his merits purely as a baseball player, while he does exist on the lower bounds of WAR production; some is based on his constrained tenure, which was outside of his control.
A quick, tangent which I will permit myself; when discussing the Thome statue, many Indians staff and upper level management stressed that this was not based only on his skills as a baseball player but his qualities as a human being.
This sickens me, not because Thome is not of good character because of what we know he is. Indeed, if there was a list of Indians I would love to get a beer with, he would place near the top. Yet, how can we talk about honoring a man of great character, without building a statue of Doby? Is Doby not a paragon of the sort of person we would want to represent the organization?
Doby the Human Being
Once again a disclaimer, I am going to attempt to and fail miserably at properly stating the type of human being Larry Doby was as well as the challenges he faced. Simply because, experientially I will never face or understand such circumstances.
“He was a great American, he served the country in World War II and was a great ballplayer. He was kind of like Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, because he was the second African-American player in the Majors.” – Bob Feller on Larry Doby.
When delving deeper into his experience, Doby spent a portion of his time exhibitioning his skills, yet that does not undermine his service which included stationing in the Pacific Theater.
Feller frustratingly noted the great sadness in Doby’s which stems from his entrance to the stage a few months later than Robinson. What Doby experienced off the field equaled Robinson as indeed the Indians were an equally unwelcoming team, not to mention crowds and opponents.
Yet, on the field while Robinson had an escape in his first season, Doby struggled mightily. He struck out in 33% of his plate appearances and played sparingly in 29 games. Doby was not only facing paralyzing, heartbreaking bigotry and hatred, he also was facing failure on the baseball field for the first time in his life.
To overcome and to push through his initial struggles which most of us cannot begin to understand is where Doby’s legacy lies. Somehow, it feels as if the Indians are constantly running away from Larry Doby’s legacy, when perhaps it is the greatest contribution the franchise has made to baseball.
Bob Feller’s number was retired in 1957 the year after he retired from Major League Baseball. Larry Doby’s was retired in 1994, 35 years after he played his last game. What is most deplorable is that the Indians are complicit with the fading legacy of Larry Doby as they make few efforts to build his image as the truly heroic man that he was.
I like many am beguiled by Jim Thome’s wide infectious smile, though it cannot make me forget his exodus, or the fact that he was rarely the best player on those nineties teams. I must ask, how can we honor Thome’s character and ignore the most virtuous of men?
While building Thome this statue when none exists for Doby is flawed, it is not a separate incident but merely highlights their lack of organizational respect for a champion who helped change baseball and the world in which he lived for the better.