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Baseball ambassador

Homosassa's Irvin never has lost his love for the game - even at 83.

By KRISTEN LEIGH PORTER
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 4, 2002


HOMOSASSA -- The dark hair routinely covered by a baseball cap has turned white. His broad shoulders are hunched over. At 83, even a Hall of Famer is allowed to show his age.

He finds it harder to track fastballs than in his playing days, but Monte Irvin can see how the game has changed. His friendly eyes crinkle while remembering the past, then take on a look of concern when he discusses the state of the game.

Irvin returned Monday from Cooperstown, N.Y., where he joined 39 other Hall of Famers in signing a letter pleading for the preservation of the sport, threatened by the ninth work stoppage in the past 30 years.

"We could never imagine that there would be a stoppage, that there would be a strike and the season not finish," Irvin lamented. "There's a lot of money at stake, players are making huge salaries, and it would effect the World Series.

"We just hope they'll come to their senses, get a mediator, sit down with a mediator so the whole thing can wind up peacefully," he said. "Let's not hurt this great game of ours."

His words, spoken softly and thoughtfully, carry the weight of a big stick -- much like the one he used to drive in a major-league leading 121 RBIs in 1951.

Irvin wants the game to return to where it was before strikes and steroids stole the headlines. In his day, few players took vitamins, and many did not smoke -- particularly in their younger years.

"We can't imagine taking steroids and other drugs to make you stronger," Irvin said.

"I think all this is going to be outlawed, and I think rules will be enforced. If you're using them, stop, if you're not using them, don't start, that's what we say."

It's hard to think baseball would want to let this man down, let alone the Hall of Famers who helped shape the game.

Irvin has served as an ambassador for baseball from his days as a shortstop, third baseman and outfielder through 17 years as a special assistant to the commissioner. Year after year, he returns to Cooperstown to welcome newcomers.

Irvin wishes he could have played Major League Baseball in 1938, but he spent his best years in the Negro Leagues as a member of the Newark Eagles. He was nearly as recognizeable as Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Baseball author and historian James A. Riley said Irvin was the original choice of Negro League owners to integrate the sport. Riley, director of research at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., said if it wasn't for Irvin's stint in the army, he would have been the first.

"Had it not been for the war, it would have been Monte, who was already an established star, to have been the first one coming up," Riley said. "It was going to be tough, and Monte has the personality that would have helped him do it."

Irvin was among the first two black players for the New York Giants, and although he was past his prime, spent eight seasons in the major leagues.

In 1951, he hit 24 home runs and helped the Giants win the pennant. He was selected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973 by the Special Committee on Negro Leagues.

"As one of the finest African-American players in the years preceding integration of baseball, Monte Irvin fashioned one of the best careers in Negro League history," said Brad Horn, spokesman for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

"Irvin was a player (who) overcame great obstacles to earn enshrinement in the Hall of Fame."

Riley said Irvin would have hit 400 homers in the majors if he had played there in his prime. Blackbaseball.com has compared him with modern-day stars Ken Griffey, Jr. and David Justice, and Riley said Irvin would be making $5- to $10-million a year if he were playing today.

"When I first started, I was only getting $100 a month, and I bet they get that much for meal money today," Irvin said, adding that if the owners couldn't pay it then they wouldn't.

As always, his attention turned toward the fans.

"I just hope they can keep salaries from getting too high so the average person will be able to go to see a series of games during the course of a year," Irvin said.

Unlike many players who charge appearance fees, Irvin donates his time to many causes. Citrus County has benefitted since Irvin moved to Homosassa in 1984 with his wife, Dee.

Bob Mallock, development representative for the Key Training Center Foundation, said Irvin has "donated autographs by the ton." An autograph session is scheduled for Aug. 17 at Beef O'Brady's in Homosassa, with all donations benefitting the Key Center.

"He's the kind of person (who) you can almost call him for anything, anytime, anyplace and he'll say yes," Mallock said.

Friend and neighbor Lois Thomas, 71, said Irvin spent four hours at the Homosassa Wal-Mart in April, signing autographs for donations to build a roof for a Cub Scout hut. The turnout was so great, Thomas said, that extra balls had to be bought for Irvin to sign.

"Young and old still love him," said Thomas, who has enlisted Irvin's help in several charitable projects. "He's just that type of person."

Beverly Hills resident Harold C. Ellison, 66, has been a fan of Irvin's since childhood. The two went to the same high school in Orange, N.J.

As a youngster, Ellison used to watch Irvin's visiting Newark team play the Orange Triangles.

"When he came in to play, I always wanted to be there because he was quite a star," Ellison said. "I used to climb over the fence, and the man at the gate said to us kids, "Where's your money?' We said we didn't have any money.

"So the man said, "Well, I'll turn my head, you climb the fence and I'll let a few of you get in free because you want to see Monte play.' "

Thomas and Mallock are among area admireres organizing a dinner and silent auction in Irvin's honor. The event will be Nov. 7 at West Citrus Elks Club in Homosassa. Fellow Hall of Famer Joe Morgan will be the master of ceremonies.

Those who know Irvin said it's not hard to have affection for a man who has given so much back to the game he loves.

"I was glad I had a chance to play organized baseball, to play in the majors, and I was very happy even though we didn't make that much money," Irvin said. "We just wanted to please the fans, play well and please ourselves."

In this age of baseball, that would be a novel idea.

-- Kristen Leigh Porter can be reached at porter@sptimes.com or 564-3628.

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