Once upon a decade—the one that introduced Elvis Presley, car tail fins, and McDonald’s franchises—a ballplayer blessed with speed, grace, and athleticism rivaling Orsippus’s climbed to the apex of baseball, popular culture, and media.
The year was 1951. The place was New York City. The ballplayer was Willie Mays.
Talent alone does not make a major leaguer, however. Responding to this reality, Leo Durocher, manager of the New York Giants, selected a member of his Polo Grounds posse to shepherd the 20-year-old Mays upon the rookie’s ascension from the Minneapolis Millers—the Giants’ AAA team.
Monford Merrill Irvin. Monte.
In his 1975 book The Miracle at Coogan’s Bluff, Thomas Kiernan wrote, “Irvin not only accepted responsibility for Mays, he took the move as a challenge. For the first time as a Giant he had a teammate who, it appeared, was every bit as talented as he was.”
Under Irvin’s tutelage, Mays matured into the professional that Durocher et al. hoped he would be. “Irvin would instruct Mays on game situations, shout out which bases the rookie should throw to, position against each enemy hitter—to make it easy for Mays to turn what would be extra-base hits with anyone else in center field into outs,” stated Kiernan.
Irvin played in the Negro Leagues before desegregating the New York Giants with Hank Thompson in 1949. Effa Manley, owner of the Newark Eagles, testified, “Monte was the choice of all Negro National and American League club owners to serve as the No. 1 player to join a white major league team. We all agreed, in meeting, he was the best qualified by temperament, character ability, sense of loyalty, morals, age, experiences ad physique to represent us as the first black player to enter the white majors since the Walker brothers back in the 1880s. Of course, Branch Rickey lifted Jackie Robinson out of Negro ball and made him the first, and it turned out just fine.”
Appropriately, Manley’s statement is on Irvin’s Baseball Hall of Fame web site page.
Irvin led the Eagles to the 1946 Negro Leagues World Series championship against the Kansas City Monarchs—a shining moment for the kid from Orange, New Jersey, for whom playing playing baseball was oxygen.
When Irvin died on January 11, 2016, he took with him the status of being the last living monument to the Eagles. In a statement, Mays said that his mentor “was like a second father to me.”
Jerry Izenberg, an iconic New Jersey sports writer, eulogized Irvin in the Star-Ledger, which gained international recognition when Tony Soprano ambled down his driveway in a robe and slippers to pick it up, often thumbing through the pages for the latest news on mafia arrests.
Decades after his career in the Negro Leagues, Irving maintained joyousness that could light up Chancellor Avenue. Irvin’s exclamations occurred repeatedly in conversations with Izenberg, who recalled the thread of joy running through them, including an excerpt of a conversation from the early 1990s: “I played in three countries. I played in two World Series. But I never found anything to match the joy and the laughter those years with the Eagles brought me.”
Monte Irvin retired with a .293 batting average after eight seasons in the major leagues; the Baseball Hall of Fame inducted him in 1973. “I hope my induction will help to ease the pain of all those players who never got a chance to play in the majors,” stated the man largely responsible for the career of Willie Mays.
A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 9, 2016.