An Interview with Monte Irvin
Monte Irvin passed away Monday, Jan. 11 at age 96 in Houston, but the memory of his remarkable play and outstanding character will remain with friends, family, teammates and all those who knew him.
In 2006, Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson sat down with the legendary ballplayer to reflect on his time in both the Negro and Major leagues, and his role as a civil rights pioneer.
“When I first came up as a 19-year old rookie with the Giants, Monte was my roommate,” remembered Willie Mays. “He took the time to show me around and be sure I didn’t get into trouble. Monte and his wife, Dee, would have me to their home in New Jersey for dinner, or just to socialize. He was a great teammate, and today, is still a wonderful friend.”
A high-average hitter with power, Irvin had the unique opportunity to win World Series titles in the Negro and Major leagues.
“I've been giving talks since my playing career ended and I always said the same thing: We would not have made that huge comeback in 1951 and won the pennant at the end, if it weren't for Monte,” said Irvin’s teammate Bobby Thomson. “He was a great clutch hitter and one of the guys who really carried the team that last month. As a player, he was like a tiger: built so strong -- powerful -- and a quiet leader. He's a gentlemen and I respected him as much as much as anyone on the team. The media gave Leo Durocher credit for developing Willie Mays, for giving him the confidence to excel. But off the field, that guy was Monte. Monte set such a great example. He was my kind of player."
MI: I have nothing but good things to say about her...She was very civic-minded, and she was beloved in Newark. The citizens liked her very much and she supported the city, financially. She did a lot of good things that she didn’t get credit for. She would tell us, ‘Whether you guys know it or not, you’re role models. Conduct yourselves properly and dress well. Mind your P’s and Q’s.’ She would give us as much money as she possibly could. She was in charge of salaries. She was also very supportive and proactive in civil rights.
HOF: The Eagles were chock full of talent with five other future Hall of Famers: Leon Day, Larry Doby, Willie Wells, Ray Dandridge and Mule Suttles. Were you intimidated?
MI: No. I was inspired because they saw that I had some talent, and they helped me as much as they could. I learned from them. For instance, Leon Day was quick as a catch. I learned some quickness by just watching how he would get to a ball and how fast he’d get rid of it. The same thing with Wells and Dandridge. I really enjoyed playing with all that talent.
HOF: You started at shortstop, with Doby on the other side of the second base bag.
MI: Larry came up as a second baseman and I, a shortstop. Doby signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1947 and by 1948 he was the All-Star centerfielder for the American League. It shows you the kind of talent that we had in our league.
HOF: After the 1941 season you went to winter ball in Mexico and came close to winning a triple crown.
MI: I missed the Triple Crown by two runs. Sylvio Garcia, a great Cuban player, beat me out. I hit .397 on my honeymoon. I like to say that. I’d just go out every day and play one day at a time. If I’d known that the stats were going to be emphasized as they are today, I’d have tried to get another couple of hits so I could have hit .400.
HOF: Did a lot of Negro leaguers play winter ball in Mexico?
MI: A lot of Negro leaguers and a lot of Cubans. A lot of Latinos from Santa Domingo in the Dominican Republic, as well as Panama, Venezuela, and, naturally, Cuba, all played in Mexico.
HOF: So the quality of play was very good in the winter leagues, in general?
MI: The quality was excellent. The major leagues would send a good-looking prospect to Cuba or Puerto Rico or some place like that to get some more experience and to get more practice. For instance, if you couldn’t hit a curve ball, you could get a kid to go out there and throw you curve balls for a couple of hours every day, all day. We made a little bit more money by playing in the winter leagues and it got us away from the cold weather. We really enjoyed it. And it gave me the chance to pick up some Spanish, which I still retain.
HOF: You returned to the Eagles in 1946. The talk around baseball was that you were going to be the man to integrate the major leagues, which never happened. Did the Army have any effect on you?
