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Of all the Hall of Famers from the Negro Leagues, only Monte Irvin is left to tell the tales

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Posted by Timothy Henderson on January 16, 2004 at 19:46:20:

Posted on Fri, Jan. 16, 2004
Kansas City Star

A legend alone
Of all the Hall of Famers from the Negro Leagues, only Monte Irvin is left to tell the tales

Joe Posnanski

They're all gone. All but one. Josh Gibson died 57 years ago, and Satchel Paige died 22 years ago, and Cool Papa Bell died in 1991. The story goes that Cool Papa Bell was so fast, he played center field and once caught a pop-up behind home plate.

Oscar Charleston is gone. Bullet Joe Rogan is gone. Turkey Stearnes has been gone for 25 years. They say Turkey used to talk to his bats. “Better start hittin',” he would tell his bat sometimes, “or I'm takin' an ax to you.”

They're all gone, every single Negro Leagues Hall of Famer, every single immortal who played in the shadows before Jackie Robinson changed baseball.

All but one.

JIM BARCUS/The Kansas City Star
Former Negro Leagues star Monte Irvin fits right in with the legends depicted in bronze at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Tonight, he will receive the Jackie Robinson Award for lifetime achievement at the museum's Legacy Awards at the Gem Theater.

“Sometimes I would think, ‘Nobody saw me when I could really play,' ” Monte Irvin says. “I guess it is human nature to think that way. You know, I've tried not to think about it. But sometimes you can't help it.”


The greatest living Negro Leaguer walks with a cane these days. The doctors tell Monte Irvin he can either use a cane or have an operation, and he figures at almost 85 years old, he doesn't need any more operations. Anyway, he says, the cane does not bother him. He's done his running.

“Back in 1941 and '42, I played a big center field like Willie Mays,” he says plainly. “Yep, ran like Willie Mays. I had an arm like Willie Mays, too. Anyway, like I say, that was long before anyone saw me. That was before the war.”

He lived an utterly unique baseball life. He was one of the few — in a way he was the only man — who was a true superstar in both the Negro Leagues and in the major leagues. He led the Negro Leagues in home runs, he nearly won a triple crown in Mexico, he won a championship in Cuba, he was a hero in Puerto Rico, he set a Jersey state record in the javelin, and he stole home in a World Series game at Yankee Stadium.

“I guess I've done a few things,” Irvin says.

Monte Irvin was this kind of baseball player: In 1950, after doing everything imaginable in the Negro Leagues, after giving up three years of his life to fight in World War II (and unlike Joe DiMaggio, who served most of his time playing baseball in Hawaii, there was no baseball in France or Belgium where Monte Irvin served), after hitting .373 in the minor leagues in Jersey City, he felt he was set to play in the major leagues. He was 31. He knew his time was running out.

“I'm ready,” he told the team.

The New York Giants management felt differently. “Go back to Jersey City,” they told him. “Get a little more seasoning.”

In 18 games in Jersey, Monte Irvin hit .510 with 10 home runs. The Giants felt he was seasoned enough after that.

The next season, at age 32, with his body broken and tired (“I'm not half the player I was 10 years ago,” he told the baseball writers), with his mind still troubled after the war, Monte Irvin had a season for the ages. He led the National League in RBIs, was second in triples and helped the Giants to the most remarkable comeback in pennant-race history. He then hit .458 against the Yankees in the World Series.

The next year, Irvin ripped up his ankle sliding into third base. Once again, many thought his baseball career was over.

The next year with the Giants, though he was by his own estimation two steps slower, he hit .329.

“My body could not respond like it did,” he said. “But my heart could.”


Tonight, at the Negro Leagues Museum, Monte Irvin picks up the Jackie Robinson Award for lifetime achievement. Thursday was his first time in the museum. He sat in the Coors' Field of Legends in the heart of the museum, and he looked at the statues of Josh Gibson and Martin Dihigo and Ray Dandridge and Willie Wells and the other Baseball Hall of Famers.

“Good lineup,” he said.

And it did not escape his notice that all these statues are of men who died, most of them decades ago. He is the last one standing.

“Why did they think we could not play?” he asks. “That's always been my question when I think back to the Negro Leagues. The ball was the same size. The bats weighed the same. The fields were no smaller. Why did they think we could not play?” Then he tells a story. Well, actually, he tells a few stories. He tells the one about how Branch Rickey called him in 1945, the same year he called Jackie Robinson. He asked Monte Irvin to sign with the Dodgers. Irvin did sign. But he told Rickey that he had just returned from war, and he did not feel right in either body or spirit, and he needed time to get back. Rickey understood. Irvin did not feel ready for four years.

“I think I could have been the first,” he said. “I think I could have handled it. But it wasn't my time. It was Jackie's time.”

Then, he tells a story about Willie Mays making the greatest catch he ever saw. It was in Brooklyn. Mays ran 30 yards, dived to his right, backhanded a line drive and knocked himself out with his own knee. He held on to the ball. Doctors rushed out with smelling salts, but just as they were about to wake him up, Mays smiled real big.

“Just resting,” he told everybody. “That was a long run.” (It was that catch that led Dodgers Hall of Fame shortstop Pee Wee Reese to say to Irvin, “Monte, he's going to have to do that again because I still don't believe it.”)

He tells a story about the rickety old bus his Newark Eagles would bounce around in back in the Negro Leagues days, and one about the time Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith considered being the first major-league owner to sign black players (“He could have been the man,” Irvin says, shaking his head). He talks about how much joy he felt, just last October, watching the Marlins' Josh Beckett go into Yankee Stadium and throw nine shutout innings in a World Series. The game still thrills Irvin.

“It's been my life,” he says. “My whole life.”

But the story the greatest living Negro Leagues player wants to tell most is from more than 65 years ago, long before Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education or Rosa Parks or Jackie Robinson. Irvin was a four-sport star at East Orange High School in New Jersey. Nobody had ever seen anything quite like him. His best game was baseball, of course, and he hit with power, he ran like the wind, he caught everything on his side of the Hudson River.

“We've got a player you would not even believe,” one of his teachers told Horace Stoneham, president of the New York Giants.

This was 1938. Nobody talked seriously about integrating baseball. Stoneham still sent scouts to see Irvin play. Of course, Monte Irvin did not hear from the scouts, and he did not hear from the Giants for another 11 years. But many years later, he asked Stoneham what the scouts said.

“They told me you were the next Joe DiMaggio,” Stoneham said. “They told me you could be one of the best ever.”

Irvin smiled just a little bit. “What did you say?” Irvin asked him. Stoneham dropped his head. Horace Stoneham is gone now, too. He died in 1990.

“I said it was too soon,” Stoneham told Monte Irvin. “I only wish I had been braver than that.”

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