The men were old, but their star power burned brightly. A room full of journalists, often cynical, was nothing but reverent. Lined up at the table at the front of the room, flanking San Francisco Giants’ managing general partner Bill Neukom, were six of the greatest players ever to don the orange and black: Gaylord Perry, Orlando Cepeda and Juan Marichal on Neukom’s right, and Monte Irvin, Willie Mays and Willie McCovey on Neukom’s left.
The center of attention was Irvin, who at long last was getting an honor that had been bestowed on the other five Hall of Famers: His number 20 would be retired, never to be worn by another Giant again, enshrined on the ballpark’s balcony between Carl Hubbell’s 11 and Mays’s 24.
Perry put the honor in some perspective: “It is harder to get your number retired,” he told Irvin, “than it is to make the Hall of Fame.”
Irvin himself seemed to acknowledge as much when he said, in his on-field remarks, “I thank the Giants, but I say to them, ‘Why did it take you so long?'”
As he said that, I stood with Bob Tobener and his son Dave, whose Golden Gate Giants is one of the best blogs on the team. Bob had been writing to the Giants for years, asking them to retire Irvin’s number, but had consistently been rebuffed by former managing general partner Peter Magowan. Before Irvin was ushered onto the field, he paused for a photo opportunity with Tobener, expressing gratitude for his advocacy and asking him to keep in touch.
I had my own moment with Irvin, after the ceremony. I went up to the suite where he sat with Perry and Marichal, watching the game, and gave each of them a book. (Perry had me sign his — what a thrill!) Irvin, who is 91 years old and in a wheelchair, lived up to his reputation as a class act and one of the most gracious men in baseball. I told him I was born in East Orange, NJ, as he lived in Orange; it turns out he first lived in Bloomfield, where I grew up.
In the press conference, Willie Mays told about his rookie year of 1951, and what an influence Monte Irvin was for him. Irvin said Giants manager Leo Durocher assigned Mays to be Irvin’s roommate, and told Irvin to look after him.
“In my time, you had to have some kind of guidance,” Mays said. “Monte was like my brother. I couldn’t go anywhere without him, especially on the road. You have to understand things like where to go, how to dress. Monte would take me to his house in Orange, NJ, to get me out of the city. His wife Dee would cook me greens and cornbread, and he’d say, ‘You come from the South, you need Southern food.'”
“I didn’t understand life in New York until I met Monte,” Mays said. “He protected me dearly.”
Irvin modestly deflected questions about his own pioneering role in integrating baseball. “Jackie Robinson was really the pioneer,” he said. “He was the real hero. I was so happy that he was successful. It made it so easy for the rest of us.”
Of course, it wasn’t really that easy.
“He went through a lot of the same stuff that Jackie went through,” Willie McCovey said. “A lot of us went through a lot of the same stuff, but it just wasn’t as bad as what Jackie had to face.”
Irvin, in fact, almost was the pioneer that Robinson came to be. As one of the few survivors of the Negro Leagues, Irvin recalled, “I couldn’t aspire to be a major leaguer, because that door was closed. He ticked off the names of others who “would have been superstars in the majors if they had been given the chance,” men like Martin Dihigo and Josh Gibson.
According to a Web site hosted by the state of New Jersey in honor of its famous long-time resident, Irvin was signed by the Negro Leagues’ Newark Eagles in 1939:
Monte wasted no time establishing his dominance in the Negro Leagues. He was one of the rare five-tool players, able to run, throw, field, hit, and hit for power exceptionally well. He was widely considered the game’s greatest all-around star. Monte had all-star seasons in the outfield as well as at shortstop and third base.
In 1940, Monte batted .422. He followed up that amazing year with an MVP season in 1941, hitting .386 and belting a league-leading 41 home runs.
Monte continued his success as MVP in the Winter Leagues in Cuba. In 1942, he left the Eagles to join the Mexican League. While there, he dominated each of the Triple Crown categories and was also named MVP.
Irvin was then drafted, and served three years in World War II. In 1945, upon his return, Dodger general manager Branch Rickey signed him to a contract. But two things kept him from breaking the color barrier. One, Rickey wouldn’t recognize Irvin’s contract with the Eagles, and Eagles owner Effa Manley — the only woman in the Hall of Fame — refused to let him out of it. And two, Irvin felt rusty after his Army service, and wasn’t ready to play.
“I had been in the Army for three years and was not feeling that well,” he said. “I wanted to regain the old feeling, so I went to Puerto Rico to play. Larry Doby and I went together to the Cuban Winter League.”
In Puerto Rico, a baseball-playing father took his young son Orlando Cepeda to see Irvin play. “It was the first game I ever saw,” Cepeda said. He went just to see Irvin and Leon Day, but Irvin had hurt his arm and was out of the lineup. He pinch-hit, however, and “he hit a double with one arm!” Cepeda said. “It was incredible! Right Monte? Monte was everybody’s idol in Puerto Rico. After I saw him play, I said, ‘I want to be a baseball player.'”
While Irvin played, Robinson integrated baseball.
“When the Dodgers signed Jackie, we knew it was the demise of the Negro Leagues,” he said. While the players all hoped for their shot at the big show, they also mourned the loss of their way of life.
Soon enough, fabled scout Alex Pompez signed Irvin and Hank Thompson to contracts for the Giants, and they were assigned to the farm team in Jersey City, NJ. Irvin said Giants owner Horace Stoneham paid Effa Manley $5,000 for the rights. “After getting the chance, I slowly regained my form and started to play very good baseball,” Irvin said.
Irvin was 30 when he and Thompson debuted for the Giants on the same day in 1949. Although his best years were behind him, he still tore up the National League in 1951, leading the Giants to an amazing comeback that culminated in Bobby Thomson’s home run and the National League pennant. Mays remembered Irvin stealing home in the World Series; Giants announcer Jon Miller, who emceed the ceremony honoring Irvin on the field, said it was the first straight steal of home in 30 years.
Miller noted Irvin’s .394 lifetime World Series batting average, and said, “The man knew how to rise to the occasion.”
He was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1973.
The ceremony was great: Mays spoke, the Giants played a documentary about Irvin, and a video tribute from Commissioner Bud Selig; the “Junior Giants” unveiled his number, right next to his outfield mate Mays; and Irvin himself made a charming speech. (The event was only marred, for me, by Red Sox fans who jabbered through it; I think they couldn’t stand the notion that Willie Mays was not only a better all-around player than Ted Williams, but that he also had the World Series ring that Teddy Ballgame never achieved.)
“It’s a pleasure to be here,” Irvin said, “although at my stage of life, it’s a pleasure to be anywhere.”
While he had so many great moments in baseball, he said, he had few disappointments. “One of the disappointments,” he said, “was I never had the chance to play here in San Francisco.”
No matter. San Francisco knows greatness. The fans cheered as if he were one of their own.