Trailblazing black baseball Hall of Famers regale students, faculty with stories

A packed audience in Griffin Hall welcomed former Major League Baseball Commissioner Francis “Fay” Vincent ’60 and Baseball Hall of Famers Larry Doby and Ernie Banks. The discussion, led by Vincent, focused on blacks’ transition into the major leagues.

Doby, the first African-American in the American League, spoke about the transition from the Negro Leagues to the majors as tough but manageable. When discussing the racism he encountered at hotels and restaurants on the road, Doby said, “It only bothered me a little bit.” He believed he was there to “concentrate on baseball.” He credited the town and people of Cleveland, where he played for the Indians, as being supportive and helping to make the transition easier.

Doby arrived in the majors in 1947; six years later Banks arrived at Wrigley field in Chicago with the Cubs. Banks had originally intended to be a lawyer, but when he saw what Doby and Jackie Robinson were doing in the majors, they gave him confidence to make a bid for the big leagues. Banks’ motto was “just play the game.”

Banks also spoke about how Robinson and Doby provided him a lot of support. He expressed admiration for the “grace and dignity” Doby showed on and off the field. Banks went on to talk about what he and Doby did to overcome fear.

“What you have to overcome is fear. Whatever it is just go do it,” he said.

Banks then reminisced about the Negro Leagues, where he played for several years. He said that all the players and managers in the Negro leagues wanted to see him and other blacks make the majors. Banks said he became so comfortable and enjoyed playing in the Negro League so much that he became reluctant to go to the Majors; for him, the transition was “like going into the dark.”

Once Banks arrived in the big leagues, he said he encountered many naysayers. To them he said, “Yeah, watch me.” Banks’ career, in which he hit 512 home runs and won consecutive league MVPs in 1958 and 1959, was a testament to his excellence and the colorblindness of athletic ability. The man who initially doubted by Cubs’ fans was eventually called “Mr. Cub.”

Doby believed the Negro Leagues gave him confidence to play in the Majors. He never distinguished between the two. After playing against Negro League legends like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, Doby said, “I never doubted I could play.” Once Doby joined the Cleveland Indians, he willingly moved to center field and led the Indians to two pennants. In 1954, the Indians won a record 111 games, and Doby led the American League in home runs and RBIs. Doby and Banks both talked about Satchel Paige, one of the greatest pitchers of all time. Although Paige only pitched in the Negro Leagues, Doby and Banks believe Paige was one of the greatest pitchers they ever faced. They talked about the longevity of Paige’s career, which is rare a pitcher. Paige had one comment that really stuck with Banks; “Don’t look back.”

When speaking about tough pitchers, Doby and Banks mentioned Paige, but also cited other individuals in the Majors who had challenged their skills. Banks talked about Dodger pitcher Sandy Koufax and Doby mentioned Yankee hurler Ally Reynolds as being tough. Reynolds would look and smile at Doby every time he came up to the plate and got him out. Banks shared his philosophy on pitchers with the crowd as, “No fat pitcher gonna get me out!”

When a member of the audience asked the panel their thoughts about the lack of black managers in the major league, the two advanced several possible explanations. Doby talked about how the hiring of managers was up to the owners, but also said that baseball is a business and if you don’t win, you don’t manage. Vincent believes the only way change will come about is if people start petitioning the Major League administration. He believes that if the public and media confront the owners and baseball’s leadership, things can change and there will be more black managers.

The next question directed at Doby and Banks related to which ballpark they most enjoyed playing in. Doby said his favorite ballpark was “wherever you had good luck,” while Banks stood true to his Mr. Cub name and said Wrigley Field was his favorite. He said he loved how the park allowed the players to be close to the fans. It was those fans that came to cheer on Banks over his entire career, the entirety of which he spent in a Cub’s uniform, a rarity by today’s standards.

Vincent, who served as commissioner of Major League Baseball from 1989 to 1992, moderated the discussion. Vincent had previously served as deputy commissioner under A. Bartlett Giamatti. He was honored by the Negro League Museum for his help with the Negro League alumni. Vincent has also held positions at Coca-Cola, Columbia Pictures and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

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