MI: Yes, it affected me both mentally and physically. I had a tough time, because my daughter had just been born, and I had been treated so royally in Mexico. Then I was in the Army, and am in a segregated situation, which got to me a little bit. Some of the other guys were ok with it, and why I wasn’t able to cope, I just don’t know. What I’m trying to say is that it took awhile for me to regain that old feeling I once had for hitting, running, fielding, and throwing. Before WWII, I was second to none. I understand – I did not know it at the time – that I had been chosen to break the barrier, but how can you complain with what Jackie Robinson did? At the beginning, he wasn’t that good, but every year he got better. He became very thrilling on the bases. He became a clutch hitter, and he just did a great job of pioneering. He made it better for all of us who came after him.
HOF: You signed a contract with the Dodgers in 1945, but you didn’t end up playing with them.
MI: I’d just gotten out of the service after three years and I hadn’t played baseball at all. I told the Dodgers I couldn’t sign right away, that I wasn’t ready. In the meantime, Branch Rickey had taken Don Newcombe from the Eagles. In ‘49, I was playing winter ball in Cuba and I told the Dodgers I was ready to report. Mrs. Manley knew all about this and told Rickey, ‘You took Newcombe and you didn’t give me one dime, and I’m not going to let you take Monte. I want at least $5,000 for him.’ Rickey told her that contract was not valid and she said that if he took me, she was going to sue him. Rather than into a hassle, Rickey released me and I was picked up by Horace Stoneham and the Giants. I had been scouted in Cuba by Alex Pompez. He contacted me and Hank Thompson and we signed with the Giants, reporting to Jersey City in the International League in 1949.
It shows you how much more (Branch) Rickey knew than a lot of us knew. Jackie was the right person.
HOF: She offered your contract to the Yankees but they weren’t ready to integrate. True?
MI: I heard it after the fact. It’s true.
HOF: Oscar Charleston was instrumental in helping Branch Rickey locate a player to break the color barrier in baseball. Were there others considered besides Jackie and you?
MI: Roy Campanella and Newcombe were also scouted also to break the barrier. Branch had a good employee named Clyde Sukeforth, whom I suspect contacted Oscar. Clyde scouted Jackie for a long time without Jackie even knowing it. I really admire Rickey for doing what he did, because if it had been me, I would have probably selected Campanella, who had played in the league almost 10 years, was a great catcher who could run, hit and field and he always had a mask on. It shows you how much more Rickey knew than a lot of us knew. Jackie was the right person.
HOF: Do you think that desegregation in baseball had an influence on desegregation in the United States?
HOF: Well, you did. You led your club to the Negro World Series where you were the MVP. You scored the winning run. You beat the big bad Monarchs. Do you have any recollections of that World Series?
MI: I remember Satchel Paige was supposed to pitch the last game and for some reason he wasn’t there. They put in a fellow by the name of Ford Smith, a good friend of mine. He lived in Phoenix. He allowed only two hits, but we beat them, 3-2, in a terrific ball game. I wonder if we could we have beat Satchel if he had showed up? Well, of course that’s a moot question.
HOF: You played in a number of East-West All-Star games against other Negro leagues greats, including Paige. I believe you even hit a home run off of him.
MI: He had a hesitation pitch, but the pitch I hit off him was a fastball. I first saw Satchel and hit against him in 1941 in Puerto Rico. He was playing with Yamalaa and I was playing with San Juan, on the other side of the island. He struck me out three times in a row and then talked to me after the game. He didn’t call me, ‘Monte,’ he called me ‘young-un.’ He called everybody something. He said, ‘You know, ‘young-un,’ you’ll never hit me the way you hold your bat. You’ve got your bat way up there. By the time you bring it down, I’m by your inside and gone!’ That’s the way he said it. So I said, ‘What do you suggest?’ He said, ‘You’ve got to drop the bat, get that bat down a little bit, if you expect to hit me.’ So later on in 1941, I faced him in Yankee Stadium, and I hit a double off of him. He called time and came out to second base and said, ‘See? I told you that were going to be a success, you were going to be a better hitter.’
