This article was written by R. J. Lesch
A left-handed hitter with power and speed who batted .290 over the course of 14 seasons in the National League, “Laughing Larry” Doyle carried an unusually potent bat for a Deadball Era second baseman, but he’s even more well-known today for his kindly nature and sunny disposition. “It’s great to be young and a New York Giant,” he famously remarked to Damon Runyon in 1911, when he helped his team to its first of three consecutive NL pennants. Popular with his teammates as well as manager John McGraw, Doyle was the Giants field captain for more than five years, filling in for McGraw when he was ejected or serving a suspension. “Doyle is easily the best ball player on the Giants, a hustling, aggressive, McGraw style of player, full of nerve, grit and true courage,” wrote Hugh Fullerton in 1912. “I think he is gamer than his manager, and in some respects a better baseball general.”
The son of a coal miner, Lawrence Joseph Doyle was born on July 31, 1886, in Caseyville, Illinois. For five years Larry worked as a coal digger in the mines near Breese, Illinois, 39 miles east of St. Louis. “When you first go down into the earth there comes a sudden realization of what might happen to you,” he wrote in 1908. “Nowadays the mines can be lighted by electricity, and it’s comparatively simple to go through a mine. But when you get caught without a light in some deep labyrinth in the bowels of the earth, it’s no picnic.” Larry played semipro baseball on weekends, earning anywhere from nothing to $2 per game, depending on the size of the audience. In 1906 he quit mining to play professionally for Mattoon, Illinois, of the Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee (Kitty) League. Larry undoubtedly gained a new appreciation for the relative safety of his new occupation when six miners of the Breese & Trenton Coal Company lost their lives on December 22 of that year in what came to be known in later years as the 1906 Breese Mining Disaster.
After a year in the Kitty League, Doyle spent the first half of the 1907 season playing third base for Springfield of the Three-I League, batting .290 in 66 games. The club president was Dick Kinsella, the portly proprietor of a Springfield paint shop and an important man in local Democratic politics. Kinsella parlayed Doyle’s talents into a lively bidding war, with the Detroit Tigers and Washington Senators each offering $4,000, but McGraw raised the bid to $4,500 after receiving a favorable report from his old teammate Dan Brouthers, whom he had dispatched to the Illinois capital to look over the 20-year-old Doyle. At the time $4,500 was the highest price ever paid for a minor leaguer, but the Giants shattered the record a year later by paying $11,000 for Rube Marquard, with Kinsella again brokering the transaction. “Sinister Dick,” as he was called because of his dark complexion, went on to a long and successful career as a scout for the Giants, discovering Ross Youngs, Frankie Frisch, Carl Hubbell, George Kelly, and Hack Wilson, among other stars.
Doyle arrived in New York on July 21, 1907. “The train from Springfield dumped me off in Jersey City because Grand Central wasn’t even built then,” he recalled. “When I got off the ferry, I walked over to a cop. ‘How do I get to the Polo Grounds?’ I asked. ‘See that El over there? Take it to the last stop,’ he said. I got off at the last stop and looked around. I didn’t see any Polo Grounds. All I saw was the ocean. I was at South Ferry, the wrong end of the line.”
Larry started his first major-league game the next day against the Chicago Cubs, playing second base for the first time ever in his professional career. In the seventh inning, with Frank Chance on third base, the nervous rookie fielded Artie Hofman’s slow roller and hesitated, unsure whether to throw to first or home. Chance scored, putting the Cubs up 2-0, which was the eventual final score. Doyle wasn’t charged with an error, and the run was simply an insurance run, but later generations of sportswriters exaggerated the game into an almost mythical example of first-game jitters, with Larry booting the ball all over the field and costing a victory for the Giants. Though he wasn’t nearly that bad, Larry still was disappointed in his performance. McGraw simply patted him on the back and said, “Forget it. When you learn more about second, you won’t make mistakes like that.”
Replacing the 38-year-old Tommy Corcoran in the everyday lineup for the rest of the season, Doyle batted .260 with only three extra-base hits in 227 at-bats. He committed 26 errors in 69 games for a .917 fielding percentage, an extraordinarily poor record for a second baseman. With the hefty price the Giants had paid for his contract, New York fans and writers felt cheated. “This is the summer of ‘Larry’ Doyle’s prosperity or discontent,” wrote the New York Evening Telegram at the start of spring training in 1908. “Doyle was so streaky last year that it was almost out of the question to get any fixed line on his ability. One day he would be a dead wall which nothing could pass, and the next he wobbled on every hit that came to him, like a boxcar on a coal railroad. Some days he could hit the ball on both sides of the seams, and on other days he missed all sides. Some baseball men are confident that it is merely a question of time when Doyle will establish himself as a sterling, dependable player. If they have failed to read the signs right they are willing to be sentenced to eat five-dozen hard-boiled eggs and 18 caviar sandwiches as punishment.”
