Irvin, Monte 1919–
Monte Irvin 1919–
Monte Merrill Irvin was considered by the owners of the old Negro Leagues to be the ideal candidate to integrate Major League Baseball. As early as 1942 his name was being mentioned as the player to break the color barrier in the big leagues. He could hit for power and average, was fast with an excellent glove, and perhaps more importantly, was level-headed and mature. But instead of taking the field in Brooklyn instead of Jackie Robinson, Irvin was shipped overseas to serve in the Army during World War II. Though Irvin eventually made it to the major leagues and performed well, he was 30 years old when he signed with the New York Giants, and he was not the player he had been before serving in the military.
Born Hubert Merrill on February 25, 1919 in Haleburg, AL, Irvin was the eighth child of Cupid Alexander and Mary Eliza Henderson Irvin. His father was a sharecropper, and his family picked cotton and lived on a farm that kept hogs and cows. When food ran low his father would hunt for wild game. Monte Irvin’s given name was Hubert, but everyone called him Pete except for his sister Eulalia, who died of a burst appendix at 17. She called him Monford. When he was eight years old, he officially changed his name to Monford Merrill Irvin. Irvin adjusted his name again when he was a professional baseball player, changing Monty to Monte because it was easier to sign.
Irwin’s first exposure to the game of baseball came on Saturday afternoons when men came from neighboring towns to play with homemade bats and balls and then picnic after the game. In the spring of 1927 his father felt the overseer of the land he worked was cheating him. Since Cupid Irvin had no legal recourse, he was forced to take the injustice or leave. Irvin’s father decided to leave his family behind, move north, and look for work there. Soon his family joined him because men working for the landowner tried to intimidate Irvin’s mother into telling them where her husband was. The family eventually migrated to Bloomfield, NJ when Irvin was eight.
Irvin’s father soon found work at a dairy in Orange, New Jersey, so the family moved there. Irvin’s life revolved around family, the church, and sports—especially baseball. He made the local team, the Orange Triangles, at the age of 13 in 1932. When it came time to go to high school, Irvin competed in football, basketball, baseball, and track earning 10 varsity letters. Irvin set a state record throwing the javelin. His track coach even asked him to think about trying to qualify for the Olympics. Irvin played baseball in the spring and continued throughout the summer with the Triangles and another team in nearby Paterson, New Jersey, the Paterson Smart Set.
Irvin contracted hemolytic streptococcus during basketball season. Since medications to combat the infection had not been invented, he was forced to undergo an operation. Doctors cut a hole in his chest and one under his arm to let the infection drain. At one point doctors asked his mother if they could amputate his left arm, but
At a Glance…
Born Monford Merrill Irvin on February 25,1919 in Haleburg, AL; parents: Cupid Alexander (a farmer) and Mary Eliza Henderson Irvin; married to Dee lrvin; children; Pamela Irvin Fields, Patti Irvin Gordon. Education :Attended Lincoln University.
Career: Baseball player. Played for the Negro League, Newark Eagles, 1937-48; sergeant in the Army’s 1313 GS Engineers during World War II, 1943-45; signed with the New York Giants international League Club in Jersey City, 1949; assigned to the New York Giants, 1950; traded to the Chicago Cubs, 1956; scout for the New York Mets, 1967-68; spent 16 years working in Major League Baseball’s commissioner’s office, 1968-84.
Awards: Named to the Negro League’s East All-Star team, 1941, 1946-48; Mexican League MVP, 1942; Puerto Rican League’s MVP, 1945-46; First Negro League Player to lead Major League Baseball in RBI with 121, 1951; elected to Baseball Hall of Fame, 1973.
Address: Home —11 Douglas Ct. S, Homosassa, FL 34446.
his mother would not allow it. Irvin stayed in the hospital for six weeks, at times, near death. He was hospitalized from the beginning of February to the middle of March and lost 30 pounds.