HOF: Your personal batting coach.
MI: That’s true. He was going to tell me how to hit him.
HOF: A lot of people like to romanticize the Negro Leagues. Was there anything romantic about them?
MI: Yes. We were young and most of us were products of the depression. We hadn’t been anywhere or done anything. We knew that if we succeeded, we’d get a chance to join the team and make a few bucks, plus travel around, meet new people, meet celebrities. It was wonderful. Mainly, we said it would get us “off the farm.” Most the guys were from the South – Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina – and many of them had natural ability. They were strong, walked long distances and ran a lot. The talent was there. All one had to do was cultivate it. When we didn’t know how to make a play, we’d watch the major leaguers to see how they did it, or we’d ask another teammate how he did it. We’d compare notes. Plus, it kept us on the team, and it kept us from going back home and following the mule around all day. That was the big thing. We didn’t want to follow that mule any longer.
HOF: Did you ever in have much interaction with any of the great jazz musicians?
MI: Oh yes, we met many of them, like Duke Ellington. I remember one year, while we were training in Phoenix, he was there too for almost a week, giving concerts. I got a chance to meet him and his band. Then there was Court Basie. He had a team. Cab Calloway, another musician, had a team. Billy Eckstein was a great fan of the Dodgers. It gave us a chance to meet Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn, and those kind of people. It was just wonderful, I tell you.
HOF: Ellington could play, but could he hit?
MI: (chuckle) I think so.
Martin Luther King was a great baseball fan. I did meet him, and he was a man of the cloth and just a wonderful person, a great speaker. I admired him very much.
HOF: You count Martin Luther King and Thurgood Marshall among your heroes. What did each of them mean to you and did you ever had a chance to meet either?
MI: I never did get a chance to meet the Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, but we attended the same university, Lincoln University, in Oxford, Pennsylvania. I watched him on television and read all about him. He was quite a favorite of mine. Martin Luther King was a great baseball fan. I did meet him, and he was a man of the cloth and just a wonderful person, a great speaker. I admired him very much. It took a lot of courage for King to do what he did, in a non-violent way, in a hostile environment.
HOF: After your final season in Newark, you went to Cuba and you played winter ball. Did you have a chance to meet Fidel Castro?
MI: Yes. Fidel Castro was a student at the University of Havana way back in 1947. He wanted to become a pitcher. He could throw pretty hard, but his control was off. So he would work out with Almendares, with whom I played. He would pitch batting practice for us. Later on he found out he just could never manage his control to become a bona fide pitcher. He threw pretty good, but he couldn’t make it onto a roster. A teammate of mine, Conrado Marrero, who pitched a few years with the Washington Senators, said, ‘If we knew Castro wanted to become a dictator, we’d have made an umpire out of him.’ I thought that was a pretty cute remark.
HOF: Were you surprised with how quickly the Negro leagues started to fall apart any integration?
MI: We weren’t surprised at all. We knew that if Jackie succeeded that was going to mean that the Negro leagues were going to phase themselves out and sure enough, they did. The league started in 1920 and ended in 1950, officially. The Negro American League, which had teams like the Kansas City, Birmingham and Indianapolis Clowns, lasted until about 1960. But officially, the Negro National League it ended in 1950.
When I first saw him, I knew he was a diamond in the rough. All he needed was a little polishing. Leo Durocher and the rest of us made some suggestions here and there, but his natural talent was already there. We knew he was going to be a great fielder. He was a great fielder when he came up, but we didn’t know he was going to become the great home run hitter he became. He was very strong up through his shoulders, and after he learned how to hit the curveball…well, the rest now is history.
HOF: What do you remember about putting on a Giants uniform for the first time?
