Tuesday, August 3, 2010


It has been 49 years since Montford Merrill “Monte” Irvin last played for the New York Giants but “Jints” fans have not forgotten him.

Neither the passage of time or the team’s heart-breaking move to San Francisco blurred the sweet memories of his fans.

Monte, a member of baseball’s Hall of Fame, was the New York Giants Baseball Historical Society’s guest of honor at the 50th anniversary celebration of the New York Giants 1954 World Series victory, a four-game sweep of the Cleveland Indians. The event, held in early September (2004) at Forlini’s restaurant in downtown Manhattan, saw a number of fans wearing NY Giants uniform tops and caps.

Monte’s popularity had not waned at all. When he reached for the microphone 60 fans greeted him with a hearty standing ovation and chanted “Monty, Monty.”
Irvin leaned on his cane and placed a thigh against the table and shifted his weight slightly from side to side as if settling into an imaginary batters box ready to stare down Big Don Newcombe, the mighty Brooklyn Dodger ace, Warren Spahn, baseball's all-time winning left-hander or “The Big Chief” Allie Reynolds, the Yankee ace.
Instead Monte smiled and said, “Thank you. I am elated. I am amazed at how you have kept up this feeling for so many years. This is very special. I will never forget this.” Fans mingled with Monte and discovered he exudes star power off the field as well as on. He is dignified, gracious, pensive, a wonderful storyteller, and enjoys talking baseball. For thirty minutes he captivated his audience with his tales.

“Leo was the best manager ever. He was dynamic. He knew precisely what he wanted to do. He argued a lot but with a purpose. He did not argue for the play at hand instead he argued for the next one.”
Monte divulged an old Leo trick. “Leo ate a lot of garlic and loved getting into the umpires faces,” he said. “Leo was exceptional. Many managers came out of his fold - Bill Rigney, Whitey Lockman, Al Dark, Eddie Stanky, Wes Westrum - and they copied him. Leo was a case study complete with a baseball PH.D.”

Regarding the miracle 1951 season capped by Bobby Thomson's "shot heard around the world, which propelled the Giants to the World Series over their arch rivals the Dodgers, Monte said, “During our run Leo did not pressure us. He just said, ‘Let’s see how good we can do. Let’s try our best.’”
Every time the Giants won a game he said “Let’s do it again tomorrow.” Leo was supportive throughout the comeback but he was also tough. Once in St. Louis he let everyone, except Hank Thompson, stay out until 5 am. Thompson went out anyway and when he returned, Leo was waiting for him in his room.

The fun began after Mays came up to the majors in 1951. Monte was his mentor and taught Mays about life off the field. “Willie was a natural. He was the real thing. He had great speed. He hit the ball hard but I never thought he would become a great hitter with power.”

According to Monte’s calculations Willie lost about 50 home runs at the Polo Grounds due to the deep centerfield (roughly 485 feet from home plate) and probably 100 in Candlestick with its infamous winds swirling around the field.

In the 1951 drive the Giants got help from an unexpected source - the Dodgers. After Brooklyn swept them in a double-header the team was down. Monte and his mates heard the Dodgers whooping it up after the game from their clubhouse. One of the Dodgers yelled out “Eat your heart out Leo you S.O.B.”
“That fired us up,” he said. “We knew we were good. We had talent. We had experience and we felt we could win,” Monte said.

He also talked about October 3, 1951. “Newk blinded us for eight innings. We went down to the wire, and in the ninth inning when Bobby swung we leaned out of the dugout to see if it would clear the wall. He hit it good,” Monte said. “No cheapy shot. He hit it hard. “Before Bobby reached home we lifted him up. He didn’t touch the plate but no umpire in the world would call him out.

“The fans followed us from home plate to the clubhouse. They hugged us and patted us on the back,” he added. “They were delirious. They would have carried us on their shoulders if we let them.”
And what about stolen signs? Monte responded quickly. “Sal Yvars was full of baloney. HBO and others made too big of the issue. Everyone stole signs. If we stole signs why were we losing,” he said. “Besides you have to hit the ball.”

After that dramatic game the Giants sailed into the series and beat the Yankees and Allie Reynolds in the first game 5 - 1. Monte stole home and had four hits. “The Yankees were both good and lucky,” Monte said. “If it didn’t rain after game 3 and if Don Mueller did not get hurt things could have turned out differently.”

Mantle and Berra scored the headlines during their team’s string of championships in that period but Monte attributed the Yankees’ success to Bauer and Woodling. “They were the secret weapon and the reason why the Yankees were so good,” he said.

In game one Monte stole home in the first inning. Monte told Leo, who coached third, he thought he could steal home. Leo gave him the okay. “It was a high pitch. I beat the tag. Yogi jumped up and yelled ‘No, No, No.’ I said ‘Yes, Yes, Yes’ and told him to stop crying and check the newspapers the next day,” Monte said. “When I saw Yogi for the first time many years later he comes over to me and said ‘You safe, Jackie out,’” Monte laughed.

An all-state player in four sports at East Orange High School in New Jersey, Monte, who declined a football scholarship to Michigan, quickly developed into a major league star. He played for the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues, under an assumed name, Jimmy Nelson, while attending Lincoln University in Pennsylvania where he majored in political science. Blessed with speed, power and a great throwing arm Monte left school after two years and became a Negro league star. His success led him to the majors. Monte and Hank Thompson became the first African-Americans to play for the Giants.

Monte had a career average of .293 including a high of .329. In 2500 at bats Monte hit 99 home runs and 97 doubles. In 1951, his second full season in the majors he hit 24 home runs and led the league with 121 runs batted. (The first African American player to lead the league). He batted .312 and finished third in the MVP ballot. Many think to this day he should have won it. He hit an astounding.458 in the 1951 World Series. In the spring of 1952 Monte broke his ankle in an exhibition game against the Indians. That year he played in just 46 games. The following year Monte suffered another injury further affecting his play.

Baseball’s color barrier deprived Monte from joining the Giants until 1949 at the age of 30. When asked about baseball’s injustice he said, “My ambition was always to play good baseball. I did. I feel fortunate. I played in the Negro Leagues for 10 years. I played with Willie Wells, Leon Day and the greatest hitter no one knows anything about, Josh Gibson. He was as strong as two men. He always led the league in homers and rarely struck out. I was happy when Jackie succeeded. I knew it was just a matter of time before others were selected.”

Initially Branch Rickey wanted Monte to break the color barrier. “I wanted to be the first,” Monte said. “I had been in the army for three years and I was not ready with my game at that point.” Rickey did not want to buy Monte’s contract from the Newark Eagles. Two years later the Giants paid $5000 for his contract. In 1949 Monte and P. Ford Smith became the first black players signed by Giants.

Today the Giants play in beautiful AT&T Park. All that remains of the Polo Grounds is a commemorative plaque on the site (now a NYC housing project) where the storied stadium once stood and the John Brush stairwell on Coogan’s Bluff. But for one day 60 diehard Giant relished in the legacy of a great franchise and the summers of Mays, Thomson, Hubell, Ott, Terry, Mathewson, McGraw and Irvin.

On this day NY Giant baseball returned to the city. One of our own came home. On this day Monte Irvin transported his fans back to 1954, to a time when the Giants, not the Yankees, nor the Cardinals, nor the Red Sox, nor their arch rivals the Dodgers, ruled baseball.

Photo: John Barr, Monte Irvin and Stuart Leeds; photo by Rudi Papiri