Art of the Game: Monte Irvin, by Ric Roberts of the Pittsburgh Courier

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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.

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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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2 thoughts on “Art of the Game: Monte Irvin, by Ric Roberts of the Pittsburgh Courier

  1. Tom,
    Monte Irvin was my favorite Giant and had he been able to play in the major leagues 10 years sooner, would have amassed prodigious numbers. He was also a better than average left fielder and had surprising speed for a big man.
    Irvin had a fine year in 1950 and was the Giants most valuable player in ’51, tremendous in the clutch. Unfortunately in ’52, he broke his ankle in spring training and didn’t return to the lineup until mid-August. For the final six weeks, he batted .310–but it could have been .510! I never saw so many line drives crushed, but straight to the gloves of opposing fielders.
    Monte was somewhat handicapped by playing half his games at the Polo Grounds, whose dimensions were outrageous in the power alleys and exactly where Irvin blasted most of his drives. Opening day at the PG in 1955 saw my me and my dad seated in the upper deck just to the left of home plate. The Dodgers were in town and got off to a big lead. The Jints whittled away and were trailing 10-8 in the last of the ninth with Jim Hughes on the mound for Brooklyn. Monte Irvin led off and belted a line drive off a Hughes’ 3-2 fastball. At first, it looked like a ball just to the right of short stop, possibly a base hit to left center field. Then, we saw Dodger center fielder, Duke Snider, back to the plate, racing at full speed toward the vast recesses of center field. The searing shot was exploding in a rising ark straight to the distant center field bleachers. My father and I said simultaneously, “Its going to go into the bleachers!” Only a few, in the history of the Polo Grounds, had ever hit a ball that far. Snider, at full speed, now at the 10′ cinder track fronting the bleachers leaped like a gazelle, twisting in the air, and came down in a heap at the base of the small center field fence with white flashing out of the webbing of his glove!
    I was so mad I slammed my score card against the seat–my hero robbed again! Then I realized that was the greatest catch I ever saw. NOBODY was a better center fielder than The Duke of Flatbush.
    Monte was a guest speaker at a Union County NJ hot stove meeting in the mid-70’s where I had a chance to chat with him. A very gracious, humble man.
    Best, Bill Schaefer

    1. Thanks, Bill, for another great memory! Wasn’t around to see those classic parks so I enjoy hearing the fan experiences of actually being there. PS if you’re ever near Orange, NJ they have a great new statue of Irvin at the foot of the park that bears his name, beautiful. Thanks for reading, Tom C

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