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Negro Leagues
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Negro Leagues Legacy

Stars of the Negro Leagues

More than a giant
Irvin remembers his days in Negro Leagues
By Justice B. Hill/MLB.com


Before becoming a member of the New York Giants, Monte Irvin helped the Newark Eagles win the Negro World Series in 1946.
Born: Feb. 25, 1919, Halesburg, Ala.
Bats: Right
Throws: Right
Hall of Fame induction: 1973

Irvin on being a four-sport star: 56k | 300k
Irvin on Negro Leaguers playing against the Major Leaguers: 56k | 300k
Irvin on possibly being the first African-American to play in the big leagues:
56k | 300k
Irvin on when he started to feel comfortable in the big leagues: 56k | 300k

Monte Irvin clings tightly to the memories he has of his career in the Negro Leagues just as a younger man might cling to his first sweetheart.

"The pay wasn't much," says the 82-year-old Irvin. "We didn't stay in integrated hotels. We always stayed in second-, third- or fourth-class hotels. But people came out to watch us, and everywhere we played we were the toast of the town."

He recalled games in the Polo Grounds where 35,000 people or more would show up for a Sunday doubleheader and the League All-Star Games that would draw crowds of more than 45,000 people to Comiskey Park in Chicago.

"Even white fans would come see us play," Irvin said.

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They had a lot to see, because in Irvin, a star shortstop for the Newark Eagles, baseball fans of whatever color received a close-up look at one of the finest talents to ever put on a uniform.

He had the full package: strong arm, speed and power. He also had the temperament: People liked Monte Irvin.

The consensus among people who followed the Negro Leagues was that Irvin was a superb talent, a player who could (and would) excel if he got the chance to play in the Major Leagues.

His contemporaries thought as much, too. In 2000, the Negro League Baseball Museum did an unscientific survey of roughly 200 living ballplayers. The players were given a list of key players in the Negro Leagues, and they were asked to pick the "best of the best."

"Irvin was picked at outfield," said Raymond Doswell, the curator at the museum. "Again, unscientific, but they considered him a great player."

It was a tribute to his talent, because Irvin made his mark in the Negro Leagues as a shortstop.

"The bar for (infielders) in the Negro Leagues was Willie Wells and Ray Dandridge," Doswell said. "I don't think anybody -- statistically or otherwise -- would try to put Irvin in that category. At least that's what people were saying -- these guys are far above everybody else."

Still, no one can dispute Irvin's gifts, particularly when people take his bat into consideration. Irvin was a power hitter who hit a league-high .395 in 1941 before joining the war effort. But he said his experiences and the racial segregation in World War II changed him as a man, and he felt he left some of his baseball greatness on the battlefield.

"When I came out," Irvin said, "I had to start almost all over again."

His restart went well. He returned to Newark, where he teamed with Larry Doby and led the ballclub to the Negro League title in 1946. Irvin batted a league-high .404 that season, and he was selected league MVP.

"He was just a terrific talent," said Robert Ruck, a Negro League historian and a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh. "The only thing that kept him from jumping into the Major Leagues before Jackie Robinson was he went away to the service."

Ruck said Irvin had the psychological makeup to have thrived under the same daunting circumstances that Robinson and Doby faced. Irvin wasn't an historical first as these two men were, but he would get his chance at a career in the big leagues when the New York Giants bought his contract from Eagles owner Effa Manley in 1948 for $5,000.

Irvin had no regrets about his delayed arrival, for he didn't see playing in the Negro Leagues as so horrible that he could not bear it. He said he loved the travel, the camaraderie and the friendships he forged in black baseball.

Similar friendships were not so easily built once he walked into a Major League clubhouse. White-only restaurants, hotels and nightclubs in big cities were closed to Irvin just as they were closed to Doby and Robinson.

Still, Irvin never expected his arrival and the trickle of other blacks into the Majors to bring down these racial barriers. He looked at those barriers as just more challenges, no different than any other challenge in a black man's life in those days.

Irvin didn't walk into the Majors in 1949 with blinders on, but he didn't walk into the league in awe either, for he never thought that black baseball was a lesser brand. The Negro Leagues had talent equal to the talent found on Major League rosters.

A player couldn't step onto the field, he said, and look across the diamond at a Luis Tiant Sr., a Josh Gibson, a Sam Jethroe, a Leon Day, a Willie Foster, a Pee Wee Butts, a Terris McDuffie, a Newt Allen, an Oscar Charleston or a Sam Bankhead and not know that he was competing again star-quality athletes.

During his career, Irvin saw stars who shone as brightly as anybody in a Major League uniform. And black baseball, he said, also had its dynasty (the Homestead Grays), just as the Majors had its dynasty (the New York Yankees).

Early in his career, Irvin saw the strength of that dynasty first-hand. The Grays were not a ballclub to trifle with.

He remembered a game in Columbus, Ohio, in 1941. In the top of the ninth inning, he came to the plate against McDuffie with the ballgame tied at one.

"I hit the longest home run I've ever hit -- about 500 and something feet, over the left-field bleachers," Irvin said. "I mean, it went a long way. We beat 'em that day -- twice."

That night, the Eagles and the Grays played a third game in Dayton, Ohio. The Grays were sending right-hander Raymond Brown, their ace, against Irvin, Doby and the Eagles.

"Ray just didn't have it that night, and we beat him, too," said Irvin, a sharecropper's son. "We beat 'em three games in one day, and that's something you just didn't do. We had to have a lot of luck; we had to have a lot of skill."

At the time, the two teams were barnstorming together, and they continued to play each other for a month, he said.

"All we did was make 'em mad," Irvin said. "We didn't win another game."

In his career in the league, Irvin won more than his share of games against the Grays and anybody else. He also helped bring black baseball and its players broad recognition: These men could play the game, and Irvin was one of their best.

"Many of times I said it didn't matter," he was quoted as saying in "Invisible Men: Life in Baseball's Negro Leagues." "But it really did. You wanted to be known for what you did best."

And what Monte Irvin, the Hall-of-Famer, did best was play baseball.

Justice B. Hill is a senior writer with MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.