An Introduction to my passion for baseball: Monte Irvin and the lost baseball
I must have been about nine-years old when my dad took me on a very special car ride. It proved to be a ride that introduced me to a new passion; one that made everything else in my young life seems irrelevant. More importantly it was “one on one” time with my father, the important type of bonding that a nine-year old does not appreciate until years later. For those who know me, it should be no surprise what this new passion was. Baseball is not only a game, but also a special place where fathers and sons are brought together!
On the night in question, we went to Rutgers University, and attended a baseball banquet. You see, my dad’s second job was as a bartender at the Plainfield Country Club. One of the members gave him tickets. Honestly, I think that my dad was more excited than I was! And you know what? That was great. My father deserved such a treat. When I became a father, there were times when I got more excited than my kids about something. I can remember dragging Matthew or Samuel to something under the pretense that it was for them, when in actuality, it was for me. Although I think they figured it out. My sons and daughter have always shared my enthusiasm or at least pretended. It never crossed my mind that they might have enjoyed something for my benefit and if they did; it is another reason why I love my children.
So this one night, my dad and I went to a banquet at Rutgers University. They had four speakers: Al Downing (who was a Yankee pitcher at the time), Jeff Torborg (former star at Rutgers and a catcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers), Tom Gorman (a well known NL umpire) and some guy named Monte Irvin. I knew the first three but not a clue about who this Monte guy was?
The first guy to speak was Al Downing, a native of Trenton, New Jersey and a southpaw pitcher for the Yankees. He appeared in three games during the 1964 World Series. He lost in his only start. Actually, Al was a decent pitcher in 1964. It was his rookie season and was 13-8 with an earned run average of 3.47. In fact he 123 games by the time his career was over. Of course, baseball history will remember him most for the historic homerun he allowed to Hank Aaron, number 715, making Aaron the all-time homerun leader.
The next speaker was a guy named Jeff Torborg. He was from Plainfield, New Jersey and played at Rutgers. At the time, he was a backup catcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Jeff had the misfortune to play catcher on the same team as Johnny Roseboro. Torborg was known as decent handler of pitchers during his career and had the honor of catching one of Sandy Koufax’s four no-hitters (a perfect game). Jeff actually caught three of them during his career. He caught the one for Koufax, Bill Singer and also Nolan Ryan. After his career, he went on to be manager for the Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox and New York Mets.
Tom Gorman was the third speaker. My father told me that he was a well-known umpire. His rhubarbs with Leo “the Lip” Durocher were legendary. He was probably the most entertaining speaker on the dais that evening.
The last speaker was a distinguished looking African American gentleman. I could not help but whisper to my father, who is Monte Irvin?
My dad responded, ” I remember him when he played for the New York Giants. The baseball team, not football, but his best years were during his days in the old Negro League.”
This did not make any sense to me. “What do you mean Negro League?”
My father explained to me that there was a time when players of color could not play in the major leagues.
“So you mean to tell me that there was separate leagues?” My father added that they had a league just for blacks even after Jackie Robinson broke the “color barrier” after 1947. Negro League baseball would disband in 1960.
“The greatest untapped reservoir of raw material in the history of our game is the black race.”- Branch Rickey after signing Jackie Robinson
As a nine-year-old kid, I did not understand, I mean, there were black people on the cards I collected, why would anyone want to play in a league that did not even have baseball cards? You must remember that baseball cards were the most valuable item that a nine year old could own!
Anyway we had a great time and the whole thing fascinated me. I was especially proud of my dad when got up in the audience and asked Jeff Torborg a question. He wanted to if Jeff thought Clemente or Koufax should get the MVP award in 1966, especially since there was the “Cy Young Award” for pitchers? Torborg answered that Koufax was the most valuable player for the Dodgers that year but Clemente had a great year
Monte Irvin said that he remembered Clemente when he was playing in Puerto Rico as a Negro League player. (Later I would learn that Clemente’s favorite player was Irvin. Like my favorite player was Clemente)
But the real highlight of the evening was when my name was called for one of the door prizes. I won an autographed ball with signatures of all four men! I had to go up on stage to collect it and shook hands with each of the speakers. When I got home, I proudly displayed it on top of the family’s television! (Which was a place of honor in the Hurte household)
Unfortunately, there was a sad ending for my autographed ball. I can remember it like yesterday. Actually, if you think of it, all childhood memories are like yesterday. I guess because they are too good to forget.
One day, I was out playing with my buddies at the old, abandoned Barney’s Field in Bridgewater, NJ and eventually we lost our ball in the woods. Back then; sports stores were not located on every corner. There were no franchise sports stores. In fact, you were lucky if you town had one. So it required a lot of work to buy a baseball. Most of the time when you lost your ball, the game was over until you could buy another. But that day I felt heroic. Since I was the youngest in the group and wanted to impress the big kids. So I proudly informed them that I had one home. I got on my bicycle and peddled home as fast as I could! I grabbed the ball from on top of the TV and rushed back to the field.
Well things were great for a while, until my prized autographed ball suffered the same fate and ended up lost in the woods. I was so disappointed. Not only did I lose my autographed ball but also the game was over!
When my father found out what had happen to the ball, he real looked real disappointed. You see that ball was more than just an autographed ball. You see that ball was a memory, one between a father and son. All will always have that memory but not with the same magic the ball could have provided…
Years later, a friend of mine at AT&T asked if I knew who Monte Irvin was. I told him this story. He asked if I wanted something autographed by him. It happens that my friend worked with Monte’s daughter. On my bookshelf is a copy of The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Leagues with a forward by Monte Irvin. Of course now it has Monte’s autograph below it!