National Pastime Museum: Monte Irvin

Monte Irvin

By Marty Appel

The death of Monte Irvin in January, a month shy of his 97th birthday, robbed baseball of one of the finest gentleman to ever play the game, and robbed historians of the go-to source for anything about the Negro Leagues.

He was the last significant player from the Negro Leagues, and to the delight of countless writers and broadcasters, he remained alert and vital until the end, always ready to help researchers out. (When Hank Aaron played for the Indianapolis Clowns, the Negro Leagues were already in free fall, and Aaron never really experienced the league when it was vital).

When I wrote a magazine piece last year on Martin Dihigo, the Hall of Famer from Cuba, there was the obligatory call to Monte, and from it came the sentence, “He always walked tall and proud, and when he came into a room, all eyes turned towards him.”

That’s what Monte could provide that statistics couldn’t, and that’s why he’ll be missed. That, and his decency, humanity and basic goodness.

His birthday, February 25, was the same as my wife’s. She once pointed out to him that it was also shared with the Beatle, George Harrison. “Good to know,” he said. “Now when someone asks me who my favorite Beatle was, I have an answer!”

Monte didn’t reach the Major Leagues until he was 30. He still had some good seasons left – especially 1951, the “Bobby Thomson Season” when he was third in MVP voting, led the league in RBIs, and hit .458 in the World Series with a steal of home.

But really, most baseball fans never saw him at his peak, the early 1940s, when he starred in the Negro Leagues.

Once I asked him what he was like back then. Remember, he was a very modest and self-effacing person, not prone to bragging. He was thoughtful, educated, wise, clear-headed and polite. I said, “Monte, who would you compare yourself with when you were in your early ‘20s? Willie Stargell? George Foster? Yastrzemski?” And without much hesitation he looked at me and said, “Oh, DiMaggio.”

He’d obviously thought about it.

It was quite a statement. I’ve never forgotten it, because what he was saying was that the American public was flat out robbed of seeing someone of DiMaggio’s equal. All these years later, one can only look at that and say, “shame on the people running baseball” for depriving us of such a talent.

Monte, a 16-letterman in high school, (where all his games were integrated), college educated, a war veteran, someone who got along with everyone, could well have been “The First,” the honor that went to Jackie Robinson. That had much to do with Branch Rickey’s lack of interest in compensating owner Effa Manley of the Newark Eagles for Monte’s contract, since he could sign Robinson for free.

Finally in 1949, he and Hank Thompson became the first African-American players to play for the New York Giants. They debuted the same day.

Monte played just eight seasons in the Majors and hit 99 home runs. That used to put him on the list of most home runs by letter of the alphabet, a chart that would occasionally appear in print. A was Aaron, B was Banks, C was Colavito and so on. Monte was the only one not in triple figures. It stood out.

We were colleagues at the Commissioner’s Office when slugger Pete Incaviglia came along. Nobody rooted for him to reach 100 more than Monte. “It’s embarrassing to see that 99 next to my name,” he’d say. Incaviglia wound up with 206. Monte was pleased.

Negro League records, sketchy though they are, show that he played nine seasons, mostly with Newark, and hit .354. But he played a lot of games in winter ball, in Mexico, in Cuba, in the Dominican – and, he said, a lot of in-season exhibition games with the Eagles for which no records were kept, sometimes because no official scorer was on hand. And he would tell great stories, often over lunch at Kenny’s on Lexington Avenue, about pulling into a town where a teammate might know a terrific player who happened to be in the local penitentiary. The team would go to the warden and negotiate a “day pass” in exchange for tickets, so that the inmate might play in the game. Great laughter would go with this story. I’m sure it was true.

He didn’t care for the 1976 film, “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings,” which was said to depict Negro League baseball through a traveling, Harlem Globetrotters-like team. “It wasn’t like that at all,” he reflected. “We had fun, but we weren’t clownish, and there was no Globetrotter-like team competing with us. We played serious baseball. No movie has ever shown that.”

After working for Rheingold Breweries following his retirement, Monte was hired in a public relations capacity by Commissioner William Eckert on the urging of his spokesman Joe Reichler, the former AP columnist. He stayed on for the full run of Bowie Kuhn’s commissionership, and retired with him in 1984.

He did a lot of speaking engagements on behalf of Kuhn, and Kuhn turned to him when the idea of allowing Negro Leaguers into the Hall of Fame first came up. He was appointed to the voting committee, and was eventually voted in himself (the committee asked him to excuse himself) – but getting Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson elected the first two years were major steps for the Hall. Monte’s word counted the most when future electees – Oscar Charleston, Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson, Dihigo, John Henry Lloyd and Rube Foster were chosen. All have Monte’s fingerprints on their plaques.

His most famous moment working for Kuhn came in Atlanta in April of 1974, when Kuhn designated him as his representative, to be present when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s lifetime home run record.

Atlanta fans were furious over Kuhn’s “snub,” but Kuhn saw it as an impossible assignment, confined perhaps for a week or more – who knew? – to Braves games until the mighty swing came.

Poor Monte. He and his wife Dee packed for a week and flew to Atlanta on the afternoon of the first Braves home game. They checked into the Marriott and headed for Fulton County Stadium.

Sure enough, on his very first swing, Aaron hit the record breaker. Amid the chaos that followed, Monte made his way to the field to present Aaron with a plaque. Upon being introduced, the fans cascaded Monte with boos, intended of course, to show displeasure at Kuhn’s absence.

Aaron laughed and patted Monte on the back. “Don’t let it bother you,” he said. “It’s not personal.”

Monte made his remarks – quickly – shook Aaron’s hand, and headed for his seat. He looked at Dee and said, “I think we can make the 9:30 flight back to Newark!” And they made it. His week in Atlanta was five hours. (Dee died in 2008).

After Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, I asked Monte if he thought he would ever see a black President. His answer surprised me. “I did,” he said. “But I thought we’d have a Jewish president first.”

Great players leave us all the time, many more famous than Monte Irvin. But for all his generosity in providing historians and fans with living history, he will be missed beyond measure.

“There was a time we were playing in front of the dictator, Trujillo……..”