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.
The Negro Leagues were home to some of the best baseball players in the world during the time they were operational. The further away we get from the last game of the Negro Leagues in the early 1960’s. In the half century since, the number of living Negro League players has dwindled to critically low numbers. Each time a former Negro League player passes away, we all lose a little more history. Some of this history we will never be able to get back. The incomplete records from the Negro Leagues leave a hole in our understanding of the players, both those as great as Josh Gibson or those who only played briefly.
The rich history of the Negro Leagues is chronicled in Kansas City at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and in Cooperstown at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. However, the door through which individual players can be honored in Cooperstown has been shut, hopefully the door can be reopened. The 2006 balloting for the National Baseball Hall of Fame also included The Committee on African-American Baseball. Major League Baseball sought to do extensive research into the history and the people who were involved in the Negro Leagues and/or African-American baseball. The focus on African-American baseball was a long time coming, and resulted in the nomination of 94 individuals for enshrinement into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. After the ballots were cast, 17 of the 94 individuals were elected to Cooperstown; seven Negro League players (Ray Brown, Willard Brown, Andy Cooper, Biz Mackay, Mule Suttles, Cristobal Torriente, and Jud Wilson), five pre-Negro League players (Frank Grant, Pete Hill, Jose Mendez, Louis Santop, and Ben Taylor), four Negro Leagues executives (Effa Manley, Alex Pompez, Cum Posey, and J.L. Wilkinson), and one pre-Negro Leagues executive (Sol White).
The Committee on African-American Baseball was an excellent start for Major League Baseball at giving Negro League, and pre-Negro League, players the recognition they so richly deserve. However, more individuals need to receive the honor they have long been denied. Determining who was and was not a Hall of Fame caliber player or executive for all of baseball during segregation is an enormous task. Players who would have had excellent career in the Negro Leagues, like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, have not been over looked because they were given the opportunity to play in the Major Leagues. Mays and Aaron are among the greatest baseball players of all time, how many players like them were never given the opportunity to play in Major League Baseball because of their skin color?
Plenty of Negro League players have been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Greats, including Monte Irvin (Class of 1973), James “Cool Papa” Bell (Class of 1974), and Josh Gibson (Class of 1972), have been inducted, even before the Committee on African-American Baseball. Their elections have in some small way helped to correct some of the wrongs that necessitated the Negro Leagues. The call made by many, including Ted Williams during his own Hall of Fame induction speech, has led to a sort of reexamining of Major League Baseball’s past actions. This process should be on going. New information continues to emerge, thus the credentials of players continue to change. The Committee on African-American Baseball was an excellent beginning, but the work has not come to an end.
If there was ever a reason to renew the Committee on African-American Baseball it is Buck O’Neil. He held nearly every job in baseball, and through it all he never lost his love for the game. He played for 11 seasons for the Kansas City Monarchs and Memphis Red Sox, both in the Negro American League. His career .283 BA prove his abilities on the field. He managed the Monarchs, coached for the Chicago Cubs, scouted for the Cubs and Kansas City Royals, and led the charge for the establishment of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. O’Neil may not have had the credentials as a player or manager to gain enshrinement to Cooperstown, and no scout has ever been given the honor (which should be seen as a travesty). Buck O’Neil should be inducted as a contributor to baseball. Unfortunately, Buck O’Neil has passed away and was not able to receive the honor of induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Major League Baseball and the National Baseball Hall of Fame need to act, and act soon, so that more people who were involved with the Negro Leagues can be honored. The longer we wait to honor these individuals the more history we are losing. Time is of the essence, it is past time that we honor these individuals.
Larry Doby broke the color barrier in the American League. He played his first game in the Major Leagues on July 5, 1947 for the Cleveland Indians. Doby has unfortunately not received nearly enough attention for his accomplishments. He faced just as much abuse and hatred as Jackie Robinson, and yet he is often not mentioned with Robinson in helping to permanently integrate Major League Baseball.
Doby, unlike Robinson, was a veteran of professional baseball before playing in Major League Baseball. He played 5 seasons with the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League (1942-1947). He missed all of the 1945 season while serving in the Navy during World War II. Like nearly every player from the Negro Leagues, Doby’s statistics are incomplete. The numbers were do have are impressive. In his time with the Eagles, we know he had 351 PA, 329 AB, 100 hits, 62 runs, 12 doubles, 9 triples, 8 home runs, 60 RBI, 8 stolen bases, 19 walks, .304 BA, .342 OBP, .468 SLG, .810 OPS. Excellent numbers, even if they are only a glimpse into the type of player Doby was in his late teens and early twenties.
