Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Monte Irvin (1919-2016) - A true gentleman of baseball

To meet Monte Irvin was to become his friend. At least that’s how I felt back as a teenager in high school when I first met Mr. Irvin at reunion of Negro League alumni back in 1994. That feeling stayed with me and compelled me to write the following memories of my encounters with Irvin upon the news of his death at the age of 96 on January 11, 2016.

Choosing to sit at a table in the room with the other thirty lesser known players instead of the main room where Hall of Famers Buck Leonard and Willie Mays were signing, Irvin’s table had little fanfare compared to his Cooperstown counterparts. Despite the ability to affix “HOF 73,” next to his name, Irvin relished blending in with everyone else, a theme that would repeat during future encounters.

Milling around the room talking to each player about their careers, I spotted Irvin by himself with nobody waiting at his table. Growing up I heard my uncle tell me stories of Irvin’s tremendous abilities as a member of the New York Giants from his view at the Polo Grounds. Eager to start a conversation with him, I showed him a photo from a Hall of Fame yearbook that I had recently purchased on a school trip to Cooperstown. He quickly asked me if I wanted him to sign it, and when I informed him that I had spent all of my money already at the show, he told me not to worry about it and put his autograph right on the page. I thanked him profusely; he smiled and posed for a photo.

Monte Irvin circa 1994 / N. Diunte

I went back the next year armed with money I earned from digging out cars and driveways from shoveling. This time, I made sure that I paid for Mr. Irvin’s signature. I told him of the story from last year and he kindly thanked me for coming and supporting what was going on.

Monte Irvin with the author / N. Diunte
As the end of high school approached, I shifted my focus from researching and collecting artifacts on the Negro Leagues to pursuing an opportunity to play baseball in college. I put keeping up with Monte and his aging counterparts on hold to walk a little bit in their shoes as I explored how far I could advance my skills on the diamond.

It wasn’t until well after my college playing days were done that I renewed my interest in baseball’s forgotten league. Surprisingly, Irvin outlasted almost all of his contemporaries and I looked for an opportunity to meet once again with him, hopefully to capture one last firsthand account of the Negro Leagues from arguably its last living superstar.

My chance came in 2007 when I was invited by a friend Lauren Meyer, who was working on a Negro League documentary, and had been hired by the New Jersey Historical Society to film an all day tribute to Irvin and three of his former Newark Eagles teammates in Newark, New Jersey. I accompanied her to the day’s events, and despite his limited mobility, at 9AM Irvin was bustling with an energy one would expect from someone much younger than 88 years of age.

Irvin (third from left) with fellow Newark Eagles teammates / N. Diunte
Seemingly everywhere Irvin turned that day, there was a camera taking photos, a reporter asking for an interview, or a fan handing him an item to sign. Every time, his answer was, “yes.” He even eschewed his daughter’s request to eat more during a meeting at the Historical Society, as he felt it was more important to finish the story he was telling an eager baseball fan. He gave this type of attention to just about everyone he met that day, as his genuine persona became more apparent as I shadowed him at each event just hoping to catch a mere fraction of the jewels of knowledge he was dropped along the way.

A year later, while interviewing Ernie Harwell, he eagerly recommended that I give Irvin a call, as he felt that Monte was someone who could help me with my research. The late Tigers broadcaster went out of his way to mention his warm persona.

“Monte Irvin would be a great source,” Harwell said during our conversation in 2008. “[He's] very personable, a very intelligent guy; I'm very fond of him.”

I called Irvin shortly after speaking with Harwell and after telling him of the Hall of Fame broadcaster’s recommendation, we spoke for thirty minutes. Irvin shared stories about many of the legends he played with and against in the Negro Leagues, beaming with positivity throughout the entire call. He encouraged for me to send him some correspondence, which I did, but what followed further illustrated his tremendous character.

A popular figure with baseball fans and autograph collectors, Irvin frequently received mail requesting his signature. He encouraged those who wrote to him to send a donation to his alma mater, Lincoln University, in exchange for his autograph. Over the years, Irvin raised tens if not, hundreds of thousands of dollars to support the HBCU. In our correspondence through the mail, I too donated to Irvin’s cause to have some of my own items signed. When my envelope came back a few weeks later, only one of the items were returned, with my harder to find personal photos missing. I called Irvin to ask if he remembered seeing them, as they were pretty unique, and he told me that he gets a substantial amount of mail, but he would look to see if he misplaced them.

A few weeks passed by, and I return home one day to find a large envelope in my mailbox addressed in Irvin’s handwriting. I open the envelope not only to find my missing items, but a note apologizing for misplacing them, and almost a dozen additional signed photos. I called to thank him again and he said he felt it was the least he could do for making me wait to get my things back.


A sampling of the items Irvin sent / N. Diunte
Irvin was a Hall of Famer, but he didn’t expect special treatment because he had a plaque in Cooperstown. His treatment of others was duly noted not only by baseball fans, but by other players as well. While Jackie Robinson is immortalized for breaking the color barrier; however, Irvin will be remembered for his status as a gentleman ambassador of the sport for his 96 years on earth. Former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Jean Pierre Roy precisely summed up the feelings of how many of his peers viewed Irvin.

“I adored this guy as a ballplayer and a human being,” Roy said during a 2011 interview. “When I started talking with Monte, I could tell he was of the right vein; you could tell why he could communicate so well with the people in general.”

0 comments:

Post a Comment