Houston Hall-Of-Famer Monte Irvin Celebrates 96th Birthday

by Greg Lucas

In recent years many Houston SABR members have had a chance to talk baseball with a man who can go back to the days of Babe Ruth with first hand experiences. Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, noted as the first black player in New York Giants history and a member of Baseball’s Hall of Fame is that man

Having passed his 96th birthday in late February Monte resides in an assisted living facility under the watchful eye of one of his daughters who has been a Houston resident for years. Monte, a native of New Jersey and later resident of Florida, has only been in Houston for a few years after he decided his advancing age might require some adjustments in lifestyle. He has made the adjustment.

Thanks to his many contacts from his years as both a Negro league star and later key player on both the 1951 and 1954 New York Giants World Series teams his phone is often busy. One frequent caller is Willie Mays. Mays was just breaking in with the Giants when manager Leo Durocher asked Irvin to take him under his wing and show him how major leaguers needed to comport themselves. Both became frequent visitors to jazz clubs in the New York area. That was in part because they loved the music and became first name friends with such greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holliday and countless others, but also because at one time Monte had thoughts of being a musician himself.

He tells the story of the time he begged his mother for $5 so he could put a down payment on a saxophone. She relented, but warned him he would be responsible for all the payments. As it turned out there would be no saxophone because on the way to the music shop Monte’s eye caught a display in a sporting goods store window. A catcher’s mitt was on sale for $5.

In his boyhood Monte pitched as well as played both infield and outfield. He had a very strong arm and his brother often caught him. They needed a real mitt so his brother would not continue to being tortured by Monte’s hard throws. Monte bought the catcher’s mitt and ended his music dreams.

To this day in his apartment, though, Monte listens to jazz recordings from the all time greats, personal friends of his, whose work will be remembered forever.

As for Monte, thanks to his induction into the Hall of Fame his achievements in baseball will be remembered for all time. His major league career was short with his debut not until he was 30 years old in 1949. Baseball’s infamous “color line” kept him out of the Major Leagues until then, but he could have been the first black player in modern major league baseball beating Jackie Robinson by several years.

In the early 1940s the owners of the teams in the Negro National League knew that at some point the major leagues would recruit black players. In 1942 there was even some talk that Bill Veeck wanted to buy the Philadelphia Phillies and he had a plan to stock it with the best black ballplayers he could sign. The sale of the team was never consummated, but it showed at least someone had a thought of integration.

At that point the Negro National League owners held a meeting and tried to decide who would be the best representative—as a player and person—of their race to break the color line. The choice was Monte Irvin. He was educated, well spoken and a great player in his early 20s. However, with World War II heating up any so called social experimentation would have to wait. As for Monte, he would up in service himself.

Monte was discharged very soon after the war ended. He even was able to get in a few games with the Newark Eagles at the end of the season. But he wasn’t quite right. He suffered from ringing in the ears and some dizziness. He also was well out of baseball shape.

Even so, Branch Rickey was interested in signing Monte. He had a contract for him to play at St. Paul in 1946, one of two AAA minor league affiliates of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was looking at a number of players including a black shortstop from Cuba and, of course, Jackie Robinson.

Irvin was reluctant, but his team owner, Effa Manley, eased his concerns. She wouldn’t let Monte sign with the Dodgers unless Rickey paid her $5000 for contract rights. Rickey, who had a deal working with the Kansas City Monarchs for Robinson with no money changing hands, didn’t want to spend the money so Irvin stayed with the Negro league team in Newark and Robinson began his career in organized ball with Montreal the next spring.

As it turned out Manley’s refusal to let Rickey have Irvin at no charge was the only thing keeping Monte from being ready for the Dodger system. He proved in winter ball during 1945-46 that he was OK. His tinnitis and dizziness went away and he certainly was back in baseball shape quickly. He had a great winter, hitting .368 in Puerto Rico, then won his second Negro League batting championship in 1946 with a .404 average. He had won his first in 1941.

In my book, Baseball-Its More Than Just a Game, Monte told me, “It would have been wonderful if I could have been the first one chosen, but we fellow Negro league players were happy that Jackie got the chance. We were not jealous, but were a little envious.”

Monte was a mentor to Roberto Clemente during his winter league days and Willie Mays during the early years of that Hall of Famer’s stint with the Giants. He was a fine player in his own right.

His Negro National League career batting average was .346 and for his eight seasons in the major leagues he registered a .293 mark—all compiled against tougher competition and from the advanced ages of 30 to 38.

Monte, at 96, is handicapped by failing vision and mobility problems. However, his mind is very sharp and he has lots of tales to tell. And he plans on being around for a long time more---as evidenced by the dental implant work he is having done.

In part due to that dental work Monte says he won’t be able to attend the Hall of Fame Induction ceremonies this summer which he regrets since a fellow New Jersey native—and Houston icon—Craig Biggio will be honored. But he is always looking ahead and says he has every intention of making it to Cooperstown in 2016. Heck, he’ll only be 97 then!

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