Behind Doby, quiet heroine stood guard
Professional sports routinely offer up boisterous, banal, even belligerent incidents and demand that we accept them as bookmarks in American sporting and pop culture.
Dignity and reason, and social and cultural responsibility, too often take a backseat. But on that backseat reside some of the true heroes. When one passes, our sports and our culture are the poorer for it.
They are heroes such as Helyn Doby, whose death July 19 at age 76 after a six-month battle with cancer vividly reminded all of baseball that you don't need to play a game to contribute to it graciously and grandly.
Helyn Doby was Larry Doby's wife and best friend for more than a half-century. To the Dobys, maybe only a handful of the years that marked their time together held more importance and poignancy than 1947. For baseball, though, 1947 is the year Larry and Helyn Doby helped Bill Veeck, Jackie and Rachel Robinson, Branch Rickey and others begin one of the most important nonviolent revolutions we have been privileged to witness.
This is the tiny army that forced baseball to integrate. By doing so, this disparate group with two things in common - belief in the American dream and the love of a game - brought light to a sport that had too long languished in the darkness of bigotry and prejudice.
Jackie Robinson, history rightly chronicles to a great extent, was the African American who broke the color line in the major leagues that year when he opened the season with Rickey's Brooklyn Dodgers. Less heralded, but just as valuable, was the barrier broken by Doby right after the All-Star Game that season. He became the first black player in the American League when he was signed by Veeck's Cleveland Indians.
Robinson and Doby were strong, proud men, products of an integrated society that had reached the California and New Jersey of their respective childhoods. Both attended college. Both served their country during World War II; Doby saw action in the South Pacific. Neither higher education nor battle scars alone could assure survival in the private hell that parts of the National and American Leagues represented in 1947. Fortunately, they did not have to endure it alone.
Behind these two pioneers were two brave women: Rachel Robinson and Helyn Doby. Each in her own way created an island of peace and civility for two true heroes of the nascent civil-rights movement. Rachel Robinson's story has been told, through countless books and movies. Helyn Doby, less known, was no less important.
As Larry Doby tells it, Helyn Doby - like Rachel Robinson - carried a burden and more. Not only did these two baseball wives have to sit and watch helplessly as their husbands took abuse from the bigots in uniform and in the stands. They, too, had to suffer in silence - all because the success of the grand experiment hinged on their refusal to be baited.
"She had to sit there and hear it in the stands, directed at her," Doby said.
Like her husband, Helyn Doby had every opportunity to become bitter. Instead, like her husband, she kept an open mind, letting into her life like-minded people who just happened to have a different skin color. So, while Joe Gordon forever won Larry Doby's friendship by becoming the first Cleveland player to offer to have a catch, Helyn Doby found a soul mate in Gordon's wife. And in Veeck's, Jim Hegan's, Bob Lemon's, Steve Gromek's.
"Fortunately, she was the kind of person who understood the whole thing better than I did," Doby said. "Maybe it was because she was a woman, maybe it was because of where we came from - Paterson Eastside High School - but she knew something about getting along. That gave her a big edge."
Helyn Doby also had a knack for taking off the edge. At home that summer, she and Larry would fixate on the same simple, gentle things that marked their 55 years of marriage: family, religion, the goings-on of a clan that eventually included five children.
The ugliness? "It may sound funny, but we never chose to dwell on it at home, maybe because it was much better to dwell on the positive than the hateful," Larry Doby said. "Helyn had a saying, her favorite line - there's always tomorrow. And there always was."
Home proved the perfect haven, one that was crucial to the continued sanity of Larry Doby through the most trying times. Helyn Doby did for her husband what Veeck did in the clubhouse and on the road when the maverick team owner would swoop into town and cheer up Doby by whisking his centerfielder off to places where both could pursue another mutual love: jazz.
One can only imagine how sweet and medicinal these quiet moments were - sitting at a dinner table talking about children at play or making mischief, or listening to the Duke, the Count or Billie Holiday with a friend who knew rifts could be a good thing, too. It was medicinal and it was enough to allow Doby to convert his quiet dignity into a Hall of Fame career.
Now there is a different kind of quiet in Doby's life. Illness accomplished something a world war and Jim Crow could not, ending a 61-year love affair that began at Eastside High another lifetime ago.
"She fell sick in February, and by July she's gone," Doby, 76, said.
A memorial service already has reminded Doby that his wife won't be forgotten. Current officials attended as did Bill Veeck's widow, Mary Frances, and son, Mike.
Now Larry Doby has new memories, along with the old, as proof of a life well-lived. That does not mean these days are easy. "The nights are the hardest," he said quietly. "She was the architect of this whole thing. When people tell you your kids are fine, it's all because of her. And isn't that what it's all about?"