I was born three years before my country, Czechoslovakia (today, Czech Republic), was occupied by Nazi Germany. As soon as I could walk, I was immersed in sports, following in the footsteps of my parents. My father, Rudolph, was an outstanding volleyball and table tennis player, and he and a colleague were co-holders of the European distance record in singles kayaks. My mother, Ilona, was a leader of the local Sokol gymnastics club and a fine skier. So, it was natural that I, their only child, would inherit their genes.
My family could afford to indulge in athletic activities. After all, we were one of the wealthiest in the country. My great grandfather had founded a company that became the largest manufacturer of ladies’ dresses and men’s work clothes in Central Europe.
We were a happy and active family until March 15, 1939—the day the Germans invaded. I had been raised a Roman Catholic, and Mother and I were devout parishioners of the church across the road from our home. But the Nazis had different ideas about my religion. Since I had three Jewish grandparents, by Hitler’s definition I was a Jew.
As a three-year-old, I had no idea what a Jew was, but now this devout Catholic kid was one. Thus, it became a mystery to me why members of my family began to disappear. My father escaped and eventually joined the Czechoslovak Brigade of the British army, with whom he would see more than five years of combat. The others, with the exception of Mother and me, were taken away. All—twenty-five of them—would perish in the Holocaust. The Nazis took away our home, and Mother and I were taken in by a farmer family. Eventually, the Germans arrested Mother and sent her to a slave labor camp for Christian wives of Jewish men. To protect me from deportation to a death camp, she hid me with our farmer friends for the remainder of the war.
When the war finally ended in May 1945, I came out of hiding, Mother came home from the camp, and Papa returned a war hero. We were our family’s only survivors. Slowly, life began to turn normal. I was nine and able to attend school for the first time, I could have friends and play like a normal kid. We moved to Prague, where I quickly earned a reputation as a good athlete, excelling in tennis, hockey, skiing, and football (soccer to Americans). Unfortunately, after less than three years of freedom, our government was taken over by Communists, who declared my parents “enemies of the state.” We were forced to escape, carrying all our possessions in three suitcases and a bundle of blankets, avoiding armed border guards during a harrowing border crossing into the US Zone of Germany. Following 15 months in refugee camps, we gained our visas and arrived in the United States on May 31, 1949. I was 13 years old.
Once we became settled in America, it did not take me long to decide that I was going to be a professional athlete when I grew up. Only one question remained: in which American sport? Would it be basketball, football or baseball? Although I had not even heard of these sports, let alone played them, only a few months before, I was learning quickly and becoming proficient at all of them. So, which would it be?
I made that momentous decision in a movie theater one Saturday afternoon in the spring of 1950. Two friends invited me to go with them to the Park Theater in Morristown, New Jersey, to see a film about a guy from a nearby town. The Larry Doby Story depicted the life of a boy who had been an outstanding athlete in all three sports at Eastside High School in Paterson, and who would become the first Black player in the American League.
My English was still limited and I failed to comprehend some of the dialog in the movie, but it mattered little. The story of Larry Doby—his successes on fields and courts, his patriotism and dedication despite the humiliation and rejection he suffered—captured me. His suffering and persistence resembled my own. By the time I walked out into the afternoon sunshine, I had not only made up my mind to become a professional baseball player, but I had a new hero, one who would unknowingly influence me for years to come.
I erected a shrine to Doby in my room. While the centerpiece was a Most Valuable Player trophy I earned in the county American Legion baseball league, it was surrounded by photos of Doby: Larry making an acrobatic catch in the outfield; Larry trotting around the bases after becoming the first Black man to hit a homerun in a World Series; a portrait of Larry’s soft, round, smiling face. I wore his number 14 on my baseball uniform and, when his number was not available on the Oklahoma State basketball team, I wore its reverse, 41. My friends found this hero worship hysterical and laughingly called me “Doby.” I took it as an honor.
