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Trend Spotting: On Larry Doby, Jim Thome and a statue travesty

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.

Season HR BB/K ISO wRC+ WAR
1948 14 0.70 .189 134 4.5
1949 24 1.01 .188 130 4.3
1950 25 1.38 .219 155 6.8
1951 20 1.25 .217 159 6.3
1952 32 0.81 .266 157 6.9
1953 29 0.79 .224 138 5.0
1954 32 0.90 .211 133 5.9
1955 26 0.61 .214 131 4.2
1956 24 0.97 .198 127 4.7
1957 14 0.71 .175 131 2.4

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.


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Jim Thome Statue: An Exercise in Vain Continuity

When Constantius Chlorus, one of four co-ruling Roman Emperors in the 4th Century CE, took the throne, he took on an entirely new name: Flavius Aurelius Constantius, a name that hearkened to great emperors Marcus Aurelius and Flavius Vespasian. A low-born territorial soldier, Chlorus’s assertions of nobility comprised a façade both transparent and flimsy, yet to establish an ethos of enlightened rule, Chlorus required these connections to golden days of yore – connections he could not claim by birth – to ensure his legitimacy among the elité of Roman society.

For the Dolan family, the stakes are lower than mastery of the empire, but continuity is no less paramount to the organization’s legitimacy. Despite being currently employed by divisional rivals, former stars Jim Thome and Omar Vizquel were invited to the Indians 2014 Fan Fest, placing on full display the Indians’ paradoxical emphasis on continuity from the magical 1990s run. When they announced, therefore, that a statue of Jim Thome statue would be unveiled on August 2nd, it was simply an extension of that same logic. Continue reading


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The Sunday Drive with the Oregon spread offense in Cleveland?

Oregon offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery

Oregon Offensive Coordinator Philip Montgomery

I’ve been feeling a bit closer to the North Coast over the past few weeks, as the temperatures here in North Carolina have more resembled the frozen tundra of the borderlands of Lake Erie. While the temperature here has dipped below freezing far too many times for my liking, we have avoided the ample snow-footage that the Lake provides. I don’t miss the thrice-daily slogs out to my snow blower to clear the driveway of both wind-blow and street-plow piled snow. Still, the recent cold blast has me dreaming wistfully of the Indians’ Spring Training, the Browns’ draft and summer camp, and the Cavs foray back into the lottery.

Thankfully, all three Cleveland teams were active in one way or another over the past week, albeit in very different ways, which kept me from crawling into sports hibernation.

While my attention has needed some warming up no thanks to the weather, it’s been mostly focused on the warm seasons of 2014 for Cleveland sports. The Indians, however, continue to do everything they can to keep some of that attention pointing right back to the 1990’s thanks to their 2014 version of Tribe Fest. The Tribe has their normal conglomerate of current players headlining the event, but the focus Continue reading


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All-Aught Indians: First Base: Jim Thome (2000-2002)

Thome

Thome

Ah, what a tangled web we weave. The Cleveland Indians first base situation has been about as diluted as the nation’s quest for a health plan. How diluted? Well, if you can make it through the Earl Snyder, Jeff Liefer or Lou Merloni eras, you end up with two of the top three dogs at the position being Ben Broussard (380 games) and Ryan Garko (334 games). Both had their moments with the Tribe, but neither set the world on fire.

The All-Aught Indians first baseman is Jim Thome.

Jim Thome was Victor Martinez, before Victor Martinez ever wore the Tribe jersey. He was the Indian that bled team colors, and more than anything else, wanted that World Series ring. I remember listening to Thome interviews prior to every season after 1995, and they all revolved around doing what he could to bring a championship to Cleveland. I know, all players say that, but when Thome said it, you could see the fire burning in his eyes.

When Thome left after the 2002 season, it set off a wave of anger unlike anything I’ve ever seen. More than Albert Belle, and more than Manny Ramirez. Jim Thome’s departure left several fans angry and bitter. Why? People cared about Paul Bunyan-esque first baseman. Fans wanted Thome to retire an Indian, with a belief that as long as Thome toiled at the Jake, there was a chance for something big to happen.

We all know the story. Jim Thome said he would stay in Cleveland. Thome said he wanted to stay with the Indians for the rest of his career. Thome eventually signed a mega-deal with the Phillies that left Tribe fans in disbelief. More on that in a bit. Whether you sided with the Indians management, or sided with Thome, chances are pretty good you were just plain upset to see the heart and soul of the Indians’ teams of the 90’s leave the north coast after, arguably, his three finest years as a player. There were good reasons to be upset.
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