Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Monte Irvin, 1919-2016

Five men who were born or raised in New Jersey have been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame: Newark's Billy Hamilton, Salem's Leon "Goose" Goslin, Carteret's Joe Medwick, Paterson's Larry Doby, and Orange's Monte Irvin.

They're all gone now.

Monford Merrill Irvin was born on February 25, 1919 in Haleburg, Alabama. At the age of 8, he moved with his family to Bloomfield, Essex County -- where my own parents lived when I was born, making it my 1st hometown -- outside Newark. Two years later, they moved to neighboring Orange.

His father drove a milk wagon, and young Monte helped him out, building up his strength by lifting large milk cans, the kind that Harry Houdini made famous by getting locked into and then escaping from them.

He starred in baseball, football, basketball and track, in the latter setting a State high school record for the javelin throw. He earned a football scholarship to the University of Michigan, then as now one of the game's most storied programs, and, at a time when few schools were willing to do so, accepted students and athletes regardless of race. But he turned it down because he didn't have enough money to move to Ann Arbor.

Instead, he accepted a scholarship to historically-black Lincoln University, outside Philadelphia. Like another future member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, Casey Stengel, he studied to be a dentist. But he quit the football program because he coach essentially told him to choose between the game and his medical training. His luck turned when Negro League baseball teams began to scout him.

In 1938, he signed with the Newark Eagles, practically a hometown team, as a 2nd baseman. He led the Negro National League in batting in 1940 and '41, then joined Azules de Veracruz (Veracruz Blues) and won the Mexican League batting title in 1942.

He then missed the entirety of the 1943 and '44 seasons and most of '45, serving in World War II with the U.S. Army's engineers, building bridges. "The black troops were treated better in Europe than they were in the U.S.," he said. "They got a taste of freedom over there." But he also said that many of the returning white soldiers realized that it was stupid to have black men fighting for their country and not be able to play in the major leagues.

Near the end of the 1945 season, he returned to the Eagles, and continued to star for them until 1948, winning another batting title in 1946, and earning the nickname "Mr. Murder." (How many rappers would pay big money to have that as a nickname?) His double play partner was his fellow New Jerseyan, Paterson's Larry Doby.

He was some observers' pick to be the 1st black player in modern baseball. Indeed, Branch Rickey, then president and part-owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, is alleged to have told him that he could be the first. But after 3 years away, he didn't think he could play well enough to uphold what would have to be an incredibly high standard, and Rickey kept searching until he found Jackie Robinson, who'd served in the Army but had never gone overseas and had been discharged in time to play the entire 1945 season with the Kansas City Monarchs.

In 1947, Robinson became the 1st black player in the major leagues since the 1880s. Doby was signed by the Cleveland Indians, and became the 1st black player in the American League. Others followed, such as Roy Campanella and Irvin's Newark teammate (and Jefferson, New Jersey native) Don Newcombe with the Dodgers, and Satchel Paige with the Indians.

Before the 1949 season, despite being 30 years old, Irvin was signed by the Dodgers' arch-rivals, the New York Giants. After half a season with their farm team, the Jersey City Giants, he was called up.

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On July 8, 1949, the Giants fielded their 1st 2 black players -- appropriately enough, at Ebbets Field against the Dodgers, with Robinson, Campanella and Newcombe all playing. Hank Thompson led off and played 2nd base, Irvin's usual position, and went 0-for-3 but played errorless ball. He would later be moved to 3rd base and become an important role player.

In the top of the 8th, wearing Number 7, Irvin came to bat for the 1st time, pinch-hitting for pitcher Clint Hartung. He drew a walk off Rex Barney, who had relieved Newcombe. He was stranded, and was not placed in the field, and the Dodgers won the game, 4-3.  

That 1st season, he was mostly used in right field. In 1950, given the Number 20, he was switched to left field, the position he would play for most of his major league career, and at which he may have had the best arm in New York City baseball history, at least until Dave Winfield came along; it was, at the least, on a par with the best right field arm in New York, belonging to the Dodgers' Carl Furillo, a.k.a. the Reading Rifle.

In 1951, Irvin batted .312, hit 24 home runs, and led the National League with 121 RBIs as the Giants won the Pennant, coming from 13 1/2 games behind the Dodgers on August 11 to win a 3-game Playoff on Bobby Thomson's home run. The Giants would lose the 1951 World Series to the Yankees, despite taking a 2 games to 1 lead. In Game 1, just as Robinson would do 4 years later, Irvin stole home plate. Unlike Robinson, where there's a dispute and catcher Yogi Berra insisted until his death last year that he was out, Irvin was unquestionably safe.

Irvin was named an All-Star for the only time in 1952, despite missing a big chunk of the season with a broken ankle. He became a mentor to the Giants' young star, Willie Mays. "In my time, when I was coming up, you had to have some kind of guidance," Mays later said. "And Monte was like my brother... I couldn't go anywhere without him, especially on the road... It was just a treat to be around him. I didn't understand life in New York until I met Monte. He knew everything about what was going on, and he protected me dearly."

Together, Irvin and Mays, along with such players as Thompson, Whitey Lockman, Alvin Dark, Don Mueller, Dusty Rhodes, Sal Maglie and Johnny Antonelli, the Giants won the World Series in 1954, beating Doby and the Indians in 4 straight, after losing the '51 Series to the Yankees.

