Showing posts with label Ernie Harwell. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ernie Harwell. Show all posts

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 as a teenager in high school when I first met Mr. Irvin at a Negro League alumni reunion in 1994. Those feelings compelled me to share my encounters with Irvin upon the news of his death at the age of 96 on January 11, 2016.

I first met Irvin at a 1994 reunion in New Jersey. It caught me off guard to see Irvin choose to sign autographs in a side room with the 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 repeated during our 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 my uncle told 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 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 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 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 most of his contemporaries, and I looked for an opportunity to meet him again, hopefully to capture one final firsthand account of the Negro Leagues from arguably its last living superstar.

My chance came in 2007 when my friend Lauren Meyer, who was working on a Negro League documentary, 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 ceremonies, and despite his limited mobility, Irvin was bustling at 9AM with a youthful energy that hid his 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; his genuine persona becoming more apparent as I shadowed him at each event. I hoped to catch a mere fraction of the jewels he dropped along the way.

A year later, while interviewing Ernie Harwell, he eagerly recommended I give Irvin a call to help 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 Harwell'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 after further illustrated his tremendous character.

A popular figure with baseball fans and autograph collectors, Irvin frequently received mail requesting his signature. He asked 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 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. He told me he gets a substantial amount of mail, but he would look to see if he misplaced them.

A few weeks later, I returned home 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, as well as 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 his contemporaries as well. While Jackie Robinson was immortalized for breaking the color barrier; however, Irvin will be remembered for his status as a gentleman ambassador of baseball during his 96 years on earth. Former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Jean Pierre Roy precisely captured 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.”

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A tribute to the major league baseball players who died in 2010

Sparky Anderson
Bob Feller
Robin Roberts
With 2010 in the rear view mirror, let's stop and reflect on the deaths of the members of the major league baseball family, which included three Hall of Famers, Sparky Anderson, Bob Feller and Robin Roberts. Click here to see a more in-depth profile of those that we lost this past year.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Ernie Harwell - Interview with the legendary Detroit Tigers broadcaster

One of the legendary voices of baseball, Ernie Harwell, died on May 4, 2010 at the age of 92 after fighting a lengthy battle with cancer. Harwell began his major league broadcasting career in 1948 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, acquired from the Atlanta Crackers for backup catcher Cliff Dapper. He worked for the New York Giants and Baltimore Orioles until 1960, replacing Van Patrick in Detroit. Harwell would remain the voice of the Tigers through 2002, providing the soundtrack to many wonderful memories of baseball fans everywhere.

I had the opportunity to interview Harwell in 2008 and I can say that Harwell is everything that people said about him and more. A true gentleman, he called me in response to a letter that I had written him and started off the phone call by saying, "I'm glad we finally got together."

For a man who has met so many in his travels as a baseball luminary, he made the 30 minutes that he gave me on the phone seem as important as any interview he had conducted. While our conversation went in a few different directions, I wanted to provide a few excerpts that served to reveal Harwell's character.

We discussed his World War II service, and Harwell explain how the war helped to shape people's attitudes towards integration.

"I think World War II helped progress integration," he said. "I've always looked at it [integration] being helped by three things, music, jazz music, baseball and WWII. They all stem from one thing, you can judge a man on his ability rather than the color of his skin in each one of those. If a guy can play a great saxophone, you can recognize it and he can keep his job. Same thing in baseball, if he hits .350 you know he's pretty good. The same thing in combat, if a guy can save your life for you, you don't have to worry about what color he is. There are so many other jobs have nuances and politics, but, in those three categories, there is a pretty good accurate measurement that you can apply to all three."

He related another story regarding his early experiences of integration at Emory University in Atlanta during the late 1930's. Harwell was able to recruit an African American band to play at one of the dances that he chaired in the middle of the heavily segregated South.

"The big thing down there was dancing," he said. "We didn't have any intercollegiate sports except tennis and swimming. Dancing was a big thing. I was chairman of the dance committee. We were getting these bad bands that couldn't play very good because we didn't have any money and we couldn't pay to get a Glen Miller or Tommy Dorsey or anyone like that. I said [to the others on the committee], 'a lot of these black bands are very good and they'd make a great orchestra for us.' We have a three day thing where the bands would play different dances and it would last two to three days, and nobody objected. The band we got was Andy Kirk and the Clouds of Joy out of Kansas City and they loved them. There was never any protest at all, and this was in 1939! For some reason, nobody objected. There weren't any marches, no signs. They played and everybody loved them and that was it. You're talking about where the Marines wouldn't take black people [Atlanta]. I went into the Marines in 1942 and they didn't take African Americans until the war got going a little bit."

While Harwell was never championed as a crusader for civil rights, these anecdotes give a glimpse into the mind of a progressive younger Harwell, living in the deep South showing racial tolerance and acceptance in a place where it was uncommon to do so.

At the end of our talk, I had queried Harwell about his willingness to give interviews after spending so much time behind the microphone. Harwell answered in a way where he not only welcomed the opportunity, but relished it.

"I do a lot of radio interviews," he said. "They can't get ballplayers, so they call me and I'm happy to do it. It's enjoyable to me, I don't mind it at all. I'm glad to do it if anybody who is interested enough. I don't want to be an old guy sitting in the corner who forces himself on people talking about the old days. If someone has a question or a puzzlement that they want to solve, I'd be happy to."

Harwell left me saying that it was "his pleasure," to do the interview and wished me luck with my project. After re-examining our conversation today, Mr. Harwell, the pleasure was all mine. May you rest in peace.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Ernie Harwell keeps on after cancer diagnosis

Kansas City Royals vs Detroit Tigers.'s Elizabeth Merrill wrote an excellent article on Ernie Harwell's busy life and the special people around him that keep him going after being diagnosed with inoperable cancer at the age of 91. Harwell is a standout in the baseball community; one who has given so much of his life to the sport and helping others. I selfishly hope that he continues to elude the grasp of cancer so he can reach many more while he is still with us.