When he got out, however, he was able to graduate with his class in 1938. He joined the local Negro league team, called the Newark Eagles. Since Irvin wanted to attend college and play sports, he needed to protect his amateur status. He played only in Newark away games and took the field as “Jimmy Nelson.” For college, Irvin wanted to attend the University of Michigan, but he attended Lincoln University in Oxford, Pennsylvania, on a scholarship. But Irvin stayed in college only for a year and a half. During his spring break of his sophomore year, Irvin left school and signed with the Newark Eagles. He traveled with the Eagles to spring training and never made it back to school. He played regularly during his rookie year but broke out his second year after changing his batting stance to emulate Joe DiMaggio’s. Irvin estimated that he hit around .400 and hit 40 home runs. He was selected to the East-West All-Star game in Chicago, which in the mid-thirties was one of the social and sporting highlights for African Americans all over the country.
Irvin’s life revolved around baseball. He played winter ball in Puerto Rico among the greats of black baseball such as Satchel Paige, Roy Campanella, and Josh Gibson. In 1942, Irvin began the year with Newark, but when he was offered too little money he looked to Vera Cruz of the Mexican League. Irvin was making $150 a month and was offered $500 a month to play in Mexico. Since he was getting married and needed the extra money, Irvin and his new wife, Dee, headed to Mexico City. Irvin played with fellow Eagle Roy Dandridge and had an excellent year, leading the Mexican league in batting average (.398) and home runs. Irvin wanted to return to Mexico for the 1943 season, but his life was about to take a dramatic turn.
Irvin remembered standing on second base in Puerto Rico when it was announced that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. After returning from Mexico, Irvin was drafted and served in an all-black engineering unit. Irvin spent 19 days crossing the Atlantic bound for England on a ship so packed with soldiers that they had to sleep in shifts. Irvin made it to France after D-Day and was stationed in Paris during the Battle of the Bulge. He never saw combat and was discharged after contracting an inner ear imbalance. In September of 1945 he returned home and reported to the Newark Eagles right away. He found out that after three years of no baseball, he was not the same player he had been before he left. Not only was he still sick and worn out, but also he was out of practice. The Brooklyn Dodgers approached him about signing with them, but he told them he was not ready yet. During the winter of 1945, he played in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and then rejoined Newark for the 1946 season.
In 1946 Newark was loaded with talent, including Larry Doby, the first African American to play in the American League. Leon Day pitched a no-hitter on the first day of the season, and the Eagles won their league. Irvin batted .394 to lead the league in hitting. The Eagles played the Kansas City Monarchs in the 1946 Negro League World Series. The Eagles stretched the series to seven games and won when the Monarchs’ Paige did not show up to pitch the deciding game seven. Newark won and Irvin was the key factor in the Eagles’ championship batting .462 during the series. Irvin played two more years in the Negro Leagues until the league folded after the 1948 season. By that time, Irvin’s former teammate was playing for the Cleveland Indians in the American League, and many wondered why Irvin was not playing Major League Baseball. Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers who had signed Jackie Robinson, also signed Irvin, but there was a dispute over money with the Eagles’ owner. Rickey would not pay compensation, so Irvin’s rights went to the New York Giants for $5,000.
Irvin started the 1949 season with Jersey City, the Giants Triple A affiliate, living in his own house with his wife and daughters. Irvin was hitting .373 and tearing up the minor leagues. He was called up to the Giants on July 15, with Cuban League teammate Hank Thompson. Neither man got much of a chance to play that first season, but the climate in the clubhouse between the black and white players was much more easygoing than in Brooklyn where Jackie Robinson was playing for the Dodgers.
