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Irvin, about to turn 91, too big a man to be bitter

A March 1953 photo of New York Giants

A March 1953 photo of New York Giants player Monte Irvin. Credit: AP Photo

Disappointment first hit Monte Irvin hard when he was a Depression-era teenager and a life-threatening strep infection stole his dream of playing college football for Michigan. He got through it with chest surgery, his mother's home cooking and the firm belief that bitterness is no balm for life's unfairness.

He wasn't bitter when he was one of the best baseball players in the world but missed his prime because blacks weren't allowed to play in the major leagues. He didn't gripe when three years of World War II in the Army possibly cost him a chance to be the one to break baseball's racial barrier. And he is not complaining now, 60 years after his belated first full season with the Giants.

"Being bitter doesn't prove anything," Irvin said. "If you're bitter, the other person wins. If you just go on, you're on top. I think that's why I've lasted so long."

Irvin's 91st birthday will be Feb. 25, during Black History Month. It will be an occasion to celebrate a Hall of Famer who made history - Irvin was among the major leagues' African-American pioneers when he debuted July 8, 1949 - and witnessed it. Irvin and Hank Thompson broke the color line for the New York Giants on that July 8 day, fittingly at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field, where Jackie Robinson was playing second base.

Irvin was in front of his TV last July, watching President Barack Obama's lefthanded pitch at the All-Star Game. "I was delighted," Irvin said. "He was young enough to go out there and do a good job."

Speaking on the phone the other night from Houston, where he lives near his daughter and her family, Irvin sounded like an ambassador for baseball and life itself.

"You just feel good about yourself when you're with Monte," said Art Berke, chief operating officer of the Yogi Berra Museum, who is a friend of Irvin and a former colleague in the baseball commissioner's office.

The former Newark Eagles outfielder was genuinely joyful at a Negro Leagues reunion last fall in Atlantic City.

"There are not too many of us left, so whenever we get together, that is a precious moment," Irvin said this past week. "We talk about how much progress has been made and how little we made. I signed for $100 a month in 1938. I'm grateful for everything I've had, but I'm sorry that some of those great players never made more than $200 a month."

Not much saddens Irvin, but he does regret that most of America never even caught a glimpse of Leon Day and Ray Dandridge and others.

"They were extra-special. They were naturals," he said. "We were young and healthy and baseball was king, and we wanted to play the sport of kings. Those were good times. We didn't have very much but we enjoyed playing, and we were hopeful that things might change later on."

He remembers how the winds had changed by the time he returned from his Army tours in England, France and Belgium: "People were saying, 'They could fight for our country; they should be able to play ball for our country.' "

Maybe his name could have been as famous as Robinson's. Irvin was approached by Branch Rickey (president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers) about joining the Dodgers around the same time he approached Robinson ("I think he spoke to Jackie first,'' Irvin said), but he admitted to Rickey that after having missed three seasons, he wasn't ready. "I was getting over the war nerves," Irvin said.

He did deem himself ready in 1949, but Rickey and the Eagles couldn't agree on a fee, so Irvin signed with the Giants. A year later, he was a starting outfielder. A year after that, he was mentoring Willie Mays. "He was country. I put a little city in him," said Irvin, who grew up in Orange, N.J., after his family moved from Haleburg, Ala.

Yet Irvin was more than Mays' tutor, more than the co-host of a 1960s show between games of Mets doubleheaders. Montford Merrill Irvin was a towering talent on the field.

He was Mr. October before anyone came up with the nickname - batting .462 in the 1946 Negro Leagues World Series and .458 in the 1951 major-league World Series, with a steal of home. He set up the Miracle of Coogan's Bluff in 1951 by leading the National League in runs batted in with 121. He was an All-Star and a career .293 hitter in the majors, even though he did not get that career going until he was 31.

You just didn't hear it from him. "He is the most modest guy I've ever met," Berke said, adding that Irvin does know who he is and what he has done.

Said Berke: "Once I heard him say he wanted to play football for Michigan. I said, 'You could have been Tommy Harmon's blocking back!' He just looked at me and said, 'Tommy Harmon would have been my blocking back.' "

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