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 Baseballs
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
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 Montes eye caught a display in a
sporting goods store window. A catchers
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 Montes
hard throws. Monte bought the catchers
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. Baseballs 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
At that point the Negro National
League owners held a meeting and tried to decide
who would be the best representativeas
a player and personof 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 wasnt quite
right. He suffered from ringing in the ears
and some dizziness. He also was well out of
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,
Irvin was reluctant, but his
team owner, Effa Manley, eased his concerns.
She wouldnt 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, didnt 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 Manleys
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
Famers 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 markall
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 wont be able to attend the
Hall of Fame Induction ceremonies this summer
which he regrets since a fellow New Jersey nativeand
Houston iconCraig Biggio will be honored.
But he is always looking ahead and says he has
every intention of making it to Cooperstown
in 2016. Heck, hell only be 97 then!