Monte Irvin: From Alabama to Newark, San Juan, Veracruz, Havana and Cooperstown

Monte Irvin with Almendares

Haleburg, Alabama, west of the Chattahoochee River—near the Alabama-Georgia border—was Monte Irvin’s birthplace, February 25, 1919. When he passed away in Houston, Texas, on January 11, 2016, Haleburg’s estimated population was 119 souls.  Irvin’s SABR bio by Larry Hogan noted that Irvin [arguably] was “the finest all-around athlete to ever graduate from a New Jersey high school, with 16 varsity letters in four sports” at Orange High School, capped by a state record for the javelin throw. Coincidentally, Roberto Clemente—who deeply admired Irvin when his idol played for the 1945-47 San Juan Senators—threw the javelin in high school.

Irvin’s family moved to New Jersey, where he grew up. The University of Michigan offered him an athletic scholarship but he turned it down, lacking funds to move to Ann Arbor. He was an All-C2AA running back at Lincoln University, near Oxford, Pennsylvania, pre-dentistry studies, but could not keep his athletic scholarship and take pre-dentistry courses. The main focus of this blog is Irvin with the San Juan Senators in Puerto Rico and his MLB status seasons with the Newark Eagles.

1940 and 1941 Newark Eagles

By 1940, Irvin was the 21-year old Newark Eagles CF, posting a .371 AVG, .430 OBP, .573 SLG, and 1.004 OPS.   The 1940 Homestead Grays won the Negro National League (NNL) pennant, despite losing Josh Gibson to the Mexican League. In 1941, Irvin mostly played shortstop. In 42 league games, he had 62 hits/157 AB, 13 doubles, one triple, eight HR and 48 RBI, a .395/.441/..643 slash line, and 1.084 OPS. 

1940-42 San Juan Senators

The 1940-41 Puerto Rico Winter League (PRWL) featured eight teams; each had three Imports—mostly Stateside Negro Leaguers. San Juan’s were: catcher Johnny Hayes, CF Irvin, and P-RF Roy Partlow, league batting champ (.441 AVG). Hayes batted .358 while Irvin went 39-for-159, a .245 AVG for the 22-20 Senators, who finished third. Caguas (27-15) won the first half; Santurce (11-3), the second half. Caguas, behind RHP Billy Byrd, bested Santurce in the finals. Versatility was an asset. San Juan’s best Native players were P-1B Gerardo Rodríguez (6-3 W-L) and P-OF Freddie Thon Sr. (5-4 W-L).  Four other .400 + hitters in the league, after Partlow, were: Ted Young (.426) and Perucho Cepeda (.421) of Guayama; Santurce’s Clarence Palm (.409); Ponce’s Pancho Coímbre (.401).

Irvin led the 1941-42 league with 18 doubles or 66 in 162 games. He had a .297 AVG, three HR, and 26 RBIs for the 24-20 Senators, who again finished third. Bill Wright (.280, 4, 27) and Rafael Polanco (.283, 1, 13) flanked Irvin, with Thon a starter and fourth OF. Freddie Thon Jr., team batboy by 1943-44, age six, recalled Saturday afternoon games, and Sunday morning-afternoon double-headers. “From 1943-44 on, my dad took me everywhere with him—Ponce, Mayagüez—then (1946-47), to Caguas, Aguadilla and, of course, Sixto Escobar [shared by San Juan and Santurce].”

Irvin, Gerardo Rodríguez, Thon Sr. (who wore glasses) and Wright played for the 1941-42 Northeast Team in two League All-Star Games, with others from Caguas (Byrd, Roy Campanella, Sammy Céspedes, Manolo García, Luis R. Olmo, Lennie Pearson); Humacao (Willard Brown); and Santurce (Luis Rafael Cabrera, Ray Dandridge, Joshua Gibson, Vidal López). On January 1, 1942, they swept the Southeast squad of Aguadilla, Guayama, Mayagüez, and Ponce, 7-3 and 8-3. Wright homered in Game One; Josh Gibson homered twice in Game Two. Five Cooperstown Hall of Famers played for the Northeast team: Irvin, Campanella, Dandridge, Willard Brown, and Josh Gibson. Freddie Thon Jr. saw his dad give up a Gibson HR, February 8, 1942. On March 1, he witnessed Gibson’s 13th (and final) HR of 1941-42, a 600-foot shot against Humacao-Arecibo at Escobar.                                                                                                                                                  

