Touring the Bases With Hall of Famer, Monte Irvin
Monte Irvin has had an extraordinary life and I had the privilege to talk to him about his long career in the game recently. He is 92—he will turn 93 on February 25th—and can look back over a remarkable period in our history, as he recalled, ”It was a time when baseball was really king.” (Monte is our guest on “Outta the Parkway, February 3)
Monte started as an 18-year-old kid, signing with Abe Manley to play with the Newark Eagles. By the time he was 22, he was one of the best players in the Negro Leagues, leading the Negro National League in batting in 1941. He was one of the pioneers in breaking the color barrier of Major League Baseball with the New York Giants. So much history for one man to see.
Q. You mentioned to me that Washington, DC was one of your favorite places to play when you were with the Newark Eagles, could you share some of your memories from those years.
Monte Irvin. Yes, Washington was one of my favorite places to play. Number one you had great fans in Washington. We had some great games against the Homestead Grays. The team had moved there from Pennsylvania because they could draw better there. The Grays had a great team, some of the finest like Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Roy Partlow and their pitching star, Ray Brown. He was a great right-handed pitcher and a star of the Homestead Grays.
We always knew it was going to be a battle when we played the Grays. There weren’t many players better than Josh Gibson. One season he hit more home runs in Griffith Stadium than the rest of the entire American League. So he was a great home run hitter.
We had some tough games with the Grays. Course we didn’t have any great love for one another when we were playing. We fought hard on the field, but after it was over we went out together and had a few beers. Washington had such great places to go after the game, good-looking women. We would stay at the Dunbar Hotel that was a great location, lots of big names stayed there. But there were clubs–I forget their names, it was such a long time ago. I think one of the places was called Facen’s where we used to hang out with Ray Brown. We could go to the Howard Theatre, which was known for hosting all of the big bands of the time. There were places like that to see some of the best entertainers of the day, Billie Holliday might be singing or Ella Fitzgerald, or someone like that.
Q. You were signed by Abe Manley when you were only 18, but by the time you were 22 you were an established star in the Negro League, one of the best players in the league. What are some of your memories of getting started as a professional ball player at such a young age?
Monte Irvin. Well, when I signed I was in school, at Lincoln University and I had to play under an assumed name, Jimmy Nelson, so I could continue to play at Lincoln. I made $150 dollars a month back then. It was a lot of money because that was the Depression. Doesn’t sound like much now but it went a long way. But yes I had some good seasons with the Eagles. We had some fine teams back then. We had Leon Day on the mound. There weren’t many better than him and we had Willie Wells at shortstop.
Q. You were an All-Star in the Negro Leagues in 1941 and after the war as well. Many people fail to appreciate how big an event the East-West Game—the Negro League All Star Game in Chicago—was. Could you share some of your memories of it.
Monte Irvin. Yes, the East-West Game at Comiskey Stadium drew better than the Major League All-Star Game some years. I know one year we had 52,000 fans for the game and it was a bigger crowd than what they had that same year for the Major League game. It was quite a spectacle, folks got dressed up and there were celebrities there, people like Joe Lewis, Lena Horne, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and Count Basie. It was a huge event. Back then baseball was king, there wasn’t anything else like it. People don’t appreciate that any more.
Q. Bob Luke in his book on Effa Manley, makes the point that Negro League Baseball played an important role in the black community during its day. He suggested that other than the black church, there may not have been a more important institution in the community at the time. Do you agree with that assessment?
Monte Irvin. Oh, absolutely. The fans could look out at the games and see good-looking athletes, men of great ability playing the Great American Pastime. Sure it was important. The fans went to the ball games on the weekends, on a Saturday and a Sunday afternoon, and they could get away from all the racism and segregation that they put up with for the other five days of the week. They could forget all of that and just watch a ball game and forget those other things. Watching those ball players perform gave them hope, gave them hope that someday things would change. They would go to those ball games and come away with a good feeling. Not just in DC, but in all the places we used to play, Indianapolis, Chicago, Atlanta. We used to train in Savannah, Georgia. You ever hear of a place called Ogeechee Road? We used to train out there. But Negro League baseball had a great impact. It gave people hope.
And it was good for black businesses. It gave people money to spend in the neighborhood too.
Q. You played in the All-Star Game for the National League in 1952 as well, did you not?
Monte Irvin. No, no, I never played in that game. I played in the Negro League All-Star Games in 1941, 1946, 1947 and 1948, but in 1952, I broke my ankle in April. I was named to the team because of the season I had in 1951, but I did not even dress for the 1952 game, I just sat in the dugout in street clothes. It was a great honor, but nothing like playing in the games all those other years.
Q. You played in Mexico in 1942 and were the MVP of the Mexican League that year. What was life like in Mexico and what are some of your memories from that year?
Monte Irvin. I went down to Mexico for the money initially. I was paid $700 a month down there and I had a maid for my apartment. I had been making $150 a month playing for the Newark Eagles. I wanted to get married and start a family and so I needed more money. Abe and Effa Manley could not do that, so I left to play in Mexico. Lots of black ball players did.
What was more important than the money was the way you were treated. It was the first time in my life that I ever felt free. There was no discrimination in Mexico. You could walk down the street like anyone else. There were some Texans that would come down there sometimes and try to treat you like back home, but the Mexicans would have none of it. It was a special place for me.
Q. You played a good bit in Puerto Rico during the winters as well, did you not. Roberto Clemente saw you play and you became his idol when he was growing up, is that correct?
Monte Irvin. Clemente saw me when I could still throw. When I was playing in Puerto Rico, I was young and still in my prime. He told me he wanted to play like me. He was known for that great arm. I told him that if he wanted to throw like me, all he had to do was practice.
When I was playing my best ball, I lost some time to the war. I went in in March of 1943. I was stationed initially at Fort Eustis, which was close to Washington, DC. We could get a pass and go into town and watch a game. I remember going into Griffith Stadium while I was stationed there and seeing the Kansas City Monarchs play the Homestead Grays. I think we went in three times and every time we went to see a game.
Q. You were there when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record in Atlanta. Was that a special moment for you?
Monte Irvin. No, not really. I mean it was great to see him break the record and I was glad to be there for that. But I was representing the Commissioner’s Office at the time. I worked for Bowie Kuhn and he asked me to go to the game for him and I had to go. But Bowie Kuhn should have been there for that game. I don’t care what kind of speaking engagement he had, he should have been there for the event and I could not really appreciate it knowing that I was there instead of the Commissioner.
Q. Monte, I want to thank you for talking to me, it has been quite an honor for me and I appreciate the kind words about life here in Washington, DC back during the hey day of the Negro Leagues.
Monte Irvin. Well, I know you’ve got a good team there for the coming season. I hope you get back some of those guys who missed last season. If some of those players perform up to their capabilities, I think you will have a pretty good team there this year. I think your team will really be a surprise to a lot of people.
I want to thank Bob Luke, author of Effa Manley, the Most Famous Woman in Baseball, for providing the contact with Monte Irvin and Don Conway who assisted as well. But most of all, my thanks to Monte Irvin, who is one of the most extraordinary men with whom I have had the pleasure to discuss the game.