Monte Irvin, RIP: The nice guy finished first, after all

Monte Irvin taking a swing for the Giants, circa 1951 . . .

Monte Irvin taking a swing for the Giants, circa 1951 . . .

If the decision had been up to the Negro Leagues’ club owners and the Brooklyn Dodgers, Monte Irvin would have been the first African-American to re-break baseball’s unconscionable colour line in the 1940s. Irvin—who died Monday night at 96, following a long and distinguished baseball life—was the one who turned the opportunity down.

“Monte was the choice of all Negro National and American League club owners to serve as the number one player to join a white major league team,” said Newark Eagles owner Effa Manley once upon a time. “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.”

And the Dodgers reached out to Irvin as World War II ended. The problem turned out to be the war itself. Irvin, who served in Europe with an engineering unit, feared he wasn’t ready and wouldn’t be until an inner-ear imbalance he developed during the war could be cleared. Thus did the Dodgers set their sights upon Jackie Robinson.

The incompletion of Negro Leagues statistical record keeping makes it impossible to secure for all time, but those who were there knew Irvin was one of the absolute top of the line players of his time. Roy Campanella, for one, swore Irvin was the best all-around player he’d seen in his Negro Leagues time.

“There wasn’t anything Monte couldn’t do and there wasn’t any position he couldn’t play,” Campanella said when Irvin was elected to the Hall of Fame by the old Negro Leagues committee. “He was one of the fastest men for his size I ever saw and what most people don’t know is what a tremendous arm he had. Oh, what an arm. He threw nothing but strikes.”

When Irvin finally got his major league shot with the New York Giants, he was thirty years old. After two abbreviated seasons, Irvin showed the National League what he probably was in his younger, Negro Leagues-prime seasons. He led the league in runs batted in in 1951 while hitting 24 home runs, walking 89 times, proving one of the league’s most difficult strikeouts with a mere 44. He posted a neat .929 OPS which included a delicious .414 on-base percentage.

In short, Monte Irvin in 1951 was almost everything he might have been in his younger, far more prime seasons, and gave him the right to say, as indeed he did say when elected to the Hall of Fame, “My only wish is that major league fans could have seen me when I was at my best . . . in the Negro Leagues. I sincerely believe I could have set some batting records comparable to DiMaggio, Mays, Aaron, Williams — 600 or 700 home runs, that type of thing.”

Why not more than 24 home runs in ’51, then? Easy. Irvin was an all-fields hitter who couldn’t take the same advantage of the Polo Grounds’s notoriously short porches as hitters like Mel Ott had done. Using all fields in the Polo Grounds hurt even power hitters having to try reaching dimensions of 447 in the left center field corner, 440 in the right center field corner, 460 in front of either side of the bleachers, and 483 to straightaway center beneath the elevated clubhouses.

Irvin hit 19 doubles and 11 triples in 1951. He’s also said reliable to hit some long fly outs. It’s not unreasonable to think the Polo Grounds dimensions probably took at least ten and maybe more home runs away from him that would have been gone in other parks. He may not have hit the 600 he thought aloud if he’d been allowed into the majors, but Irvin hit far more homers on the road than at home and it’s not unreasonable to suggest he’d have made a major league career approaching 500 bombs.

His .312 batting average also suggests a fellow who hit for high enough averages (and probably higher in his Negro Leagues prime, considering how much less often games were played at night), but if you accept that his 1951 was a microcosmic example of an average major league season for a prime and healthy man, Irvin would probably have produced an average 200 runs per 162 games.

Trivia pursuers might care to note that Irvin made the lone Giant out in the bottom of the ninth before Bobby Thomson ripped the Shot Heard ‘Round the World. Batting with Alvin Dark and Don Mueller aboard on back-to-back inning-opening singles, Irvin fouled out to first base. “I prefer to tell people,” he liked to say with a wink in later years, “that I set the stage by not hitting into a double play.”

Irvin (left) and Mays; Irvin mentored the young star on big league and big city ways and means, and remained a lifelong friend.

Irvin (left) and Mays; Irvin mentored the young star on big league and big city ways and means, and remained a lifelong friend.

Whitey Lockman followed with an RBI double, Mueller took third and was pinch run for by Clint Hartung, and Thomson lined Ralph Branca’s 0-1 fastball into the left field seats. Irvin had a sterling World Series, leading all players with eleven hits, and shocked Yankee fans by stealing home against Allie Reynolds in Game One. It wasn’t enough to beat the Yankees, who won in six games.

Irvin had another impact on the 1951 Giants beyond helping them win a pennant. “In my time, when I was coming up,” said Willie Mays—the 1951 Rookie of the Year for the Giants—in 2012, “you had to have some kind of guidance. 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.”