“Josh Gibson was in his prime and there was no better hitter in Puerto Rico, or perhaps in organized baseball from what dad said,” stated Thon Jr. “Gibson was just so strong.” (Gibson batted .480 in 1941-42, 13 HR in 123 AB; a .959 SLG.)

An appreciate Irvin, five decades later, told the author, at a New York City function: “It was a great experience. I hadn’t been playing that long, so going to Puerto Rico gave me opportunities to practice my fielding, hit curveballs, hit change-ups. It gave me a chance to polish the skills I had. That’s why I welcomed it so much.”

1942 Azules (Blues) de Veracruz and World War II

Irvin nearly won the Triple Crown for last-place Veracruz (39-46) with a .397 AVG, 20 HR, and 79 RBI. (Silvio García had 83 RBI for Mexico City.) Torreón (48-40) copped the pennant, with player-MGR Martín Dihigo’s pitching Triple Crown: 22-7, 2.53 ERA, and 211 strikeouts! Juan Vené, noted Irvin’s monthly salary was $400, plus an apartment and maid service. “I was recently married, so this was my honeymoon,” said Irvin. “We were losing in the ninth by a run, with two outs. There was one on when owner Jorge Pasquel summoned me to his box seat and requested a home run. And, yes, I hit one out. We won the game. Pasquel was at home plate and slipped me $500—lot of money back then.” From 1943-45, Irvin was in Europe with the U.S. Army Engineers. He saw combat action in the Battle of the Bulge, December 1944-January 1945.

San Juan Wins their First PRWL Crown, 1945-46

The PRWL had four teams, 1945-46—San Juan, Santurce, Ponce and Mayagüez. Irvin, P-OF Johnny Davis, and C-MGR Robert Clarke were three Imports. The versatile Irvin played 2B with Jaime Almendro at SS. Fellé Delgado (LF), Luis R. Olmo (CF) and Thon (RF) were a solid OF trio, with Johnny Davis contributing. Irvin deserved to win the league batting crown with 57 hits in 155 AB, .3677, for the 24-16 Senators. Ponce’s Fernando Díaz Pedroso was the leader (.3684), with 35 hits/95 AB without 3.1 plate appearances per game—127, in Ponce’s 41 games. Irvin’s 12 doubles tied him for the league lead with Thon and Ponce’s Pancho Coímbre. Davis’s 2.42 ERA led all pitchers.

Eight-year-old batboy Freddie Thon Jr. traveled to away games with his dad and teammates in well-maintained “carros públicos” (jitneys), but not a team bus. “I always remember stopping at Arecibo to pick up Olmo on trips to Mayagüez. The team stopped at Cayey or Arecibo for meals on the way home after the Sunday p.m. game. Monte Irvin amazed everyone by crushing beer cans, while FULL!” Thon recalled fans giving players money in their caps, for hitting a homer or doing something big to win a game. “Irvin, well-educated and serious, wouldn’t do that. Instead, he had me [batboy] do it for him and gave me a nice tip!”

San Juan team chemistry was excellent, since “Monte Irvin and wife Dee were best friends of my dad and mom, along with Hiram & Virginia Bithorn and Louie & Tita Olmo.” The Senators bested Mayagüez, four games to two, in the league finals, February 17 – March 3, 1946. Mayagüez player-MGR Joe Buzas had “a big fight with Hiram Bithorn, but later became a good friend of my dad. He (Buzas) was always quite aggressive,” said Thon Jr.

