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Witness to baseball history

Monte Irvin played a large role in the sport's integration. Later, he helped those who made the journey with him.

Published October 30, 2004

SUGARMILL WOODS - The knees that once propelled him around the base paths and to greatness had to be replaced a decade ago. Now, steadied by a cane, he moves slowly through a pristine, contemporary home that offers no hints of the baseball glory he earned so many years before.

If you didn't know better, you could mistake him for just another Florida retiree, a gray-haired 85-year-old in Bermuda shorts and sandals. But as he settles into a back porch seat on a balmy October morning in Citrus County, you can see the resemblance to all the faded photos from the early 1950s, when he helped make history.

This has always been Monte Irvin's time of year.

It is a time when autumn becomes the backdrop for heartbreaks and heroics and the kind of improbable story line just written by the Red Sox, winning their first World Series since 1918 with a four-game sweep of the Cardinals.

Irvin, today a die-hard Devil Rays fan, watched each game with great interest. He could easily relate. Exactly 50 years ago, he was part of the Giants' last world championship team as they swept the Indians, one of 18 times since 1907 the Series has ended four games to none.

"It's amazing how Boston turned it around completely against the Yankees and dominated St. Louis," he said. "I'll tell you, to sweep a team in the World Series is very tough. You have to be good, and you have to be lucky. And the Red Sox were both."

When it came to October, Irvin was just plain good. In 1951, as a versatile newcomer for the New York Giants, he stole home in the first inning of the Series opener against the Bronx Bombers, keying a 5-1 victory. While the Yankees went on to win the Series in six games, Irvin became part of baseball's first all-black outfield, with Hank Thompson and a rookie named Willie Mays, and batted .458.

In fact, he is tied to some of the sport's most storied moments and some of its most painful. During his prime, Irvin was among the hundreds of black players forbidden from competing in the major leagues, segregated instead into the Negro Leagues for precious little pay and scant recognition.

As another season fades from view, it's worth noting this was the year some financial justice was finally afforded dozens of Negro Leaguers.

And it's worth recounting the tale of the man from Orange, N.J., - and how the name Monte, not Jackie, might have been etched into a monumental chapter of baseball history.

* * *

In 1942, a kid from the powerful Newark Eagles was tearing up the Negro Leagues. He was considered second to none - not to Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard or James "Cool Papa" Bell.

He played under the name Jimmy Nelson to protect his amateur eligibility at Lincoln University in Oxford, Pa., where he thought about becoming a teacher. He hit .422 in 1940 and .396 in 1941 and won the Mexican League triple crown in 1942.

The player, a top-notch shortstop/outfielder, was so good that the Negro Leagues club owners endorsed him to crack the major league's all-white world. He even drew the attention of Dodgers executive Branch Rickey.

If not for the war, Monte Irvin would have broken the color line well ahead of Brooklyn second baseman Jackie Robinson, who did so in 1947.

"He was the best all-around player I ever saw," Dodgers great Roy Campanella once said of Irvin.

But Irvin was drafted into the Army and spent 1943-45 as a non-combat engineer, building bridges and roads in Europe. His fellow soldiers had no clue of his baseball prowess.

"The Negro Leagues didn't get much publicity, you know," he said.

He returned in 1945 suffering from an inner ear infection, mentally and physically exhausted. Still, Rickey signed Irvin and wanted him to report right away. But the beleaguered ex-G.I. wanted to play himself back into shape in the Puerto Rican winter league.

Meanwhile, Rickey signed Robinson in 1945, setting baseball destiny in motion.

So Irvin didn't become the first black player to reach the majors. But he got there soon enough and fulfilled a rich big-league destiny of his own. More than a half-century later, four months from his 86th birthday, he is still very much on the move.

Not even a pair of bad knees have changed that.

* * *

Today, Irvin is part of the last stand of surviving Negro Leaguers. The original group of 300 from 1920-50 has dwindled to 25, with the ranks at about 130 counting players after 1950.

For the record, Irvin is the oldest living Negro Leagues player in the Hall of Fame, selected in 1973 by the Special Committee on Negro Baseball Leagues.

He knows of only three black players still living who are his elders: Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe, 102, Andrew Porter, 93, and Buck O'Neil (a force behind the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, Mo.), 92.