He was also part of the majors’ first all-black outfield, when Mueller suffered an injury, the Giants fielding Irvin, Mays, and Hank Thompson. Much as he appreciated what Jackie Robinson ultimately did in 1947, Irvin didn’t like to dwell on “firsts,” actual or alleged.

“The reason we had an all-black outfield in ’51 is Don Mueller got hurt, so Hank Thompson was a legitimate replacement,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle decades later. “So what? People talk about, ‘You’re the first to do this. You’re the first to do that.’ Don’t dwell on race all the time. Everyone says we have our first African American president. Has there ever been a Jewish president? An Italian president? They don’t say a damn thing about that. You think we’re still fighting the Civil War or something. If you want to mention it in passing, OK. But don’t dwell on it.”

In spring training 1952, Irvin slid hard into third and broke his ankle. He was named to his only National League All-Star team despite being able to play on 46 games, had a comeback 1953 with 97 runs batted in, 20 bombs, and a .947 OPS, but he developed leg and back issues in the aftermath of the ankle injury and wouldn’t be the same all-around player again though he could still hit.

He was sold to the Minneapolis Millers for 1955, enjoyed a brief return to the Show with the Cubs in 1956, was sent to the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League for 1957, but after four games he was forced to retire thanks to a spring training back injury he couldn’t overcome.

Irvin did break another colour line in the 1960s, becoming the first black man to serve in the commissioner’s office when forgotten commissioner Spike Eckert named him baseball’s first assistant director for promotion and public relations, a job Irvin held until the end of Bowie Kuhn’s commissionership in 1984. He stayed in the commissioner’s office afterward, handling assorted duties and assignments.

Prior to the Eckert appointment, Irvin had worked for the Rheingold brewers as a community relations director—a job he began while coming up with the Giants—before becoming a Mets scout for 1967-68. The Giants retired his uniform number (20) in 2010; Irvin maintained ties to the team for decades after his playing days.

Irvin (left) and Jackie Robinson (right, rear) give some tips to some Little League players.

Irvin (left) and Jackie Robinson (right, rear) give some tips to some Little League players.

Irvin also chaired the special Hall of Fame Negro Leagues committee from its creation in 1971 until it disbanded on its own in 1977, handing the Veterans Committee the job of considering and electing worthy Negro Leagues alumni from then on. ”I would have liked to play eighteen or nineteen or twenty years in the majors,” Irvin said when he was elected. “I was way past my peak when I got the chance. But there’s not point in reminiscing or being bitter. I’m just grateful to have played [eight] years.”

He got to show enough of himself as a player and more of himself as a man. In 1974, Kuhn ordered the Braves not to even think about trying to hype their gate by holding Hank Aaron out of a season-opening series in Cincinnati, insisting that baseball came first and a team’s obligation was to field the lineup that gave them the best chance to win fair and square.

Kuhn was roasted unfairly for the decision by the Atlanta press, but Aaron managed to hit the one that tied Babe Ruth all-time in the Cincinnati set. Which may have been why Kuhn couldn’t bring himself to be at Fulton County Stadium on the night the Braves returned, fearing trouble if he was there, though Aaron himself was burned by Kuhn’s absence.

But Kuhn’s move made sure Aaron passed the Babe fair and square. In Kuhn’s place, though, when Aaron deposited Al Downing’s 1-0 fastball over the left center field fence, was Monte Irvin. One Negro Leagues alumnus there to applaud and embrace another. Irvin congratulated Aaron personally in the immediate field aftermath. With Irvin’s death, Aaron and Willie Mays are the Hall of Fame’s only remaining living Negro Leagues alumni.

Irvin to the AT&T Park audiences the day his uniform number was retired.

Irvin to the AT&T Park audiences the day his uniform number was retired.

“Once you became friends, he always had your back,” said Mays when learning of Irvin’s passing. “You had a friend for life. Monte Irvin was a great left fielder. Monte Irvin was a great man. I will miss him. There are no words for how I feel today.  I could say so much more about Monte, but this is not so easy to do right now.”

Tell us about it, Willie. Their Giants manager, Leo Durocher, called his autobiography Nice Guys Finish Last. (Durocher actually said—of Mel Ott, incidentally, while Durocher managed the Dodgers with Ott managing another hapless Giants crew—”See the nice guy over there in the other dugout? Where did he finish? Last.”) Irvin called his memoir Nice Guys Finish First.

He had every right to do so. He was a genuinely nice guy, and he did get his overall due in Cooperstown and in life. There’s plenty to be said for that.

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