The announcement of Irvin as League MVP was made prior to Game One, at Escobar. Irvin slugged two HR and drove in five, in a 13-8 win.  He went 4-for-4 in Game Two, a 14-8 victory. Olmo hit a three-run HR. Games Three and Four were at Mayagüez’s Liga Paris, February 24. San Juan’s 14-10-win preceded Mayagüez’s 16-5 triumph. Irvin went 2-for-4 in the latter game. On March 2, Tite Figueroa bested San Juan, 3-1, but the Senators won the title Sunday morning (March 3), 9-2, behind Juan Carrero. Irvin recalled: “All I know is we won, we were very happy and made some money doing it. It’s a wonderful feeling being a champion, a terrific feeling. We needed a 2B, and Olmo told me: ‘You’re fast, can hit, and have a great arm, so why not?’”

1946 First East-West All-Star Game and 1946 World Series Title for Newark Eagles

Irvin was sensational for 56-23-3 Newark in 1946, a .375/.447/.574 slash line and 1.021 OPS. Playing SS, he had nine HR and 63 RBI in 66 league games. Larry Doby, 22-year old 2B, posted a .366/.441/.595 slash line and 1.036 OPS. Lennie Pearson (1B) and Johnny Davis (LF) contributed. RHP Leon Day (13-2 for Newark) saved the first of two (August 15, 1946) East-West All-Star Games, a 6-3 East win. Irvin scored one and drove in one. Irvin led Newark to a September 17-29, 1946 World Series triumph over the Kansas City Monarchs, featuring Satchel Paige and Willard Brown, who excused himself from Game Seven to sign a contract in New York City, to play for 1946-47 Santurce. Irvin got a key Game Two hit off Paige, 7-4 Newark win. For the series, he had three HR and eight RBI; drew three walks; and stole a base.    

September 17-29, 1946: Newark Eagles get the best of Kansas City Monarchs in Negro League World Series

San Juan Senators, 1946-47

Larry Doby, Barney Brown and Monte Irvin with San Juan 1946-47

Irvin (.387) lost the batting title to Willard Brown (.390). Larry Doby had a splendid year for San Juan, a .349 AVG. San Juan’s LHP Barney Brown (16-5) was League MVP. Among Irvin’s biggest fans was 12-year old Roberto Clemente, who made the trek from Carolina to Escobar Stadium by public transportation to see him play. Post-game, Clemente waited for Irvin to come out of the ballpark to get a glimpse of his favorite player. Irvin left the Island full of contentment. “What I liked about Puerto Rico was the weather, and the fans were so enthusiastic. If they liked you, they could really turn you on to do your utmost. I used to visit them at their homes and talk to them at the ballpark…nothing but fond memories. I met Luis Olmo, one of my best friends.”

Table I: Monte Irvin’s Pro Baseball Hitting Stats

#Irvin’s 1938-1943 and 1945-48 seasons with Newark are MLB status; includes eight National League seasons: 1949-1955 New York Giants and 1956 Chicago Cubs. !Four East All-Star Games; All-Star Games versus white big leaguers. ##1946 World Series, Newark Eagles versus KC Monarchs. Irvin scored nine or 10 runs. ++1951 and 1954 World Series for New York Giants. <1942 Azules de Veracruz. ^1940-42 and 1945-47 San Juan Senators. >Cuban Winter League:1947-49 Almendares Scorpions. @February 20-25, 1949 Caribbean Series hosted by Havana, Cuba. Sources: Larry Lester; Jorge S. Figueredo, Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History, 1878-1961, McFarland (2003);

Mexico and Cooperstown

In 1971, Irvin was one of 11 inductees in Mexico’s Baseball Hall of Fame, including Baldomero “Melo” Almada, Jorge Pasquel Casanueva, Roy Campanella, and Josh Gibson. On August 6, 1973, Irvin, Roberto Clemente, Warren Spahn, George Kelly, Mickey Welch, and umpire Billy Evans were inducted into Cooperstown.

Special thanks to Monte Irvin, for his time; to Freddie Thon Jr., for recollections of Monte with San Juan.  With gratitude to Eduardo B. Almada, Gary Ashwill, Larry Lester, and Jorge Colón Delgado, Official Historian, Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League.

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