November 30, 2022

Monte Made a Mark: The Late, Great Monte Irvin and the Chance Occurrences That Make History

January 22, 2016 by · 1 Comment 

Monte IrvinOn Monday, January 11, Monford “Monte” Irvin, Negro League star, major league baseball pioneer, mentor to Willie Mays, and all-around class act, died at the age of 96.

Monte lived a full life.  He was born in the South during the time of the “Great Migration” of more than a million African-Americans to the North, Midwest, and West.  Monte’s family moved to New Jersey from Alabama, and Monte grew up and became a star schoolboy athlete.

Monte went to college, then became a Negro League ballplayer, starring for the Newark Eagles.  He served in Europe during World War II, came back in weakened physical condition due to his wartime experiences, but recovered to star in the 1946 Negro League World Series won by his Eagles in 7 games, Monte contributing three homers to the winning cause.

Monte integrated the New York Giants (along with Hank Thompson ) in 1949, a little more than 2 years after Jackie Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers.  He was therefore a pioneer black ballplayer- and a damned good one.  His major league career ended in 1956, the same year that Jackie’s ended.  Monte was only four weeks younger than Jackie but survived him by over 43 years.  His major league career was not as brilliant as that of Jackie’s, but it had its highlights- Monte led the National League in RBIs with 121 in 1951 and also dominated in a losing effort in the 1951 World Series, batting .458.  Monte helped a young Willie Mays adapt to the major leagues, and Willie appreciated him for it.  Upon hearing of Monte’s death, Willie said: “I lost someone I cared for and admired very, very much; someone who was like a second father to me … Monte Irvin was a great man.”

After his career ended, Monte worked briefly as a scout for the New York Mets—I am quite sure that he enjoyed watching the Mets reach the World Series in 2015, as he told me last year that he was a Mets fan.  Later, Monte served a lengthy stint as a baseball ambassador and administrator in the Commissioner’s office.

Monte made a mark—and then some.  He was the last surviving Negro Leagues star—in fact, one could make a strong argument that only Monte and Roy Campanella had substantial careers in both the Negro Leagues and the major leagues.  Monte won 2 Negro leagues batting titles, hitting for average (around .400; actual numbers vary by source as recordkeeping was sketchy) and power.  He was known as “Mr. Murder” as he carried a lethal bat and he was a fine baserunner and outfielder to boot.  Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, and several other pioneering black major league baseball stars began their professional careers in the Negro Leagues but did not come close to Monte’s Negro League performance.

It could have been Monte Irvin rather than Jackie Robinson who integrated major league baseball.  In the black press of the early 1940’s, it was reported that Negro League owners believed that when integration arrived, Monte was the man to do it. Unfortunately for Monte, he was in Europe in 1945, and suffering from its effects.  It could have been otherwise.

As Monte related in his autobiography Nice Guys Finish First, before he was shipped out to Europe in 1944, a former Negro Leaguer named Tommy Dukes who had played with Monte in Mexico went to see a colonel who could have kept Monte stateside to play ball for the military.  Unfortunately, the colonel was on a two-day pass, and by the time he returned, Monte had been sent overseas.

Instead, Jackie Robinson received the opportunity that could have been Monte’s.  Jackie, a rare black officer during World War II, was honorably discharged after an unsuccessful court-martial and played for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1945.  This made him available for Branch Rickey to choose him rather than Monte.

So Monte’s passing, although noted in the media- the New York Times had a substantial obituary, but it was deep in section B rather than starting on page 1- was not a major story.  In fact, USA Today only had a few paragraphs inside their sports section as an obituary.  But it could have been so different- it could have been Monte’s number 20 retired throughout Major League Baseball instead of Jackie’s 42.

More importantly, Monte was a wonderful person.  San Francisco Giants CEO Larry Baer eulogized Monte thusly: “Monte was a true gentleman whose exceptional baseball talent was only surpassed by his character and kindness… He was a great ambassador for the game throughout his playing career and beyond.

I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Monte three times—once by phone, once in person, and once (most recently, for his 96th birthday on Feb. 26 2015) on the radio.  When I visited, I listened to music with Monte, met his daughter Patricia, with whom I had a very pleasant conversation and follow-up email exchange, and my wife Maureen and I were regaled with tales of Monte’s career and teammates, manager Leo Durocher, Willie Mays, and others.  When Maureen pointed to Monte’s extensive CD collection and asked what he listened to, Monte asked Patricia to play for us Jazz legend Oscar Peterson’s recording of the song “Josh and Satch.”

220px-Monte_Irvin_1953As the four of us listened to this tribute to two of the Negro Leagues’ greatest lights, Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige, Monte talked about knowing so many jazz legends during his career and afterward.  In the assisted living facility in Houston where Monte had been relocated by Patricia after her mother, Monte’s wife Dee, passed away in 2008, we watched as Monte greeted everyone pleasantly as he labored to push his wheeled “contraption” that allowed him to get around.  Monte was fast losing his eyesight along with his mobility at that point, but he only mentioned it without complaining. In short, Monte epitomized decency, grace and good humor.  He was a joy to be with even while suffering the ravages of his almost 95 years (in August 2014) on earth.

In our conversations, Monte expressed a clear sense of his own worth.  He described his talents in matter-of-fact terms, indicating that he believed that he was every bit the ballplayer that Jackie Robinson was—and by all informed accounts, he may well have been a better baseball player than was Jackie.  But I did not detect even a trace of bitterness from Monte that he did not get to be the groundbreaker of integration because of the way things “broke.”  Rather, I heard a quiet pride at his accomplishments and the way he lived his life.

Monte was a barrier breaker—he will be featured in a travelling exhibit now being assembled by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City that will focus in part on Monte’s status as the chosen one by Negro League owners to integrate baseball.

History and its accidental occurrences created a different narrative, with a different hero in Jackie Robinson.

But there is no doubt—Monte made a mark.

Comments

One Response to “Monte Made a Mark: The Late, Great Monte Irvin and the Chance Occurrences That Make History”
  1. Larry Upton says:

    I’m a former Boston sports broadcaster (1950’s – 1980) now retired..I have an audio interview with Monte (he also was a friend) when he became an assistant to Bowie Kuhn in the baseball commissioners office….if you would like to have it I’d send it along….I have it in audio CD format…I also send it out to public schools (free) so so young people may know the likes of Monte – Willie – Jackie…check out my web site..www.larryupton.com or http://www.iconsofsports.org
    I look forward to hearing from you…
    Larry Upton

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