Lately, much to Irvin's delight, the Negro Leagues have been in the news, including a revamped pension program created in May for players left out of a compensation plan seven years ago. In 1997, $10,000 was granted to players who spent at least four years in the majors or Negro Leagues before 1947, the year Major League Baseball integrated with Robinson.

In reality, many teams remained closed to black players well into the 1950s.

Though Irvin earned his pension from the majors, he is thrilled with a new plan for his Negro Leagues peers, resulting from the efforts of Tampa's Bob "Peach Head" Mitchell, 71, a former pitcher for the Kansas City Monarchs. Benefits will be extended to 36 players with four years of service between 1948-57 who never made it to the majors. They will get $375 a month for life or $833.33 a month for the next four years.

Irvin applauds the work of Mitchell, who, in conjunction with Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Major League Baseball, instituted the change.

"Bob Mitchell deserves a lot of praise for what he's done," Irvin said. "It's money that will help a lot of guys."

In addition, Irvin is tickled that in a recent Washington Post poll about the name of the new Washington baseball franchise, many voted for the Grays, in honor of the Negro Leagues championship team from the District, the Homestead Grays.

Their performance far exceeded the perennial Washington losers, the Senators (though that topped the Grays in the poll). Asked if the Grays won eight titles, Irvin jumps in without missing a beat, "Nine titles!"

The Negro Leagues remain as big a part of his life as the majors. Irvin recently returned from an engagement at the Negro Leagues Museum and spoke at a benefit in Atlantic City, N.J., for fabled black shortstop John Henry Lloyd. And in August, he flew to San Francisco to be honored with the Giants' 1954 World Series team.

Irvin travels to memorabilia shows four or five times a year and stays busy with charity work. He likes to speak to area youngsters about overcoming challenges and recently presented a scholarship check for $2,500 in his name - sponsored by the Devil Rays and NAACP - to a top bay area black college student.

But his favorite pursuit has been helping the nearby Key Training Center, which provides assistance for the developmentally disabled. In 2002, he was honored with a special dinner attended by such baseball luminaries as Joe Morgan, Gene Hermanski, Robin Roberts and Don Zimmer.

"There are certain players in the game who you just liked to watch, and that's how it was with Monte. I just liked his style of hitting," said Zimmer, the Devil Rays senior baseball adviser who played against Irvin while with the Dodgers in the 1950s. "He was a hell of a player. And that night in his honor, nobody deserved anything like that more than Monte Irvin."

When Irvin isn't on the go, he and wife Dee enjoy life in their home in an attractive subdivision off U.S. 19, where they moved in 1984 after Irvin retired from 16 years as a special assistant to the commissioner.

"I think I'm busier in retirement," he said, laughing, "than I was when I was working."

If age has affected his mobility, it hasn't slowed his mind. In his gentle, dignified voice, Irvin still can rattle off dates, names, stats and details from a career with more than a few landmark moments.

The essential story is this:

Irvin regained his strength after the war, earning MVP honors in Puerto Rico then leading the Eagles with a .389 average in 1946 and hitting .462 in the Negro Leagues World Series triumph over Kansas City.

"I called the Dodgers and told them I was ready," he said.

Rickey, however, did not want to pay Newark owner Effa Manley for his rights.

"He told her, "Your contracts are not valid,' " Irvin recalled. "She told him, "Well, you took Don Newcombe from me and didn't give me anything, and I'm not going to let you take Monte and not get something.' "

Manley threatened to sue, and Rickey withdrew his claim.

Irvin remained on Newark's star-laden team with the likes of Larry Doby and Leon Day and helped players coming up.

"Monte is a wonderful guy. I never met anybody like him," said Willie "Curley" Williams, 76, a former Newark teammate of Irvin's now residing in Sarasota. "He taught young players everything. In fact, he helped teach me how to really play baseball."

Watching Robinson forge his legacy wasn't always easy for Irvin and fellow Newark stars.

"When Jackie was selected, some of us who were hoping for a chance weren't jealous of him, but we were a little envious," Irvin said. Doby was brought up by Cleveland later in 1947, becoming the first black player in the American League. And in 1949, Giants owner Horace Stoneham paid Newark $5,000 for Irvin, then 30, with some of his best years behind him.

Irvin and former Monarchs star Hank Thompson were first assigned to the Jersey City farm team and brought up in July 1949. Manager Leo Durocher set the tone.

