Former Negro League and Major League player Monte Irvin died on January 11th, in Houston, Texas. A member of Baseball’s Hall of Fame, Irvin helped to solidify Negro League baseball’s place in baseball history. However, at this time when we celebrate his life, that place is again being marginalized.
Born in Haleburg, Alabama on February 25, 1919; Irvin’s family joined the migration of southern African Americans in the 1920s to northern cities looking for better economic opportunities and they settled in East Orange, New Jersey. A four sport star in high school; track, football, basketball, and baseball, Irvin played with the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League (NNL) under an assumed name the summer of 1938 before heading off to Lincoln University (Pa.) on a football scholarship. However, he quit school after a year and went back to the Eagles to begin his Negro League career.
His smile and easygoing demeanor made Irvin a favorite of Negro League fans, who voted him to participate in five East-West All Star Games. Fans in the Caribbean leagues where he played in the winter also loved him. By the end on 1941, many considered the 6’1’’, 195 pound Irvin the best player in the Negro Leagues. A .300 hitter with a power stroke, Monte also had the speed and versatility to play in the infield or outfield.
Much has been written about how serving in the military during World War II took productive years away from Major League baseball stars such as Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Bob Feller. The same can be said about Monte Irvin, who also served his country doing that time. He missed nearly four seasons (1942 -1945) while in the Army. When discharged in the late summer of 1945, he met with Brooklyn Dodgers’ General Manager Branch Rickey about a new Negro League team. Out of baseball for almost four years and suffering a nerve condition he had contacted while in the military, Irvin told Rickey he was not ready to play yet. But he did not know Rickey really wanted him for the Dodgers. It would have been Irvin, not Jackie Robinson, that would have become the first African American to play in the Major Leagues since before the beginning of the 20th Century. Serving in the military altered Irvin’s place in baseball history.
By the start of the 1946 season, Monte felt ready to play again. He led the Newark Eagles in batting average as the team won the Negro National League (NNL) pennant and defeated the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro League World Series. In the Series, Irvin hit .460 with three home runs.
What Hall of Famer played second base for the 1946 Newark Eagles?
To learn more about Negro League baseball history, read “Last Train to Cooperstown”: http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown.