“Sometimes,” Monte Irvin once told me, “I would think: ‘Nobody saw me when I could really play. … I’ve tried not to think about it. But sometimes you can’t help it.”
We were sitting at a ballpark with Buck O’Neil, and what I remember is the way Buck was looking at his old friend. Buck, somehow, had overcome his bitterness. He had found a way to look back at a time when he was prevented from playing and later managing in the Major Leagues … and yet he would see mostly joy and wonder. “I was born right on time,” he used to say. This sort of triumph over the poison of the past was his gift. At one point the two men were talking about Negro Leagues busses, and Irvin was remembering how old and bumpy and broken down those busses were. Buck, meanwhile, remembered them as luxurious rides.
Monte Irvin would admit that he could not quite see the past the way Buck did.
Then again, Buck O’Neil would admit: He wasn’t the ball player Monte Irvin had been.
Maybe nobody was.
One powerful way to tell how good Negro Leagues players were is to look at the early days of baseball integration. In the first few years of integration — just the first few years — Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella, Minnie Minoso, Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks and Elston Howard all came over from the Negro Leagues. There has never been an influx of talent like that. Ever. Any reasonable look at the list of all-timers should leave no doubt just how good Negro League stars were in the years before Jackie Robinson crossed the line.
In a way, you can work backward like that with the amazing career of Monte Irvin. When he was 17, Irvin was an athletic phenom at East Orange High School in New Jersey. He played four sports, all brilliantly, but especially baseball. One of his teachers wrote to New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham. “We’ve got a player here,” the teacher wrote, “you would not even believe.”
Stoneham was still a young man, still somewhat idealistic — this was before he moved the Giants to San Francisco and became utterly detested in New York — and he sent at least two scouts to see Monte Irvin play. Years later, Irvin would ask Stoneham what the scouts said. “They told me,” Stoneham said sadly, “that you were the next Joe DiMaggio.”
This was 1938. Stoneham, like a few other owners and executives, would tentatively tiptoe to the edge of the color line. But they always turned back. Stoneham was no different. “I only wish I had been braver than that,” Stoneham would tell Irvin many years later. The Giants put the Irvin scouting reports into the files. And Irvin went to play in the Negro Leagues.
How good was he? Irvin is not a boastful man, but he says that he played the outfield like Willie Mays. And he could run. The tattered statistics that have survived tell how good a hitter he was. In 1941, for the Newark Eagles, he hit .400 against the highest level competition. In 1942, he played in the Mexican League and hit .397 with 20 homers in just 63 games. And then he went to war.
When he came back, Branch Rickey tried to sign him — this was at the same time that Rickey signed Jackie Robinson — and Irvin would remember telling him that he wasn’t ready, wasn’t the same player he had been in the war. There’s reason to believe that it was more complicated than that, that Effa Manley, who was running the Newark team, apparently refused to let Irvin go without compensation. Rickey was, of course, a pivotal figure in integration and he has been deservedly celebrated for that. But it’s often overlooked that he did not respect the Negro Leagues as a fully organized league and did not believe he should compensate Negro Leagues owners for their players. Kansas City Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson let Jackie Robinson go without compensation because he believed it was the right thing, but he reportedly did resent Rickey for just taking his players as if the Monarchs were not a real team.
In any case, Irvin played in the Negro Leagues for another three seasons. He was 30 years old when he finally signed with the Stoneham’s Giants.
And now we can start working backward. At age 30, his body beaten down by all those games (sometimes three a day), all those bus rides, his time at war, was sent to Jersey City. In 63 games there, he hit .373/.519/.642 with 55 runs scored, 52 RBIs, 14 stolen bases and 32 extra base hits. He basically could do everything.
The Giants, though, didn’t believe. They sent him back to Jersey City and, at age 31, he had 18 games for the ages. In those 18 games, he hit .510 and hit 10 home runs. Yeah. ten. His slugging percentage was better than 1.200. The Giants really had no choice. They called him up and he hit .299/.392/.497 with 15 homers the rest of the way.
Then, in 1951 — he was now 32 years old — he hit .312, hit 11 triples, slugged 24 homers, stole 12 bases, led the league with 121 RBIs and was the best player on the miracle Giants team that won the pennant by going 39-8 after August 12. During that stretch, Monte Irvin hit .330/.416/.602. He was otherworldly.
Then, in the World Series — though the Giants lost to the Yankees in six games — Irvin hit .458.
Irvin was playing at that level again in 1952 when he was hurt. At age 34, he hit .329 and slugged .541. He declined in 1954 at age 35 but still hit 19 homers and played a role in the Giants World Series championship.
So how good was Monte Irvin as a young man? Let’s put up a few age 32 seasons:
Player A: .312/.415/..514, 24 homers, 94 runs, 121 RBIs, 147 OPS+
Player B: .278/.356/.549, 44 homers, 117 runs, 127 RBis, 142 OPS+
Player C: .304/.371/..510, 26 homers, 100 runs, 87 RBIs, 145 OPS+
Player D: .329/.374/.490, 19 homers, 104 runs, 110 RBIs, 139 OPS+
Player E: .308/.411/..541, 25 homers, 94 runs, 78 RBIs, 176 OPS+.
Player A, of course, is Irvin. Player B is Henry Aaron. Player C is Ryne Sandberg. Player D is Kirby Puckett. And Player E is Al Kaline.
So, working backward, you might say that Irvin was in the range of those Hall of Fame players.
But, of course, none of those players had gone through what Irvin went through. He would always say that by his amazing 1951 season, he wasn’t half the player he had been.
After he finished playing, Irvin worked for Major League Baseball. He was a quiet and strong presence but had the unfortunate task of representing Bowie Kuhn at the game where Henry Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record. It was unfortunate because he was booed — though, of course, the boos were for the absent commissioner who had an almost magical ability to do the wrong thing. Irvin was the voice of the Negro Leagues inside the commissioner’s office and the shame of it was that too often people just didn’t listen.
“Why did they think we could not play?” he asked. “That’s always been my question when I think back to the Negro Leagues. The ball was the same size. The bats weighed the same. The fields were no smaller. Why did they think we could not play?”