Remembering Monte Irvin

The greatness that was and the legend that could've been

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Monte Irvin and Buck O’Neil remembered their time in the Negro Leagues very differently. Monte Irvin remembered rickety buses that broke down. Buck O’Neil remembered rides that felt like clouds crossing the sky. Irvin remembered bumpy fields and dirt where grass belonged and broken glass. O’Neil remembered grass outfields as green as emeralds. Irvin remembered bounced checks and restaurants that refused to serve blacks and endless road trips with a long and exhausting trail of games. O’Neil remembered the sweet smell of barbecue, the sounds of midnight jazz and some of the best baseball he would ever see.

I asked Buck O’Neil once why they recalled such divergent times.

Buck said this: “Because Monte was a great player. And I was just good.”

When I asked why that should make such a difference, he shook his head sadly, “I might have played in the big leagues, I think, but I wouldn’t have been a star. Monte would have been a star. The world didn’t miss out on me. But the world missed out on Monte Irvin.”

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If we could somehow spin back the years, correcting some of the wrongs the way we correct blemishes on old photographs, we might find that Monte Irvin played baseball as well as anyone who ever lived. There’s no way to know, of course, what kind of baseball player Monte Irvin was in the 1930s when he was young and supple and in full flight. We do know a teacher at East Orange High saw him play and wrote a letter to New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham.

“What did he say?” Irvin would ask Stoneham decades later.

“He said you were the next DiMaggio,” Stoneham said.

Irvin was not a boastful man, but by his own estimation he could do everything on a baseball diamond. In truth, baseball was a bit constricting. He set the New Jersey state record for javelin throw. He was unstoppable on the football field. He was the leading scorer on the basketball team. But there were few outlets for an astounding black athletes in the 1930s, and so Irvin went to Lincoln College to be a teacher. He played baseball for the Negro Leagues’ Newark Eagles on the side, under the assumed name of Jimmy Nelson.

The baseball numbers of the Negro Leagues are elusive, invisible, and even if we had complete numbers they would be all but impossible to convert into a language we could understand. The Eagles played everywhere, against all kinds of competition, under all sorts of conditions. What does it mean to hit .403 with power under dim lights against factory teams with people shouting racist slurs at you? What does it mean to catch every ball on rocky fields under a hot sun in the third game of the day? Irvin played some of his best baseball in Mexico, in Cuba, in Venezuela, in Puerto Rico, and the fans adored him there. They saw his genius for baseball. But what does it mean to be a baseball hero in Mexico and an unknown in America?

“Why did they think we could not play?” he would ask in the later years of his life. “That’s always been my question when I think back to the Negro Leagues. The ball was the same size. The bats weighed the same. The fields were no smaller. Why did they think we could not play?” Irvin would live 96 years and never come up with a satisfying answer to that one.

In 1942, Monte Irvin went to war. He was 23 years old, in the prime of his career and at the peak of his powers. Negro Leagues owners were polled and asked the simple question: Which black player should be the first to play in the Major Leagues? Many said Satchel Paige, the most famous African-American baseball player in the country. Most said Monte Irvin.

“I think I could have been the first,” Irvin would say. “I think I could have handled it. But it wasn’t my time.”

Irvin never liked talked about what the war took out of him. He went to France and Belgium with the Army Engineers, and it was grueling work, but the toll was more than physical. For three years, he played no baseball. His skills rusted slightly. His speed and power and flexibility diminished just the smallest bit — not enough for others to notice, perhaps, but he knew. His joy for baseball, well, some of that seeped away too. Many great players spent their baseball prime fighting for America, but few lost what Monte Irvin did. He lost his destiny.

When he returned to the states in 1945 — the same year that Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodger — Brooklyn’s Branch Rickey wanted to sign him. But Irvin would always say that he did not feel ready. Anyway, the Newark Eagles were not interested in giving him up for nothing. Irvin spent four more years toiling away in the Negro Leagues. He played in the East-West All-Star Game every year.

