A large part of the enjoyment of the classic baseball era is in reading and researching newspapers of the day – columns detailing the action, a press photo or two, those old box scores, but also the sports cartoonists of the time, with spotlights on an event or particular player, making the sports pages always a little more fun. And there are a few that are familiar to baseball historians and fans – Willard Mullin of the New York World-Telegram and the Sporting News, Gene Mack of the Boston Globe, among others. There are also some that are scarcely remembered at all, not because they were any less talented, but because their work was exposed to fewer readers as a result of racial segregation, not only in baseball itself but also in the press. Among the best of these is Eric “Ric” Roberts, sports cartoonist and columnist for the iconic African-American newspaper the Pittsburgh Courier.
With a unique perspective rarely seen in more mainstream newspapers, these illustrators would highlight black athletes, not only celebrating their accomplishments but often their struggles on their way to success. This entry is from the 2/5/55 issue of the Courier for Monte Irvin, not only citing his success as a NY Giant but his career overall including in the Negro Leagues (and playing in the East-West All-Star Game in 1941, batting .400 that year) as Irvin approached his 17th season in pro ball. And Roberts is correct that Irvin struggled in 1949 (as a 30-year old MLB rookie), but straightened it out and had a great 1951, with a 24/121(tops in NL)/.312 line, finishing third in MVP voting as the “Giants won the Pennant”. He’s also right that despite losing the Series Irvin crushed the Yanks in the Fall Classic, batting .458 (11-24) in 6 games.
Irvin was an All-Star in 1952, but due to a late start after integration did not have the youth to amass heady numbers in MLB; overall, however, he was more than worthy, including batting .354 in 9 Negro League seasons. He was elected to the Hall in 1973.
Ric Roberts was adept at cartoons and illustrations for all sports, but for baseball, football and boxing especially. And also being a respected sports columnist since the 1930’s, he eventually became the sport editor for the Courier as well. As with many of his contemporaries, he toiled in semi-obscurity for decades, but his work has always deserved a greater audience, and I’m hoping to help to bring more of his lesser-known “art of the game” to these pages in future posts.
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