I finally made it to the major leagues in my late thirties—though not as a player. I was co-founder and CEO of CADCOM, Inc., a software firm that computerized the operations of baseball’s American League and developed a sophisticated player evaluation system. Each year, I attended baseball’s spring training camps in Florida and Arizona in an effort to enlarge our footprint and to introduce the sport’s traditionalists to the wonders of digital computers.
On one trip to Florida, I visited the Montreal Expos’ camp. I was walking on the sidewalk leading to the main entrance of the team’s spring headquarters when the door opened and there—no more than ten paces from me—stood the man whose photos had adorned the walls of my room and whose image was still engraved in my mind. The same soft, round, face. The hair was turning gray at the temples, but there was no mistaking Larry Doby. Suddenly, a hot-shot technology CEO became a hero-worshiping schoolboy.
“Mr. D-D-Doby,” I stuttered. “My name is Charlie Heller. I want you to know that this is one of the biggest thrills of my life. I’ve wanted to meet you since I was a kid. You’ve been my hero for years.”
“Really?” he asked, and it was obvious that he had heard lines like this before. Skepticism was written on his face.
“I came to America as a refugee when I was thirteen,” I said after a quick decision to spill my story in a matter of seconds, while I had his attention. “One day, I saw the movie about your life, and I identified with your struggles against prejudice and injustice. I wanted to be like you.”
“How did you intend to do that?” he asked. The skeptical look disappeared and he seemed genuinely interested.
“I wanted to be a great baseball player and a good person, like you. I didn’t make it in baseball. But I played college basketball and a couple of minor sports. I always honored you by wearing your number 14.”
Doby smiled for the first time. “I’m sorry, what’s your name again?” he asked.
“Well, Charlie,” he said. “I’m really pleased and honored.”
He seemed touched. I wondered if it was because a white boy had idolized him during a time of racial intolerance in the country, a time during which he had been subjected to insults and indignities on and off the baseball field. I wondered, too, if I should explain that I identified with him because I, too, had been considered an inferior human being by a supposed “master race.” Just as he had been forbidden to stay in white hotels, forced to drink from “colored” water fountains, and prevented from playing in the white major leagues for so long, I had been forbidden to attend school, to sit on “no Jews” park benches, and forced to hide like an animal in order to avoid transport to a death camp.
“So, what are you doing here, at the Expos’ camp?” he asked, interrupting my contemplation.
I explained the work my company was doing for major-league teams, and I said that I was trying to convince the Montreal Expos to jump on the computer bandwagon.
“Are you a computer programmer?” he asked.
“No. I’m president and CEO of the company,” I answered.
“Wow! You may not have made it as a baseball player, but it sounds like you’ve done well for yourself. Now, I can say that I’m proud to know you. Good luck with the Expos and with your life.”
He extended his large, strong, black hand. I shook it, and as he walked toward his car, I remained frozen to the spot. They say that one should never meet his or her hero. Yet, I had met mine, and he said that he was proud to know me! And I had not even had a chance to tell him that my high-school pals had called me “Doby.”
Larry Doby retired from baseball after a brilliant career which included seven All-Star Game appearances. In 1978, he became manager of the Chicago White Sox. In 1998, he was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Despite that, he died a bitter man in 2003 at the age of 80. He had always been number two. Although he had been the second African-American player in the major leagues, and the first in the American League, it was Jackie Robinson who received all the accolades. It was Robinson’s number, 42, and not Larry’s 14, that was retired throughout baseball, never to be worn by another player. Although Doby had suffered the same indignities as Robinson, he was virtually forgotten by the media and the fans. It was his bad luck also to be the second Black manager in the history of baseball. Another Robinson, Frank, had beaten him to that honor by three years. Larry was painfully aware of the fact that he was consigned in history to the same fate as the second person to fly across the Atlantic.
As I read his obituary, I wished that I had told him how much we had in common, and I hoped that, perhaps, he may have remembered that to one white boy, he had always been Number One.
Charles Ota Heller is the author of three books, Prague: My Long Journey Home; Name-droppings: Close Encounters with the Famous and Near-Famous; and Ready, Fire, Aim! An Immigrant’s Tales of Entrepreneurial Terror. His next book, Cowboy from Prague, will be published later this year.