Less than two years after becoming the principal owner of the Cleveland Indians, Bill Veeck followed through with his proposal from 1942 to integrate baseball. Veeck signed Doby after paying $15,000 to Newark Eagles Business Manager and co-owner Effa Manley. Unlike Branch Rickey, Veeck felt the Negro League should be compensated for their players. The Indians signed Doby on July 3, 1947 and two day later on July 5, 1947 be played in his first Major League game.
Fittingly, the Indians were in Chicago to play the White Sox. Nearly 60 years after Cap Anson all but pushed all African-American players, including Moses Fleetwood Walker, out of baseball, Larry Doby integrated the American League against Anson’s old team. Doby appeared as a pinch hitter in the 7th inning for pitcher Bryan Stephens, striking out against Earl Harrist.
Larry Doby played 13 seasons in Major League Baseball, 10 seasons with the Cleveland Indians, before playing with the Chicago White Sox, and the Detroit Tigers. He was a 7-time all-star (1949-1955). He played in 1,533 games, 6,299 PA, 5,348 AB, 1,515 hits, 960 runs scored, 243 doubles, 52 triples, 253 homeruns, 970 RBI, 47 stolen bases, 871 walks, 1011 strikeouts, .283 BA, .386 OBP, .490 SLG, .876 OPS. Defensively, Doby was primarily and outfielder, but he did play eight games in around the infield. He played 1,448 games in the field, 12,395 innings, 3,797 chances, 3,640 putouts, 93 assists, 64 errors, .983 fielding percentage. Doby’s individual success also helped the Indians to find success. Cleveland reached two World Series, 1948 and 1954. The Indians won the 1948 World Series against the Boston Braves 4 games to 2. Doby played all 6 games, had 22 AB, 7 hits, 1 run, 1 double, 1 home run, 2 RBI, 2 walks, 4 strikeouts, had .318 BA, .375 OBP, .500 SLG, .875 OPS, and 11 total bases. The Indians returned to the World Series in 1954, but were swept by the New York Giants 4 games to 0. Doby did not have the same success as in 1948. He played in all 4 games, had 16 AB, 2 hits, 2 walks, 4 strikeouts, had a .125 BA, .222 OBP, .125 SLG, .347 OPS, and 2 total bases. Doby would play another five years, last playing in the Majors in 1959.
After his playing career ended, Doby bounced around through various baseball jobs before returning to the diamond as a member of the Chunichi Dragons. His return to playing baseball lasted only one season, 1962. He played 72 games, 268 PA, 240 AB, 54 hits, 27 runs, 9 doubles, 1 triple, 10 home runs, 35 RBI, 25 walks, 73 strikeouts, .225 BA, .302 OBP, .396 SLG, .698 OPS. He played alongside former Newark Eagle and Brooklyn/ Los Angeles Dodger great Don Newcombe. Doby and Newcombe were the only non-Japanese players on the roster.
Retiring for good from playing, Doby returned to the United States and began coaching baseball. In 1978, Larry Doby was named the Manager of the White Sox on June 29th after owner Bill Veeck, the same as in Cleveland, fired Doby’s old teammate Bob Lemon; the team was off to a 34-40 start. Larry Doby was the second African-American Manager in Major League history; Frank Robinson was the first, having been named the player-manager of the Indians in 1975. The White Sox went 37-50 under Doby to finished 71-90 and 5th in American League West. The White Sox replaced Doby with player-manager Don Kessinger in 1979.
Larry Doby’s contributions to baseball on the diamond as a player, coach, manager, and man were critical to the successful integration of baseball and the decline of racism and intolerance in baseball and in the United States. His contributions to the game and society far exceed what ant statistics can tell. The Veteran’s Committee elected Doby to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1998. While his career as a player and manager may not place him among the greatest that have ever played the game, Doby’s contributions to the game put him in rarefied air. Jackie Robinson was the first to integrate baseball in 1947, but Doby was not far behind. He faced the same abuse from other players and fans as Robinson did, and like Robinson his ability to not lash out at the abusers was as critical as his play, if not more so, to be successful. Larry Doby and the other players who followed quickly behind Jackie Robinson often do not receive the same admiration, but they are as deserving. If not for their success, the turning of the tide against segregation and racism could have been delayed. Ignorance would have continued to drag baseball and society down for decades to come. Baseball played a critical role in ending the legalized discrimination against African-Americans in the United States. Men such as Larry Doby, Hank Thompson, Monte Irvin, and Roy Campanella helped secure the path that Jackie Robinson blazed.