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The Man on the Shirt

“Monte Irvin died,” I told my wife last week.
“Aw, the man on the shirt?” she asked.

I have a t-shirt that features a likeness of Monte Irvin’s 1954 baseball card, along with a bullet-point bio, his actual autograph and the thanks of the New York Baseball Giants Nostalgia Society for giving his time to the group. I don’t wear it too often because it’s a little thick in the fabric, plus I never wanted to spill anything on him. He’s Monte Irvin. He’s in the Hall of Fame.

Well worn, well loved. [1]

Well worn, well loved.

And he’s the man on the shirt. You live almost 97 years, you’ll be known to different people for different things. When you’ve lived that long and accumulated fame, a torrent about your life will come to light on the occasion of its inevitable conclusion.

There was a lot of Monte Irvin in the news last week [2]. It’s sad that it takes death to shine a spotlight on a person long out of the news, but the consolation, particularly as regards someone who shall we say got his money’s worth in the longevity department, is we find ourselves thinking, hearing and talking about that person. Monte Irvin made the back page of the Daily News the day after his passing became known. It wasn’t the main story (the previous night’s Knicks game was), but it did earn mention above the flag, complete with head shot.

BASEBALL PIONEER
N.Y. Giants Hall of Famer Monte Irvin dies at 96: Pages 46-47

You have to have been some kind of someone to make the back page of the Daily News as a New York Baseball Giant in 2016.

The first time I encountered Monte Irvin was in the 1972 Mets yearbook, page 56. He was part of a spread devoted to the previous season’s Old Timers Day at Shea Stadium, a 20th-anniversary celebration of the 1951 Giant-Dodger pennant race. At the time, most of the principals from that “epic” (as the yearbook referred to it) were still around, as were myriad New Yorkers who had celebrated/mourned it first-hand. Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca showed up at Shea, as did Sal Maglie and Carl Erskine, Eddie Stanky and Pee Wee Reese, and a slew of other names that evoked an earlier era. Giants skipper Leo Durocher was in the middle of the festivities, thanks to the Mets playing the Cubs, his 1971 employers. And in his own box, on the lower left quadrant of the left-hand page, smiling up at me from the first-base dugout, his right foot on the top step as he awaited introduction to more than 43,000 fans, “Monte Irvin: a giant among ’51 Giants.”

I had no idea who he was. I was nine when I received my first Mets yearbook. I was only then processing that these Giants and Dodgers, dressed in uniforms that looked familiar but wearing caps that had unexpected insignias (NY? B?), were the forebears of the Giants and Dodgers over in the Western Division. These photos might have been my introduction to the “shot heard around world,” as a caption called it. Whatever role Monte Irvin played in perhaps the most heated battle any league ever experienced for its championship — 24 home runs, 121 runs batted in, .312 batting average — was unknown to me. I just knew he got his own box and he was termed a giant among Giants, so I figured the man in the picture must have been pretty special.

Within a year of my brief but effective history lesson, the Hall of Fame confirmed his status, inducting him in 1973. Irvin’s major league totals looked light, but there was an explanation. Irvin was black. He played much of his career in the Negro Leagues, much like Satchel Paige, another guest at the 1971 Old Timers Day (identified as “legendary,” “ageless” and “Satch,” the yearbook showed him giving a “grip tip” to an attentive Tom Seaver). The best of those African-American players, the ones who were kept out of the big leagues before 1947 yet started entering the Hall as of 1971, couldn’t help but be presented to us as an incomplete story. The white players had statistics you could look up. You knew that Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs, that Cy Young won 511 games, that Walter Johnson struck out 3,508 batters. I know those numbers without looking them up. They were ingrained into the impressionable baseball fan mind at a young age. The numbers told all the story you needed in terms of their qualifications for the Hall.

But for Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard and Monte Irvin and others who were barred from the majors for most or all of their baseball careers, we had to take the word of those who went to the trouble of digging beyond readily available numbers. These were players so astounding that they transcended the relatively smooth path to Cooperstown taken by Christy Mathewson or Honus Wagner. It wasn’t a snap to pore over their stats and judge, “oh, he’s a lock.” Monte Irvin hit 99 home runs during seven seasons as a Giant and one as a Cub, all of them after the age of 30, yet he’d been playing professionally since he was 19: eight years as a Newark Eagle (along with a stint in Mexico), sandwiching three years in the army during the Second World War.

