A Very American Coup By Michael – Louis Ingram, Editor-in-Chief...
Former Negro Leagues Standout Irvin Returns To Pittsburgh
But the 88-year-old baseball Hall of Famer couldn’t help thinking how different it is than his first time, in 1938, when his Newark Eagles came to play the Homestead Grays at Forbes Field.
“We tried to knock each others’ brains out on the field, but off the field we were friends,” said Irvin, who was 19 at the time.
“We would have a couple beers together. At the Crawford Grill, we could have some dinner, listen to some music, meet some of the girls. We were young, healthy and single,” he said, laughing, in a phone interview from his home in Houston.
Grays who became his friends included catcher Josh Gibson, first baseman Buck Leonard, outfielder and shortstop Sam Bankhead and pitcher Ray Brown. Not so coincidentally, many of them ended up on Irvin’s short list of the best Negro Leaguers at their positions in his new book, “Few and Chosen: Defining Negro Leagues Greatness” (Triumph Books, $25.95), with sports writer Phil Pepe.
The book includes players like Hank Aaron, Roy Campanella and Jackie Robinson, all of whom started in the Negro Leagues, then went on to the major leagues after Robinson broke its color barrier in 1947.
Irvin, who joined the New York Giants in 1949, modestly doesn’t include himself in his rankings, but Pepe quotes other Negro Leaguers saying he was their best center fielder.
Irvin regrets that so many black ballplayers didn’t get the chance he had to prove themselves in the majors. “I call ‘em the Old Masters. I feel sorry for the fans because they didn’t get to see them. They were cheated. Those fellas could play!”
In his book, Irvin writes a little about the racism black ballplayers faced, especially in the South. But not in Pittsburgh. Between the Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords and Pirates, it was as big a baseball mecca as New York City in the 1930s, he said.
“We stayed at the Schenley Hotel. The Pittsburgh people were pretty friendly and knowledgeable. We always enjoyed the hospitality, particularly on the North Side.”
In his keynote speech Saturday, Irvin talked about his friendship with Gibson, the “black Babe Ruth” who many believe hit more home runs than his white counterpart during a 19-year career with the Grays and Crawfords. Three months before Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, Gibson died, some said of a broken heart because he didn’t get a chance in the majors.
Irvin doubts that.
“You couldn’t break Josh’s heart. He had the heart of a lion. In crucial situations, he was at his best,” he said.
The gala and silent auction at the Heinz History Center in the Strip District is a benefit for the Josh Gibson Foundation, which runs a local youth baseball league and mentoring and scholarship programs. Others who attended include Negro Leaguers John Miles, Ted Toles and Wallace “Bucky” Williams, and relatives of Buck Leonard and Satchel Paige, who ranks No. 2 on Irvin’s list of right-handed pitchers, behind the Grays’ “Smokey” Joe Williams.
Paige, the Negro Leagues’ biggest draw, played for the Crawfords and many other teams during a long, barnstorming career that culminated in an American League pennant with the Cleveland Indians in 1948.
Williams played from 1910-32 for eight teams, a typical career for Negro Leagues in which owners sometimes missed paydays and players often jumped at better offers.
Irvin didn’t do that, playing 10 seasons for the Newark Eagles and seven with the New York Giants. He said a good rapport with his teammates and team owners allowed him to focus on his play. His career batting average was .350 in the Negro Leagues, .293 in the majors and he was known for his quick glove, strong arm and lightning speed. He made the all-stars five times with the Eagles and once with the Giants.
The highlight of his major-league career was stealing home in the first inning of the 1951 World Series against the Yankees. Irvin, who had stolen home safely five or six times that season, noticed that pitcher Allie Reynolds had a lengthy windup and asked manager Leo Durocher for the green light.
“The pitch missed me by about 6 inches. When I slid across safely, [catcher] Yogi Berra said ‘No! No!’ and I said ‘Yeah! Yeah!’ “
He said, ‘How do you know you were safe?’ and I said, ‘You’ll see it tomorrow on the front of the papers.’ And he did.”
Irvin, whose Giants lost the series 4-2, was named to the All-Stars in 1952 but couldn’t play because of a broken ankle.
Irvin was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1973, partially on the strength of his Negro Leagues career. His best year was 1941, when he hit 40 home runs and batted .422.
“I was playing center field and threw out everyone that ran. I was a pretty good center fielder,” he said, chuckling.
NOTE: For more information on the Josh Gibson Foundation, go to www.joshgibson.org .