Going into the 1955 season, Irvin was 37, and still looked to be a productive hitter, Unfortunately, favoring his injured ankle gave him a back injury, and was limited to just 51 games. Like his contemporaries Hank Greenberg, Ralph Kiner and Al Rosen, the bad back would shorten his career. After the season, the Chicago Cubs chose him in the Rule 5 Draft, and he played for them in 1956, wearing Number 39, alongside fellow ex-Negro Leaguer Ernie Banks.

He played his last major league game on September 30, 1956, exactly the way he came in: He pinch-hit for a pitcher who had gone 0-for-3, drew a walk, got stranded at 1st base, didn't play in the field, and his team lost the game. The main differences are the inning in which it happened (this time, the 9th), and the site (this time, at home). The Cubs lost to the Cincinnati Reds, 4-2 at Wrigley Field.

The Cubs let him go, and, thinking he still had some good ball left in him, he went west, to the Pacific Coast League, to the Los Angeles Angels -- ironically, recently purchased from the Cubs by the Dodgers, to pave the way for the Dodgers' move west. But after 4 games, his back injury was too severe, and he hung up his spikes at age 38. Robinson had also just retired, while Doby would last in the majors until 1959.

Irvin had what amounted to just 6 full seasons in the major leagues, and only 6 more in the Negro and Mexican Leagues combined. He missed 3 prime years (when he was 24, 25 and 26 years old) due to The War, and probably would have played at least a couple of years longer than he did if not for his back injury. His career totals include a batting average of .293, an on-base percentage of .383, a slugging percentage of .475, an OPS+ of 125, and 99 home runs. Although Negro League records remain woefully incomplete, what we have shows a sizzling career batting average of .358.

"My only regret," he would later say, "is that I didn't get a shot at 19, when I was a real ballplayer."

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Irvin married a woman named Dorinda, better known as Dee. They had 2 daughters, now named Pamela Fields and Patricia Gordon.

After retiring as a player, he worked for Rheingold beer, which in 1962 became an initial, and longtime, sponsor of the expansion Mets. You might remember their jingle (which Irvin didn't write):

My beer is Rheingold, the dry beer.
Look for Rheingold wherever you buy beer.

Maybe his work for Rheingold got the Mets' attention, because in 1967 they hired him as a scout. In '67 and '68, he was one of the men who helped build the "Miracle" team that won the 1969 World Series.

In 1969, new Commissioner Bowie Kuhn hired him as a public relations specialist for Major League Baseball, making him he 1st black man to work for the MLB office. In this capacity, he filled in for Kuhn (whose claim of a previous commitment in Cleveland was massively lame) when Hank Aaron, who also got his start in the Negro Leagues (and turned out to be the last ex-Negro Leaguer still active), hit his record-breaking 715th career home run on April 8, 1974. Irvin retired in 1984 at the same time as Kuhn, but still accepted the occasional work for the MLB office.

In 1973, the Special Committee on the Negro Leagues elected Irvin to the Baseball Hall of Fame, based on his performance both in the Negro Leagues and in the majors. He has also been elected to the Sports Hall of Fames of Alabama (even though he didn't live there for very long) and New Jersey.

In 2010, even though he never played a major league game in San Francisco, the Giants retired his Number 20. That fall, before Game 1 of the World Series, he and the Giants' other living Hall-of-Famers threw out ceremonial first balls: Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry.
Irvin lived the last few years of his life in a retirement community in Houston. He died there last night, of natural causes, at the age of 96.

This past June, he and Mays were among the Giants old-timers invited to come to the White House as Barack Obama, America's 1st black President, honored the Giants for their World Series win the preceding October. Mays had met Obama before, but Irvin hadn't. It was his last public appearance.

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With Irvin's death...

* There are no more living Baseball Hall-of-Famers from New Jersey. Even if Mike Trout is elected, he's still a young player, so that day is a long way off.

* There are no more living HOFers who were elected on the basis of what they did in the Negro Leagues. Mays and Hank Aaron are still alive, but each was elected solely on his major league achievements.

* Mays is now the last living Hall-of-Famer elected at least partly on the basis of his performance for the New York edition of the Giants.

* Mays, Newcombe and Ralph Branca, who gave up Thomson's homer, are the last living men who played in The Bobby Thomson Game on October 3, 1951.

* Mays and Antonelli are the only living members of the 1954 World Champion New York Giants, and Mays is the only living player from the September 29, 1954 game in which he made The Catch -- much as Don Larsen is now the only living player from his perfect game 2 years later.

* The oldest living player is Mike Sandlock, a former Boston Braves catcher, who turned 100 last October. (Irvin had been the 7th-oldest.)

* The oldest living Hall-of-Famer is Bobby Doerr, the Boston Red Sox 2nd baseman of the 1940s and the last living player who appeared in a major league game in the 1930s, now approaching his 98th birthday. (Irvin had been the 2nd-oldest.)

* The oldest living ex-Cub is Red Adams, a pitcher who appeared in 8 games for them in 1946, now 94.

* The oldest living ex-Giant is Gil Coan, a left fielder, mostly for the Washington Senators, who closed his career with the Giants in 1956, now 93.

* And there are 23 living men who played for the Giants in New York. In alphabetical order, they are: Joey Amalfitano, Johnny Antonelli, Jackie Brandt, Eddie Bressoud, Pete Burnside, Foster Castleman, Gil Coan, Ray Crone, Joe Garagiola, Billy Gardner, Harvey Gentry, Joe Margoneri, Willie Mays, John "Windy" McCall, Mike McCormick, Ron Samford, Red Schoendienst, Daryl Spencer, Wayne Terwilliger, Ozzie Virgil Sr., Bill White (the future Yankee broadcaster and National League President), Al Worthington and Roy Wright.

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