MI: I was thrilled. It was the greatest moment in my career at the time. I was fortunate to be given a chance, as I was almost 30 years old. Hank and I reported the first week in July of 1949. We met Leo Durocher and he called a team meeting. He said, ‘Fellas, I want you to meet Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson. These men have fine records in the International League and this is all I am going to say: If they can play baseball and help this club, help us put some money in our pockets, then we want them with the Giants. We think they can help us, they’re members of this team and that’s all I’m going to say about race. Go out, let these guys play and treat them just like you would anybody else.’ Consequently, we had no problem with any of our teammates. What problems we did have were from some of the fans in some places we played.
HOF: Who were some of the players that made you feel welcome?
MI: Bob Thomson, Whitey Lockland and Wes Westrum. Those guys were wonderful and we all got along. In 1951 Willie Mays came to our club. He was such a great youngster it really made things easier for Hank and me. We had a lot of fun in the clubhouse before games started and Willie won over our teammates right away because they could see he had a lot of ability. His joining the club made it that much more pleasant for us.
HOF: In 1951, Willie’s rookie year, you roomed with him.
MI: Leo made him my roommate. I showed him around the league a little bit that year. The next year, he because such a fan favorite and star, instead of me showing him around, he showed me around!
HOF: What were some of Durocher’s strengths as a manager that allowed you to win the NL flag in 1951?
MI: Leo knew baseball, was experienced and precise in the language he used. For instance, I remember in ‘51 when we were trying to catch the Dodger’s he never said, ‘lets go out and catch the Dodgers.’ He said, ‘let’s see how close we can come.’ There’s a big difference there. He had a unique way of saying things. He would kid around with, us but you knew he was the manager. Even though he might get mad at you he didn’t hold grudges. Every day was a new day with him -- if he had to get on you it was for that moment.
That was one of the reasons why we were so close as a team and why we caught the Dodgers after being 13 ½ games behind in August. I was playing first base and I switched positions with Whitey Lockman, who was in the outfield. He also got the pitching staff squared away, with Sal Maglie, Larry Jansen Jim Hearn, Dave Koslo, and then we knew we had a chance to win. Every day was a pleasure coming to the ballpark, to see what new thing Willie Mays was going to do and to just play baseball. Leo made it very pleasurable for us.
HOF: You won the playoff series against the Dodgers, two games to one. Newcombe was really pretty awesome in that third game. Did you think you would get to him in the ninth inning?
MI: I hadn’t had a very good year, but from the All-Star Game on I hit over .400. In that last inning of the game, Alvin Dark and Don Muller singled before my turn. I had almost always come through in clutch situations, and I fouled out for the only out of the inning. I was very disappointed. A lot of people don’t remember one of the key blows was Lockman’s double after my at bat. They took Newcomb out and brought in Ralph Branca who was a really good pitcher and was doing well. The first pitch was the pitch Bobby liked to hit – a high, fastball on the inside of the plate. Lo and behold after it was called strike one. Ralph threw him the same pitch thinking he would cross him up, but Bobby was ready for it.
When we saw him hit it, we said, ‘Get in there! Get in the stands!’ It was just about a foot or two over the left field barrier. We looked at each other and all of a sudden we realized we had won. We ran to home plate and greeted him as he crossed the plate. It was a magnificent scene, something I’ll always remember.
HOF: In Game One of the World Series that year in Yankee Stadium, you stole home off Allie Reynolds. Where does it rank among your all-time personal highlights?
MI: I had stolen home five times that year. My secret was that when a pitcher went into his extended windup, I would take a big lead. As soon as he dropped his head, I would take off. I weighed about 200 pounds, but I still could run very well. When I saw that Allie was taking such a long time in his windup, I whispered to Leo, ‘I think I can make it.’ He said go ahead and get a big lead and on the next pitch go. As soon as Allie ducked his head I took off. I slid in under Yogi’s tag and the umpire said ‘Safe!’ Yogi said, ‘No no no!” And I said, ‘Yea, Yogi, yea!’ And Yogi said, ‘How do you know?’ And I said, Tomorrow it’ll be on the front page of the Daily News and Daily Mirror.” Sure enough, there it was. It was a big thrill -- one of my biggest thrills, ever.