Nobody ended up eating any caviar sandwiches, though Doyle did struggle at the start of 1908; after his fielding error and base-running blunder cost the Giants a 1-0 loss to the Cardinals on May 20, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote, “Mr. Doyle has been analyzed, assayed, dissected and microscopically scrutinized to the end that the peach part of him is entirely absent. In fact, even to the naked eye Mr. Doyle’s appearance at League Park yesterday was positively citric. He contributed a bunch of fat-headed work that would drive a real manager like McGraw to the woods to think it over.” But as the season went on, developing into one of the most exciting in history, Larry suddenly became the team’s hottest hitter, raising his batting average above .300.
“I hung on to Doyle when the New York fans and critics were calling for his scalp,” McGraw bragged to some friends in early September, “and today I would not trade him for any man playing baseball. Think of it, in the last series at Pittsburgh and Chicago Doyle got in no less than 18 safe hits. Every time he went to bat he hit the ball clean and hard. There is nothing like having confidence in one’s own judgment.” On September 8, however, Doyle was badly spiked by John Hummel of the Brooklyn Superbas. He was on crutches for nearly the rest of the season, returning only to pinch-hit for Christy Mathewson in the final game of the season against the Cubs. Larry lofted a foul to catcher Johnny Kling, who made the catch despite having two beer bottles, a drinking glass, and a derby hat thrown at him.
Over the next four years Larry Doyle averaged 36 stolen bases per season and established himself as one of the National League’s greatest stars. In 1909 he led the NL with 172 hits and finished second in home runs (6), third in slugging percentage (.419), and fourth in batting average (.302). The next year Doyle batted .285 and ranked third in home runs (8) and fourth in runs scored (97). After showing up on time for spring training for the first time in three years, ten pounds lighter and in the best shape of his life, the 24-year-old captain of the Giants elevated his performance to an even higher level in 1911. Doyle batted .310 and was selected as the second baseman on Baseball Magazine‘s NL All-America team, leading the league in triples (25) and finishing second in slugging percentage (.527), fourth in home runs (13), and fifth in runs (102), and seventh in on-base percentage (.397). In Game Five of that year’s World Series, Larry tagged up and scored the winning run on a fly ball in the bottom of the 10th inning, but umpire Bill Klem later stated that he never touched the plate and would’ve been called out had the Philadelphia Athletics tagged him before leaving the field.
At the height of his stardom Doyle earned an annual salary of $8,000, only $3,000 less than his road roommate Mathewson. He invested in Florida real estate, and he and Matty studied the stock market intensely. In 1912 Doyle again reached double figures in home runs and posted career highs in batting average (.330) and RBIs (90), winning the Chalmers Award as the NL’s most valuable player. The prize, of course, was a Chalmers automobile. “I didn’t even know how to put gasoline into it,” Larry recalled. The following season he might have wished he’d remained ignorant; a week before the end of the season he lost control of the car and crashed it into a tree, bruising his arm and shoulder. Doyle missed the end of the regular season but recovered sufficiently to play in the World Series, though he managed only three hits and committed three errors in the five games (the Giants losing for the third straight year). Defense undoubtedly was the former third baseman’s biggest weakness. Doyle shaded closer to second base than other second basemen, preventing him from covering as much ground on the first-base side, and he also reportedly had trouble coming in to field slow grounders.
In the fall of 1913 Larry married Gertrude Elizabeth McCombs of Miami. After turning down a two-year contract from the Federal League that would have paid him $27,000, Doyle returned to the Giants in 1914 and batted a meager .260, adding further evidence to McGraw’s theory that a player always needed a year or so to adjust to marriage. The next year, however, he rebounded to win the NL batting title with a .320 average, making Baseball Magazine‘s All-America team for the second time. In 1916 Doyle slumped once again. This time the Giants traded him to the Cubs on August 28 in a five-player deal that was essentially Doyle for Heinie Zimmerman. Reunited with his old friend Fred Merkle on the right side of the Chicago infield, the veteran second baseman batted a career-low .254 in 1917. On January 4, 1918, the Cubs packaged him to the Boston Braves in a deal for pitcher Lefty Tyler, but four days later the Giants reacquired him, announcing that he would assume pinch-hitting and utility duties. He missed much of the 1918 season with illness but regained his starting position the next year, appearing in 100 games at second base and batting .289 with seven home runs. The 33-year-old Doyle remained a regular in 1920, closing out his major-league career by batting .285 in 137 games.
Over the next two decades Larry Doyle worked for the Giants in various posts, including managing their minor-league affiliates in Toronto and Nashville. The Doyles raised a son, Larry Jr., and two daughters, Doris and Edith, before Gertrude passed away in 1937. A smoker and former coal miner, Larry was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1942. Word of his illness reached Blanche McGraw and Jane Mathewson, and the widows of his former manager and former roommate teamed with NL president Ford Frick to have him moved to the Trudeau Sanitarium in Saranac Lake, New York, where Matty had convalesced almost 20 years earlier. Larry and Mrs. Mathewson remained close over the years, the old ballplayer referring to her as “my manager.” Doyle not only survived tuberculosis, he outlived the sanitarium itself; it closed its doors in 1954, but Doyle remained in Saranac Lake until his death at age 87 on March 1, 1974.
Note: A slightly different version of this biography appeared in Tom Simon, ed., Deadball Stars of the National League (Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, Inc., 2004).
For this biography, the author used a number of contemporary sources, especially those found in the subject’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.