"When we reported the first day, they introduced us to the team and Leo said, "Let me tell you guys. I don't care what color you are. If you can help us win, that's all that matters. That's all I'm going to say about race.' That cleared the air, and we had no problems."

But some fans weren't as enlightened.

"Some of the places the Giants went, they'd never seen any blacks play with major-leaguers," Irvin said. "So we got some of the verbal abuse and name-calling."

In 1951, Irvin blossomed as one of the club's major names, batting .312 with 24 home and 121 RBIs, the first black player to lead the league in RBIs. He also helped mentor a young Mays and became a driving force behind the Giants' amazing comeback.

"We won our first game of the season then lost the next 11," he said. "After we lost a doubleheader to the Dodgers, Durocher says to us, "Listen, you guys are too great to be where you are. So let's go out and start a brand new season.' We won 16 in a row."

Irvin hit over .400 after the All-Star break, but the Giants were 131/2 games out of first in mid August.

"But we kept winning, and (the Dodgers) kept losing," he says. "So then we went up to Boston for the final two games of the season and won both. And sure enough, the Dodgers beat the Phillies in the last game, and we wound up in a flat-footed tie."

The stage was set for a three-game playoff. In the opener, Irvin homered in a 3-1 triumph in Brooklyn. The next day, the Dodgers bounced back 10-0 at the Polo Grounds.

Then came Game 3. Brooklyn led 4-1 going into the bottom of the ninth, but the Giants led off with hits by Alvin Dark and Don Mueller. Irvin stepped to the plate, but this time, there would be no homer. He fouled out.

"I set the stage for Bob Thomson by not hitting into a double play," Irvin quipped.

When Whitey Lockman doubled to make it 4-2, Newcombe, the Dodger starter, was pulled.

Fate soon turned cruel for the young reliever, Ralph Branca. On his second pitch, Thomson hit "The Shot Heard 'Round the World," a home run to left that produced a 5-4 win and the famous radiocast shout by Russ Hodges: "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant ... "

"I'll always have a warm feeling over that," Irvin said. "It was baseball's most memorable moment, and it was great to be part of that."

In 1952, Irvin's career was nearly shattered when he suffered a compound fracture of his ankle, pulling up on a slide into third on an exhibition game single by Mays. He rejoined the Giants late in the season, hitting .310, but he never regained his speed. In 1953, while hitting .329, Irvin reinjured the ankle. There was, however, one more bit of history awaiting: the 1954 World Series win.

Irvin, whose average had dropped to .262, was in leftfield when Mays made a play regarded as one of the best baseball has seen: an over-the-shoulder catch of a Vic Wertz drive to deep center followed by an amazing pivot and throw, preventing Doby from scoring from second. "I ran over to get what I thought was going to be a carom off the wall," Irvin said. "I didn't want it to be an inside-the-park homer. But then Willie made this great catch. And the throw was just as unbelievable."

Irvin was the first to speak to Mays.

"After we got the next batter out, on the way in, I said, "Nice going. I didn't think you were going to get there.' And Willie said, "Are you kidding? I had it all the way.' "

* * *

In 1956, Irvin was traded to the Cubs, and his contract was later dealt to a farm club of the Dodgers, with whom he might have made history.

He retired at 39, having hit .293 with 97 doubles, 99 home runs and 443 RBIs in eight seasons, batting .394 in two World Series. He scouted for the Mets from 1967-68 then went to work for the commissioner's office under Bowie Kuhn, helping black stars gain recognition in Cooperstown.

It was a long road from Alabama, where Irvin's parents, C.A. and Mary Eliza Irvin, were farmers. They moved with their 10 children to New Jersey when Monte, the seventh born, was 8, in hopes of finding a better life. Irvin was all-state in football, basketball, baseball and track at Orange High, setting a javelin record that stood for about 30 years.

Today, only two of his siblings survive, brothers Cal, 79, and Milt, 82. Irvin and his wife have two daughters and two granddaughters, one of whom just graduated from Rutgers and the other set to graduate in May from Loyola in New Orleans.

Irvin wonders what kind of numbers he might have posted had he been able to play in the majors during his prime. Still, he says he has no regrets.

"My philosophy always was, "Eventually right will win out over wrong,' " he said. "I've seen a lot, a lot of changes and a lot of bad things happen.

"But I believe that you treat people the way you want to be treated. It's that simple. If the world would live by that rule, it would be a different place."

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