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|
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|
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|
“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.”