Monte Irvin tribute
By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer
While growing up in New Jersey in the 1930s, Monte Irvin occasionally hopped on a train with his brother and headed to nearby Philadelphia.
Shibe Park was their destination.
The 33,000-seat stadium, with a centerfield wall 468 feet from the plate, was home to Major League Baseball's Philadelphia Athletics, one of Irvin's favorite clubs.
Legendary skipper Connie Mack managed the team. Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx, dubbed by many "The Beast," was its star.
The players were white back then. Every last one of them. But to Irvin, an African-American, race didn't matter.
"My brother and I weren't that concerned with civil rights at that time," Irvin said. "We just wanted to see a guy play well and please the fans."
Little did Irvin know that years later he would become one of the first black players to leave the Negro Leagues for the Major Leagues. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, and players such as Larry Doby, Satchel Page and Irvin soon followed.
Irvin's play in the Negro Leagues and later with the New York Giants was so well-regarded he entered Baseball's Hall of Fame in 1973, joining, among others, Mack and Foxx.
"That was the highlight of my career," Irvin said.
And something he thought never was possible. In fact, until integration in baseball finally became a reality, Irvin was sure it would not.
"We used to talk to the players, and they said, 'We don't care if you play as long as the owners agree,' " said the 83-year-old Irvin, who lives in Sugarmill Woods.
"Some of them didn't think we would have the talent to make it, but most of them said, 'You guys really belong and I hope it happens one day.'
"But I didn't think it would happen," Irvin said. "It was that bad. But thanks to Bob Feller and other free-thinking individuals, it happened."
Irvin's trip to the Hall is a remarkable tale.
Born in Alabama in 1919, his family later settled in Orange, N.J.
In high school, Irvin attended an integrated school. He lettered in four sports and earned all-state honors in football. He declined a football scholarship offer from Michigan to attend Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.
In 1938, Irvin began playing for the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues at age 17 under the alias Jimmy Nelson, something many athletes did during the era.
Irvin desperately needed money, which is why he played for the Eagles, but at the same time needed to protect his amateur status, hence the assumed name.
"My family was struggling," Irvin said.
"A lot of guys were doing the same thing, making a few bucks to help out their families. You have to remember, this was during the depression."
While in college, Irvin played only road games for the Eagles. He left school after a year and a half to join the squad full-time, and his impact was immediate.
In 1940, he batted .422.
In 1941, he earned a trip to the Negro Leagues All-Star game.
During this time, Irvin established himself as one of the game's great defensive players, too, shining at shortstop, third base and in the outfield.
"I had the best arm in the league," Irvin said matter of factly. "I could judge my own talent. I could see there wasn't anybody who could beat me."
After a stint playing in Mexico, Irvin was drafted and spent three years in the Army during World War II. He returned and was the Puerto Rican League Most Valuable Player in 1945 and '46.
Irvin rejoined the Eagles in 1946, leading them to the pennant. Robinson debuted with the Dodgers the following year.
"After the war, people realized what freedom was," Irvin said. "And the politicians said, 'If these guys can fight for us, what can't they play?' If (Dodgers boss) Branch Rickey hadn't (signed Robinson), it would have happened in a year or two anyway."
After baseball integrated, black players were subjected to taunts and threats from fans.
Some players objected to their presence.
"There were a few players that were vocal about it, but they were just a pebble on the beach," Irvin said.
"Most guys didn't care. Once we played, they realized we had the talent to help them win and make money. They got used to it.
"I went to integrated schools. I could get along with anybody, and still can. I had no problem with race."
Irvin always wished his call-up to the majors had come earlier.
"That should have happened to me 10 years ago," he once said after signing with the New York Giants. "I'm not even half the ballplayer I was then."
Even so, he was pretty good.
In eight major-league seasons, during which he often battled injuries, Irvin hit .293, blasted 99 homers and drove in 443 runs -- all respectable numbers in the era.
In 1951, his best year in the majors, Irvin batted .312 and led the league with 121 RBIs while helping spark the Giants to the World Series, in which they lost to the New York Yankees. He hit .458 in the series.
Irvin retired from baseball in 1956, and after years of living in New Jersey moved to the county in 1984 with Dee, his wife of 60 years.
The train rides with his brother to Philadelphia are a distant memory. And so, too, are many of the color barriers of past generations.
"I've accomplished quite a bit," Irvin said. "I'm very happy with what I've done."
Keith Niebuhr can be reached at 860-7337 or online at firstname.lastname@example.org .
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111