HOF: You were part of the first all African-American outfield in Game One of the Series. Was there any significance to an entire outfield being African American?
MI: We didn’t even realize the situation. We thought that after Mueller got hurt, Thompson was the most legitimate player to replace him, because he had played outfield before. So when Leo put him out there he was just a replacement for Mueller. We had no thoughts about it being an all African-American outfield. Somebody had to mention it to us before we realized it. I guess the fans realized it faster than we did because we just thought Hank was the right person.
HOF: The Giants and Indians both trained in Arizona for Spring Training. African-Americans on the Giants included Thompson, Mays and you, while the Indians had Larry Doby, Minnie Minoso, Luke Easter and Hank Simpson. Did you spend time with them and share stories about obstacles you had to overcome?
MI: Yes. Sometimes the situations were embarrassing. We couldn’t stay at the team hotel, we had to stay at a hotel owned by African Americans or in private homes. That wasn’t a good thing. We told our traveling secretary, Eddie Brannick, that we were important members of the team and we wanted a little better treatment. We said, ‘Maybe we should go back to New York and train there and wait for the team to come north, so that we don’t have to go through this.’ Eddie said, ‘We’re working on it. It’s a state law that you can’t integrate and we’re working on it. Bare with us we’ll get it done in time.’ In 1954 it happened, and we were happy.
HOF: In 1954 everything comes together. You’re healthy and Mays is back from the Army. The Giants picked up Dusty Rhodes, Marv Grissom and Johnny Antionelli. Was it is thrill to beat the Indians and win the World Series?
MI: It sure was. We were pretty confident that we could beat them because we played them in Spring Training, so we knew their strength and weaknesses. We knew they didn’t have much speed and they weren’t that great defensively. We had situation-hitters and knew their pitchers – Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, Mike Garcia, Ray Narleski and Don Mossi. When we got in the Series, it was nothing new to us. They were picked to beat us four in a row, but when Mays made his great catch, that just turned everything around for us. Dusty’s big home run was the icing on the cake. Both really gave us confidence and we then knew we had a chance to beat them. We didn’t think we’d beat them four in a row but we knew we had a chance to beat them in a seven-game series.
HOF: In 1968 you took a job with the Commissioner’s office and worked with Bowie Kuhn for his entire tenure as commissioner. You were there for Curt Flood, the ’72 strike, the birth of the designated hitter, Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth’s all-time home run mark, and so much more. What are your recollections of working for Major League Baseball?
MI: Working under Bowie was a pleasure. I had the chance to meet and to greet a lot of the guys I played against or played, Being able to travel across the country to sell baseball and to represent the commissioner’s office in Latin America and Japan was a great honor. It wasn’t like a job. It was so pleasurable. We were hosts at the Winter Meetings, All-Star games and the World Series was a very pleasant duty. When I retired in 1984 I almost hated to do it because it was so pleasurable. There were many thrills and there are happy memories of working in New York.
HOF: You were on the original committee that elected Negro leagues players to the Hall of Fame from 1971 to ’77. Were you surprised that day ever came and that Negro leaguers would finally begin to be recognized in the Hall of Fame?
HOF: During your induction speech you said, “I hope my induction will help ease the pain of all of those players who never got a chance to play in the majors.” Do you think it helped?
MI: I think so. I really do. I know what Ted Williams had said when he was inducted, and I just want to reemphasize the fact that I wished major league fans would have had the opportunity to see so many great players like Buck Leonard, Josh Gibson Willie Wells, Ray Dandridge, Raymond Brown and others right on down the line, play when they were in their prime. I got a chance to see them, play with them and play against them. I call them the “old masters.” I’m just so happy they finally got a chance to receive some of the recognition that they deserve.