My Favorite Player: Monte Irvin
Monte Irvin lives in an assisted living facility in Houston. It comes as no surprise that he is a star in that place—as he has been wherever he has domiciled along the many roads he has traversed since first arriving on the baseball scene as a youngster in East Orange, New Jersey, in the 1920s. Slowed physically by what advancing age does to all of us—and with eyesight diminished to the point where it is difficult for him to travel—the wonderful spirit he has always exhibited, fueled by wonderful memories of a life so well lived, still burns strong. The title of Jim Riley’s account of Irvin’s life is apropos: Nice Guys Finish First.
Irvin and Jim “Red” Moore, are the last of those who proudly wore the emblem of the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League. Who better than James “Cool Papa” Bell could tell us who this baseball great was in the eyes of his fellow Negro Leaguers. “Most of the black ballplayers thought Monte Irvin should have been the first black in the Major Leagues. Monte was our best young ballplayer at the time. He could hit that long ball, he had a great arm, he could field, he could run. Yes, he could do everything.” From the Robinson/Rickey revolution, Jackie is rightfully the one who comes first to mind, but there were many others who demand our attention. The “Last Eagle” is prominent among them.
Arguably, Irvin was the finest athlete ever to graduate from a New Jersey high school, earning 16 varsity letters in four different sports at East Orange High while setting a state record for the javelin. His athletic prowess made no difference on senior prom night when he and his date—and a friend and his date—were refused service at a late-night eatery in their hometown because of the color of their skin. The year was 1937.
Irvin was one of the fortunate ones. An outstanding career in the Negro Leagues, interrupted by three years of service in the army during World War II, was followed by a nine-year career in the Majors. While in the big leagues, he helped the New York Giants to two National League pennants and a World Series triumph. In 1951, he had an MVP-caliber season with a .312 batting average, 24 home runs, and a league-leading 121 RBIs, becoming the first black player to lead a Major League in that later category. Given his age when he was signed by the Giants, if integration had been just a bit slower in coming, and if he hadn’t been so fine a player, he might never have made it to the big leagues. Certainly, there were Negro Leaguers—like his teammate and friend Ray Dandridge who may have been his equal or even his better—who were left behind as the pace of integration grinded excruciatingly slow.
As a youngster growing up in East Orange, Irvin never dreamed that he would someday be a Major Leaguer. The Negro Leagues drew his inspiration, where he aspired to play. And play he did. Inspired is the right word to describe his play in his beloved Negro Leagues that included six East–West All-Star Game appearances and a 1946 season that saw him lead his Eagles to a World Series title against the Kansas City Monarchs of Satchel Paige, Hilton Smith, and Buck O’Neil.
But his 1951 season with the New York Giants defines his greatness as a baseball player. That was his first full season in the Majors. At age 32, segregation had cost him his prime. With his .312/24/121 numbers, he came close to winning the MVP Award, finishing third to Roy Campanella and Stan Musial. In his 1951 season, he also tallied 94 runs, hit 11 triples, drew 89 walks while only striking out 44 times, and went 12 for 14 in steals. In the field, he more than matched his prowess at the plate with his .996 percentage, a product of only one error all season. He placed in the top ten in nearly every offensive category. It was an across-the-board outstanding season for what was essentially a rookie campaign for this veteran Negro Leaguer. Monte finished seventh in walks, tied for eighth in steals, fourth in runs created, fifth in times on base, and tied for third in times hit by a pitch.
His outstanding regular-season play more than carried over into the World Series, where he hit .458 and tied a record with 11 hits. In Game 1 of the Series, he gave his Giants fans a thrill when he stole home against the redoubtable Allie Reynolds.
When he signed with the Giants in 1950, he commented that “this should have happened to me 10 years ago. I’m not even half the ballplayer I was then.” His friend Campanella agreed: “Monte was the best all-round player I have ever seen. As great as he was in 1951, he was twice that good 10 years earlier in the Negro Leagues.”
In retirement Irvin has educated the public on the history of the black leagues in which he starred. With the deaths of his teammates Max Manning and Larry Doby, he is the last of the Eagles who soared to the heights of baseball greatness on the 1946 Negro World Champion Newark club that bested the Kansas City Monarchs in one of the best and last of the great Negro League moments. He holds another important distinction, shared only with the great Martin Dihigo—membership in the halls of fame of four countries—Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the United States. Always wonderfully supportive of the men he played with in Negro baseball, Monte Irvin has been, in every possible meaning the word can have, a champion all his life.