Monte Irvin served his country, then had to wait four years to be allowed to compete at what was considered the highest level in his profession, a profession in which as you age past a certain point, you generally don’t keep getting better. Irvin’s prime fell victim to racism. That’ll shave some points off your totals for sure.

With Irvin’s passing came two seemingly universal testimonies: 1) he was a great player who was an even greater person [3]; 2) he was a great person, but don’t overlook how great a player he was [4]. As people who love baseball, we are taken by the notion that he was good enough to be tabbed an immortal without the usual set of easily verifiable stats. As fellow human beings, the idea that he possessed an exceptional grace should impress us all.

Other details tumble to the surface upon a person’s passing, items that by no means defined the deceased but tend to get our attention. It’s stuff you might have encountered a while back but had mostly forgotten or perhaps stuff that you never knew. For example, Monte Irvin worked for two years as a scout for the New York Mets, in 1967 and 1968. He spent many years before that in community relations for Rheingold, the official beer of our favorite team. Later, from 1968 through 1984, he worked in the commissioner’s office, roughly spanning Bowie Kuhn’s term of office. Irvin traveled to Atlanta to represent Major League Baseball on April 8, 1974, the night Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run. Kuhn begged off, citing a previous engagement. The commissioner should have been there and the crowd knew it. They booed when Irvin was introduced. The boos were directed toward the man who wasn’t in attendance.

Thus, the man who mentored Willie Mays as a kid new to New York offered official congratulations to Henry Aaron as he became an American icon. Mays and Aaron, like Irvin, began their careers in the Negro Leagues, but they were relatively fortunate to come along when they did. Their wait to make the majors wasn’t nearly as unjustifiably long.

Here’s a tidbit you might not know. For one season, Monte Irvin was Bob Murphy’s broadcast partner…calling New York Jets games [5]. Murph was a pro’s pro of an announcer and Irvin was an all-state high school football player in New Jersey who went on to star for Lincoln University in Pennsylvania (turning down an offer from the University of Michigan for financial reasons; he couldn’t afford the train fare). It sounds odd, but it made sense; Bob Murphy and Monte Irvin brought all the Jets action to radio listeners in 1963, the franchise’s first year as the Jets, their last year playing in the Polo Grounds.

The Polo Grounds, where Irvin made his name for the Giants once the powers that be permitted him the opportunity, was on its last legs. The Jets, like the Mets, were headed to Shea Stadium, where Monte would pose for a photographer in 1971 and inadvertently introduce himself to me. On paper, Shea was supposed to have been open by now for baseball and football by 1963. On the ash heap upon which it was being built, construction moved at its own deliberate pace.

Ground was broken on Shea Stadium on October 28, 1961. I don’t know if that was really when the building had begun. The Mets didn’t break ground on Citi Field until November 13, 2006, yet work had commenced the previous June. The ceremonial aspect came later. You have to have ceremony when you’re creating a new home for a new team. It was essential that dignitaries be called upon in 2006 to make a whole thing of it, just as it was in 1961.

And such dignitaries, as a Pro Football Researchers Association article from 1990 [6] article recounts. Out in Flushing were gathered municipal officials like Robert Moses, team executives like George Weiss, the commissioner of baseball Ford Frick, Mayor Robert Wagner and, to properly consecrate the Queens meadows, a handful of baseball players. A couple of Dodgers. A few Giants. Given the Mets’ charge of succeeding the dearly departed, the casting couldn’t have been more appropriate.

The invited players included two Dodgers who were going to become Mets in 1962 — Gil Hodges and Billy Loes — and three Giants who were by 1961 retired: Sid Gordon, Jim Hearn and, yup, Monte Irvin. Irvin, then 42, was one of those who grabbed a shovel, scooped up a clump of dirt and ceremonially set the stage for the ballpark we’d call ours for 45 seasons, the stadium the man would outlive for seven seasons after that.

It was hardly his greatest accomplishment, but it’s the one that’s made me the happiest in the wake of learning such sad news.