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Tribute is blast of past

By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 10, 2002

HOMOSASSA -- If there is such a thing as heaven on earth, Monte Irvin was there Thursday night.

The longtime Sugarmill Woods resident and Baseball Hall of Famer was surrounded for several hours by family, old friends, new friends and well-wishers, who attended an event at Elks Lodge to honor Irvin for his accomplishments.

The list of guests was impressive. Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, a baseball announcer who does little traveling during the offseason, flew in from California to be master of ceremonies.

Dom "The Little Professor" DiMaggio, 85, attended, even though he had to fly back to South Florida later that night, pack and get up for another flight to New York on Friday morning. Robin Roberts, another member of the Hall, was there. So was Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer, former Devil Rays manager Hal McRae and the daughter of famed Negro Leaguer Buck Leonard.

All for Monte.

"I'm excited because he's excited," Morgan said.

Irvin, a Citrus County resident since 1984, arrived about 4:15 p.m. Dressed in a sharp-looking pinstripe suit, the 83-year-old walked into the lodge with a grin that never left.

Not long after he sat down at a table, Irvin began signing autographs and telling stories. You'd think after 60 years of signing things a man's hand would be cramped, but he didn't seem to mind. Children asked for signatures. Adults spoke of having watched Irvin play.

"He had a ball," said Dee, Irvin's wife of 60 years.

When Irvin moved to the county, golf became his passion. But bad knees put an end to that. Today, he spends much of time playing cards and visiting with friends.

Irvin lives a good life, he says. Not to mention a charitable one.

For years, Irvin has donated items to the Key Training Center, which provides daily living, social skills, job training, residential services and life-sustaining care for the developmentally disabled.

Money raised Thursday from a silent auction, which included numerous Irvin items and those from many other stars, will go to the center.

"I think the world of the guy for what he has done and the way he has lived," DiMaggio said.

A great man, and a great player. Irvin was 6-foot-2, 210 pounds in his prime, huge for that era. He hit with power and for average. He could run, and his arm strength was legendary.

In the years just before World War II, Irvin might have been the game's top talent. He was so well-respected by Negro League owners and players, many hoped he would be chosen to break the color barrier. But as luck would have it, Irvin was drafted into the Army and returned with slightly diminished skills.

When Irvin joined the major leagues in 1949, he was not in his prime but managed to make a name for himself. In the New York Giants' miracle season of 1951, Irvin hit .312 and had 24 homers and a league-leading 121 RBIs. Twice more he batted .300 in a season. Had Irvin entered the majors 10 years earlier, who knows what damage he could have done. In the Negro Leagues, he had a .373 lifetime average.

Irvin was the "best young ballplayer at the time," Negro League legend James "Cool Papa" Bell once said. "He could do everything. It's not that Jackie Robinson wasn't a good ballplayer, but we wanted Monte because we knew what he could do."

Irvin and the many ex-players who attended were young again, recalling old times and friends. The aging process has left some walking with canes and others with crouched backs, but it hasn't erased memories of the ride.

Who says the fountain of youth doesn't exist?

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