Baseball celebrates life of trailblazer Irvin

Hall of Famer and former Negro League player died in January at 96

Baseball celebrates life of trailblazer Irvin

Though you can't see or touch me, I'll be near,
And if you listen with your heart -- you'll hear,
All of my love around you soft and clear.

SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. -- Monte Irvin was remembered with an inspirational "Celebration of Life" on Saturday morning at the South Orange Performing Arts Center, in the community where the Hall of Famer, Negro Leaguer, war veteran and New York Giants trailblazer grew up. Those apt verses from a poem were on the back of a program given to attendees whose lives he touched before his passing on Jan. 11 at age 96.

Giants president Larry Baer, whose club is in New York for a series against the Mets, was on hand to speak and called the celebration "a history lesson of America." National Baseball Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson told guests that "of all the talented men who made the perilous trip from the Negro Leagues to the big leagues in the late 1940s, Monte may have been the best." Former National League president Bill White, Irvin's former roommate, entered quietly and said he "had to be here."

Speakers also included 1948 Olympic medalist and friend Herb Douglas; Rutgers professor Art Berke; Essex County executive Joseph DiVincenzo, who promised a seven-foot Irvin statue coming to the area in the near future; and Irvin's daughters, Pat and Pam. But there was one especially notable face missing from this event, and there was good reason for it. Irvin's protege and former Giants roommate, the great Willie Mays, wrote a letter and gave it to Baer to bring and read aloud -- explaining that the Say Hey Kid is simply not ready to let go.

"You're all going to hear a lot of things about Monte Irvin today," wrote Mays, 84. "There is much to be said. He was a good man, a good father, a good baseball player, a great friend. You might all even think that you know all of the stories about Monte and me; that he was my first roommate, that he paved my way, that we were friends, good friends, and even that we opened a liquor store together. But I am not writing these words to repeat what you already know. I am writing these words first for his family, Pat and Pam, and then for the rest of you so that you will understand why I could not join you today.

"Monte came into my life at the beginning of my professional baseball career. I was very young, but like most youngsters, I thought I knew everything! Of course, I didn't. But I wasn't really open to learning. You could have put the smartest man in the world in front of me when I was young, and I'd have just turned up my nose and said, 'Yeah, but can he hit?!'

"Monte let me know that he knew the things that I didn't want him to know; the things I tried to hide or keep to myself. He knew when I was unsure of myself. He knew when I'd made a mistake, even when no one else could tell. He knew how to stay quiet when his presence was enough and he knew how to speak his mind when I needed talking to.

"Monte was wise and generous and as tough as they come. He was all the things you've heard, and he was more. There will never be another Monte Irvin.

"So you see, I just couldn't be there today. I am not ready to say goodbye. Give me some time. I want to keep Monte alive in my mind."

Irvin's spirit was alive in the auditorium, as the "kilowatt smile" -- Pam's words -- loomed overhead.

Love around you soft and clear.

"Monte was my roommate. Obviously I had to be here," White said. "It was excellent. There were a lot of people. That's the first time I've met his daughters. It was a great celebration."

If there was a theme in this celebration, it was to be joyful like Irvin, to listen like Irvin, and to appreciate and carry forward the courageous actions of greats who integrated the national pastime -- Irvin, Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Roy Campanella and so many more.

Irvin was thought by most people at the time to be the likely candidate to break Major League Baseball's color barrier. Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey chose Robinson for the assignment, and the rest is history, celebrated every April 15 with Jackie Robinson Day. On this day -- exactly 65 years after Irvin and Jackie each batted cleanup in a Giants victory over the Dodgers at Ebbets Field -- it was time to celebrate No. 20's legacy.

"The history of the Negro Leagues and the Mexican Leagues and everything that got us to where we are today as a sport that is a cultural institution came out in just vibrant colors today, fully blossomed in my mind," said Baer, about a year after sitting on Irvin's couch at the family's home and presenting him with a 2014 Giants World championship ring.

"You have to be here, and you have to see Negro League teammates and hear from longtime friends to understand really how powerful and courageous people like Monte were. Monte didn't talk about some of the tough times. But you could see it in his eyes, now that I think back to talking to him. ... And you could hear it in the voices of the people today, how much amazing courage he had."

You could hear it in the voice of his daughter, Pat.

"He would recollect with great laughter his barnstorming days," she said, "the great people he played with and for, traveling from state to state with his teammates, and every once in a while, his mind would take him to a darker place -- remembering moments that he wished to forget or completely erase. He would become silent and rest his head in his palm for a moment. Then with a shrug, he would mutter: 'Oh well, that's the way it was in those days.' He would then return to the good times."

Douglas said Irvin confided in him about one of those dark moments. Working at the time for MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn as a public relations executive, Irvin was dispatched to Cincinnati in 1974 just in case Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's record of 714 homers there. Of course, the record ultimately was set back at Aaron's home in Atlanta. But while at Riverfront Stadium, Douglas said, Irvin was booed so roundly that instead of "staying for a couple of days to golf," he left town as quickly as possible.

Irvin played for the Giants from 1949-55 and then one last year with the Cubs in '56. He finished with a .293 average, 97 doubles, 99 home runs and 443 RBIs. Irvin sparked the Giants to the NL pennant in 1951, leading the Majors with 121 RBIs and batting .458 as the Giants lost to the Yankees in a six-game World Series. In 1954, Irvin and Mays led the Giants to a shocking sweep of a heavily favored Indians club.

In 1973, Irvin became the fourth Negro Leaguer elected to the Hall, joining Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard.

"He helped shape and was a part of the original committee that elected Negro Leagues players to the Hall from 1971-77," Idelson said. "When reviewing the criteria for Hall election, Irvin measures up on all accounts: character, integrity, sportsmanship and contributions to the teams for whom he played. He was a top-tier player, teammate and mentor, and was renowned for his humility and kindness.

Listen with your heart -- and you'll hear.

"It was once said that listening is the hardest thing there is to do in life, which is why so few people engage in it," Idelson said. "Monte was a great listener, because he cared about people. ... The common thread of this celebration was what a great human being he was and what an asset he was to society."

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. Read and join other baseball fans on his MLB.com community blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.