“Overworked,” he said. “Underpaid. … Sometimes I think, ‘Nobody saw me when I could really play.’ I guess it’s human nature to think that way. You know, I’ve tried not to think about it. But sometimes you can’t help it.”

The Dodgers signed him in the late 1940s, but the deal was voided because, again, Rickey did not want to pay the Eagles. Instead, the Eagles sold him for $5,000 to the Stoneham’s Giants. It was a dozen years since Stoneham had gotten the letter begging him to look at the next DiMaggio. Irvin was 30 years old and felt much older.

“My body could not respond like it did,” Irvin said. “But my head did.”

He went to his hometown of Jersey City, and he hit .373 with power and speed in 63 games. He played his first big league game on July 8, 1949. He was the first black player in the history of the Giants. He walked against Rex Barney.

He struggled at first, hitting .182 in his last 21 games (and the Giants went 2-19 in those games), so the next year he was sent back to Jersey City. Irvin was hurt and angry about that. He took it out on International League pitchers for three weeks: Irvin hit .510 with 10 homers in 18 games. In his third game back in the big leagues, Irvin hit a grand slam off Dutch Leonard. The next game, he homered off Ewell Blackwell. He was not going back down again.

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Monte Irvin was an outstanding player in 1950. He was even better in 1951, the year the Giants won the pennant in miraculous fashion. Irvin finished third in the MVP voting in ‘51, led the league in RBIs, was third in triples, tenth in home runs, eighth in stolen bases, fifth in batting average, fourth in runs created and so on. He hit .458 in the World Series against the Yankees. He was one of the best baseball players in the world.

And yet, as great as he was, there was a bittersweetness to it all. That same year, the Giants called up a 20-year-old kid named Willie Mays. The two men would become lifelong friends — Mays would call Irvin his second father.

And Irvin loved Willie Mays. For the rest of his life, Irvin would talk about Mays the way a proud father talks about a son. He loved to talk about the time Mays made a running catch so remarkable that Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese walked over to Irvin and said, “He’s going to have to do that one again, because I still don’t believe it.”

But, yes, bittersweet. Irvin watched the young Willie Mays do all those things he had once done. He saw the ways people’s jaws dropped as they saw Mays play. He read the newspaper accounts; even the most cynical sportswriters were awestruck.

It could have been him.

“Back in 1941 and 1942, I played a big centerfield like Willie Mays,” Irvin told me once. “Yep. Ran like Willie Mays. I had an arm like Willie Mays too. Anyway, like I say, that was before anyone saw me.”

In 1952, Irvin was off to another sensational start when he tore up his ankle sliding into third. He came back from the injury and though diminished again, he hit .329. The next year, he was a regular as the Giants went to the World Series and won it.

It was a fine career. It should have been a legendary one. The fact that Monte Irvin was so brilliant in his 30s after enduring war and a decade of playing in the shadows should give everyone a glimpse of how good he had been. But it was only a glimpse.

Irvin went work for Major League Baseball, and he become a humble spokesman for the game. When he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, he began by saying, “I’d rather face Warren Spahn than make a speech.” But then, he made a quietly beautiful one,. “I hope my induction,” he said, “will help to ease the pain of all those players who never got a chance to play in the Majors.”

As for his own pain, he tried to keep that part to himself. Monte Irvin died on Tuesday. He was 96 years old. I saw him often when traveling with our mutual friend Buck O’Neil, and I went to dinner with him a couple of times. Every now and again, he would reveal a bit of the hurt. “I wasted my best years in the Negro Leagues,” he would say, sadly. Well, like Buck said, the world missed out on Monte Irvin.

But more often, I would watch Irvin and O’Neil warmheartedly argue about the old days.

“We used to have the most expensive buses,” Buck would say. “Uh-huh. Ride like a dream. I used to sleep on those buses better than I slept in my own bed.”

“Man, Buck,” Irvin would say, and he would laugh. “You all had some really good buses. I wish we had your buses.”

“Well, Monte,” O’Neil would say back, “I wish I could play like you.”