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Negro Leagues
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Negro Leagues Legacy

A boy and his hero
Clemente, Irvin formed a friendship that lasted for decades
By Tom Singer/

Roberto Clemente often credited Monte Irvin for his success in the outfield.
Forever, and still, special bonds have existed between the larger-than-life figures who play baseball and the kids who look up to them. These are the ties that connect idol and idolizer.

But rarely are friendships forged from the admiration in 11-year-old eyes for a 26-year-old block of muscle and grace from a foreign land. Certainly few like the one that flowered from a young Roberto Clemente's worship of Negro League icon Monte Irvin.

It was pre-Jackie Robinson and post-World War II. Irvin, the flashy infielder/Outfielder for the Newark Eagles, spent his winters playing for San Juan in Puerto Rico, where his biggest fan was a skinny little kid who saved his pennies for an occasional bus ride to Sixto Escobar Stadium.

The lure for Roberto Clemente was Irvin, the MVP of the Puerto Rico Winter League in the two seasons immediately preceding his Major League ascension in 1947. When Clemente couldn't scrape up the 15-cent bleacher admission, Irvin was his ticket through the gates.

"There'd be youngsters hanging around, and we'd let the kids carry our bags to get in the park for free," recalls Irvin. "Roberto and Orlando Cepeda, they were always there together.

"Clemente always told me he developed a throwing arm like mine because he'd always admired the way I threw the ball. When he got into the Majors, we renewed our friendship. We used to reminisce about the good old days in Puerto Rico."


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The most poignant aspect of this May-December kinship -- although Irvin had two more seasons with the Giants and the Cubs after Clemente broke in with the 1955 Pirates, he was 15 years his senior -- is the fact the two men entered the Hall of Fame together in 1973.

That also is the saddest part, because Clemente did so posthumously. The traditional five-year waiting period for induction was waived after he died in the crash of a plane carrying relief supplies to earthquake victims.

Irvin, 82, still vibrantly recalls their bond.

"We remained close friends, right up to the time of his crash," Irvin says. "I sure wish he could've been there the day I entered the Hall. Having his wife (Vera) there made up for it a little bit. That was a very moving day for me.

"She and their three sons are still close to me. I've been back in Puerto Rico to visit them a few times."

Irvin was never surprised, only flattered, that a young kid would focus on him as a role model. And he was proud when the kid grew up into a fabulous Major Leaguer, and continued to pay him homage.

"Age doesn't matter if you're a baseball player," Irvin says. "Young or old, it's the same game. After we'd play against each other, we'd say hello and go have dinner together.

"Watching him play, yeah, he did remind me of myself a little," Irvin says. "He was a good hitter, could run and field, was daring on the bases and always stepped on the field with enthusiasm. And he could throw. He didn't have just a great arm -- he had an accurate arm."

One Clemente trademark Irvin won't take credit for is the underhanded flip. After routine flies, or even after gloving hits on which the base runners clearly were not trying to advance, Clemente would zing the ball back to the infield with a submarine flick of his wrist.

He got more on those throws than contemporaries could get with their full weights behind the traditional overhand heave.

"No, I didn't do that," says Irvin, who showcased his arm by ringing up 45 assists in 585 big-league games in the outfield. "He and Willie Mays came up with that when they played together in the winter of 1953-54."

Tom Singer covers the Angels for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.