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.
William “Bill” Greason played professional baseball in many different places and at several different levels during his career. Born on September 3, 1924 in Atlanta, Georgia, Greason applied his talent as a right-handed pitcher in both Negro and Major League baseball; in addition to high and lower levels in the minor leagues. He pitched in cities across the United States, the Caribbean, and Mexico. Like other African American ballplayers of his era (1947 -1958) Greason saw the final demise of Negro League baseball, participated in the integration of the minor leagues, and experienced racism in the Major Leagues after the “invisible color line” had been erased.
The 5’ 10’’ and 170 pound ex-Marine first pitched in 1947 with the Nashville Black Vols and Ashville (North Carolina) Blues, both considered minor league African American teams. It was the year Jackie Robinson became the first African American in the 20th Century to play Major League baseball. Greason was a power pitcher with a fastball and a sharp breaking pitch that he could throw sidearm. By the end of that season he had pitched his way onto the roster of the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro American League (NAL).
1948 was his breakout year. Greason pitched three scoreless innings in that year’s Negro League Baseball East-West All-Star game. Also, with him as one of its top pitchers, the Black Barons beat out Buck O’Neil’s Kansas City Monarchs to win the NAL pennant. Both Negro League stars Lorenzo “Piper” Davis and Arte Wilson were also on the Black Barons that year. In addition, a 17-year-old kid named Willie Mays played centerfield for the team. In what would be the last Negro League World Series, Greason pitched the Black Barons to their only victory against the Homestead Grays winning 4 – 3.
After leaving the Black Barons following the 1950 season, Greason pitched in the Class AAA and A levels in the minor leagues. He also pitched in the Mexican League and spent a short second stint in the Marines. When he returned to baseball in 1953, he became the third African American to play in the Class AA Texas League.
In 1954, Greason along with Brooks Lawrence and Tom Alston were the first African American players invited to a spring training camp by the St. Louis Cardinals. He made his Major League debut on May 31 at Wrigley Field against the Chicago Cubs. In three innings, Greason gave up five runs on six hits in the Cards 14 – 4 lost. Three of the hits off Greason were home runs, one by the Cubs young shortstop and former Negro League player Ernie Banks. After appearing briefly in two more games, Greason at the end of June was sent to the minor leagues.
For the remainder of the decade he pitched with the Houston Buffs (Class AA Texas League), the Rochester Red Wings (Class AAA International League), and winter league baseball in the Caribbean. He never again played in the Major Leagues, getting only that one chance like a number of former Negro League players in the 1950s.
Greason retired in 1959 and was called into Christian ministry. He was pastor of a church in Birmingham, Alabama for 30 years and was cited by the Alabama State Legislature in 2001 for outstanding ministry achievement.
There is no dispute that Alvin “Al” Spearman was born August 26 in Chicago, Illinois. However, where most records show 1931 as the year, some conflicting information says 1926. Spearman cut his baseball teeth in the semi-professional Chicago industrial leagues before joining the Chicago American Giants of the Negro American League (NAL) after the 1949 season.
Physically at 6’1” and 185 pounds, he was a right handed pitcher that threw side armed. Unlike some of the best Negro League hurlers, Spearman did not have a blazing fast ball to overpower and strikeout batters. Instead, his best pitch was a sinkerball. When he threw it with excellent control he was a good pitcher as opponents would hit the ball on the ground to his infielders and be thrown out.
During his time with American Giants, 1950 and 1951, Spearman also briefly played with the Kansas City Monarchs. In Spearman’s short stay with the team, Elston Howard of future New York Yankee fame was his roommate.
The Chicago White Sox signed Spearman after the 1951 season. He then encountered the obstacles faced by many of the African American and dark skinned Latino players signed by Major League teams in the 1950s. The pace of integration was slow and most of the players signed were not steadily progressed through the teams’ minor league systems. In addition, although not formerly stated, there existed a specific limit (quota) as to the number of them on each Major League roster. Feeling lost in the White Sox minor league system, Spearman left after the 1954 season to play in Japan.
He returned in 1956 and continued his career in the minor leagues. At the Class C level Spearman had his best years winning 18 games in 1956 and 20 games in 1958. In 1960 he was signed by his hometown Chicago Cubs Class AAA minor league team, the Houston Buffs. However, Spearman had confrontations with the team management in which he felt had racial overtones. In addition, he had to encounter “Jim Crow” racial discrimination laws while in Houston. Before the season ended, Spearman left the team and did not return to playing professional baseball.
What three other former Negro League players were on the 1959 Houston Buff’s team with Al Spearman?