We lost an important bridge to our collective past last week. Monte Irvin played in the Negro League for the Newark Eagles, in the Major Leagues primarily for the New York Giants and also served in World War II. Irvin, like Dr. King, helped positively transform the society we live in today.
Debuting at the age of 19 in 1938, Monte Irvin became one of the best players in the Negro Leagues. He spent nine seasons with the Newark Eagles, interrupted by a single season with the Veracruz Azules of the Mexican League in 1942 and military service from 1942 through 1945. After his discharge from the military, Irvin returned to Newark and continued playing for the Eagles until his contract was purchased by the New York Giants in 1949.
Monte Irvin made up for lost time when he was signed by the New York Giants in 1949. (www.cnn.com)
Monte Irvin debuted for the Giants in 1949, when he was already 30 years old. Despite this late start, Irvin still enjoyed plenty of success over his eight seasons in the Majors. Irvin hit 99 HR, 443 RBI, .293 BA, .383 OBP, .475 SLG, and .858 OPS. He finished third in the 1951 National League MVP voting and was elected to the 1952 All Star game. The true career stat line for Irvin has been lost to history, but spending just over half of his career in the Majors gives everyone an understanding how special of a player Monte Irvin was.
Continuing to make an impact after he finished his playing career, Irvin worked as a scout for the New York Mets for two seasons, 1967 to 1968. In 1968, Irvin was named an MLB Public Relations Specialist for the Commissioner’s Office for then Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. In his role under the Commissioner, Irvin was the first African-American executive in professional baseball, outside of the Negro Leagues. Irvin’s accomplishments on and off the diamond paved the way for so many other who would follow behind him.
“Monte was the choice of all Negro National and American League club owners to serve as the No. 1 player to join a white major league team,” said Hall of Famer Effa Manley, owner of the Newark Eagles. “We all agreed, in meeting, he was the best qualified by temperament, character, ability, sense of loyalty, morals, age, experiences and physique to represent us as the first black player to enter the white majors since the Walker brothers back in the 1880s. Of course, Branch Rickey lifted Jackie Robinson out of Negro ball and made him the first, and it turned out just fine.”
It was with this belief and understanding of how great a player and person Monte Irvin was that he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Negro League Committee. Irvin was enshrined due to his play in the Negro Leagues. While MLB has not been perfect on recognizing the contributions of Negro League players to the development of the game of baseball, it has attempted to correct past wrongs.
Monte Irvin was a Hall of Fame player, but his impact on baseball and society went far beyond the diamond. (www.baseballhall.org)
Respect is something that is earned over a lifetime. Monte Irvin had the respect of his peers and executives while he was still playing for the Newark Eagles and for the New York Giants. This respect carried over after Irvin retired from playing as he was brought back to baseball as a scout by the Mets and quickly hired by the Commissioner’s Office. The ability to be away from the game for nearly a decade, and then return and quickly have an impact speaks volumes about the respect people in baseball had for Irvin, and Irvin’s own ability and power to deliver.
At the age of 96, Monte Irvin was the oldest living former Negro League player. In the same way we as a nation are losing our direct connection to the past as more and more World War II veterans pass away, so too are we losing our connection to the Negro Leagues. The necessity of the Negro League will always be a sad experience in our nation’s history. While some efforts have been made to correct the wrongs of the era, the unfortunate truth is history cannot be rewritten and we must learn from our mistakes. The ability for us as a society to stop making the same mistakes and to move forward together depends on individuals such as Monte Irvin. His career was hindered simply due to the color of his skin. Irvin put any animosity he harbored, which would have been justified, aside and worked tirelessly to play the game he loved. He continued this after his playing days were over as he was a trailblazer for African-Americans, and other minorities, as he worked as a scout and an executive. Monte Irvin understood his opportunities and knew he would help lay the groundwork for those following behind him. Every day we are losing the men who played in the Negro Leagues, and with them the stories of those games. While it is sad that this chapter in our collective history ever existed, and that much of it has indeed been lost to history, we must remember how these men and women, working under difficult circumstances, tore down a bastion of institutionalized racism in baseball. The game of baseball has long been the forerunner to social change in America. Men like Monte Irvin, Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Hank Thompson, and Sam Jethroe helped move the United States towards recognizing that all men are created equal by displaying their talents on the baseball diamond. The passing of Monte Irvin is a loss for baseball and America. His contributions to both will continue to reverberate for decades to come.
Happy belated Martin Luther King Day. Let us always remember those who have come before us and righted the wrongs of society, and let us continue their work every day.