In 1950, Irvin reported to his first Major League spring training. He was sent down to the minors but quickly made it up to the Giants on the strength of a .510 batting average with 10 home runs after only 18 games. In 1951 he established himself as one of the most complete players in the game. He led the National League with 121 runs batted in (RBI) to become the first former Negro League player to lead the league in RBI. Besides the impressive RBI total, Irvin finished that season with 24 home runs and a .312 average to place third in the National League MVP voting. As a team the Giants won 16 games in a row and 39 out of 47 to catch the Dodgers. The team came from 13 and a half games out of first place in mid August to tie first-place Brooklyn on the last day of the season. The Giants beat the Dodgers in a three-game series on Bobby Thomson’s famous “shot-heard-round-the-world” home run. Irvin had been up before Thomson in the ninth inning with two men on base, but he fouled out. Irvin told John Shivers of the Shepherd Express Metro that he was the happiest man in the world after Thomson’s hit cleared the wall: “we won the game and were going to the World Series, but it almost meant that no one would remember that I popped out with runners on earlier in the inning. I could have easily been the goat of that series if it wasn’t for Thomson.” In the first inning of the first game of the World Series, Irvin stole home against the New York Yankees. Though Irvin knocked out 11 hits and compiled a .458 average in the series, the Giants lost to the Yankees. Irvin finished the season as the Giants MVP.
Before the 1952 season, Irvin signed for $25,000 to become the first player to sign with the team. In spring training Irvin seemed to pick up where he left off during the 1951 season, but he broke his ankle in a pre-season game in Denver. He missed most of the season but returned in August to hit .310. The following year, Irvin batted .329 with 97 RBI and 21 home runs. In 1954 the Giants won the World Series in four games over the Cleveland Indians, but Irvin was relegated to spot duty as a pinch hitter.
The following year was his final one with the Giants organization. Irvin stayed 45 days with the big team and then was sent down to Minneapolis, the Giants’ Triple A affiliate. Irvin spent the rest of the season in the minor leagues. Irvin led the league in hitting and his team won the pennant, but the Giants were no longer interested. In 1956 Irvin played for the Chicago Cubs. Irvin had a productive season with the Cubs platooning in left field. He finished the year with a .271 batting average and 15 home runs. Despite his solid numbers he was 37 years old, and after just one season with the Cubs, he was released after the 1956 campaign. The next year Irvin caught on with the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. He started off well and then his back started to bother him. After one month of problems, Irvin consulted a doctor who told him that at 37, it was time to give up baseball. Irvin agreed and in May of 1957, after 20 years of professional baseball, called it quits.
Irvin worked for Rheinagold Brewery for ten years after leaving baseball. In 1968, Irvin came back to baseball to work in the commissioner’s office. Irvin was with the office as a special assistant to the commissioner through some of the most important events in the history of the game. He was there when Curt Flood filed suit against Major League Baseball to challenge the owners’ prohibition of free agency. He weathered two labor stoppages, owner Charles Finley of the Oakland As, and the introduction of the designated hitter in the American League.
One of Irwin’s most important responsibilities was the formation of the commissioner’s Negro Leagues’ committee to pick out candidates for inclusion in baseball’s Hall of Fame. Irvin acted as chairman of the committee and was instrumental in selecting nine former Negro League players for the Hall of Fame including Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Buck Leonard. Though Irvin accomplished much in his efforts to recognize great black ballplayers who were being forgotten, he still had some regret over the matter, which he expressed to The Los Angeles Times’ Larry McShane: “If they had let our guys play in the major leagues ten years sooner, they would have seen some great stars. There’s still a lot that deserve the Hall of Fame.”
Irvin himself was selected to enter the Hall in 1973. After selecting nine players to enter the Hall of Fame, the committee disbanded leaving the matter of the Negro League players to the regular Veterans Committee of the Hall. After his stint as a baseball executive Irvin retired with his wife Dee to Florida.
Irving, Monte and James A Riley. Nice Guys Finish First, Carroll & Graf Publishers, Ine, 1996.
Who’s Who Among African Americans, 13th ed. Gale Group, 2000.
The Los Angeles Times, June 14, 1998.
Biography Resource Center, Gale, 2001, http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC.
Shepherd Express Metro, http://www.shepherd-express.com/shepherd/2l/7/this_and_that/talking_sports.html.
—Michael J. Watkins
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Irvin, Monte 1919–