Had it not been for World War II, Monte Irvin's name might be synonymous with the breaking of the color barrier in Major League Baseball.
So close to immortality.
Irvin, 74, a Citrus County resident, was a World Series record-holder for the New York Giants in the 1950s and, eventually, a Hall of Famer.
He tore up the Negro Leagues during 1939-42 and, after a year playing in Mexico and two years of military service, 1946-48. Records are sketchy, but he averaged .345 before joining the New York Giants in 1949, two years after Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers.
"Irvin's not in the Hall of Fame because of what he did in the majors," Dodgers pitching great Don Newcombe said. "He's in there because of what he did in the Negro Leagues. I played with him there and he deserved to come to the majors long before he finally did."
Like many superstars, Irvin excelled in every sport in high school.
" "I was a natural athlete," he said. "I was all-state in football, basketball, baseball and track for three years. If I'd been allowed to play varsity as a freshman, it would have been four years."
Irvin's next stop was centerfield for the Newark Eagles. He did it for the money _ and because most jobs were closed then to blacks.
"After high school I joined the Negro Leagues because there just wasn't anything else open for me. I got tired of being broke all the time," he said.
The late Negro Leagues star outfielder James "Cool Papa" Bell, whose 20-year Negro League career ended the year before Robinson reached the majors, once said Irvin was the best young player around and that a lot of his contemporaries thought Irvin should have been first to break the big-league color line.
"He could really run, but he was best at hitting the ball very hard and very far away," Newcombe said. "I saw him hit some balls into the centerfield bleachers at the Polo Grounds in New York _ some 450 feet from home plate."
But in 1944, Irvin was drafted. When he returned to baseball, he said, everything was different.
"Before the war, I had been selected by officials of the Negro Leagues to be the first black to go to the majors if it ever happened," Irvin said. "But when I came back, I found my nerves had gone bad on me. I didn't feel right and I wasn't the same person.
"It was something that happened to a lot of the guys from being away from their lives for so long. It was hard to adjust. I had to start over, to relearn everything. It was a big surprise when Jackie went up. No one expected it at all. I was disappointed that it wasn't me."
Once Robinson succeeded, Irvin said, "we knew the Negro Leagues weren't going to last. The attention was all on the big leagues because all the greats were moving up there. Roy Campanella, Larry Doby _ everybody."
Irvin was 30 when he finally got the call. On July 8, 1949, he and black third baseman Hank Thompson made their debut for the Giants against Newcombe and the Dodgers at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Irvin, a pinch-hitter, walked. Thompson went 0-for-4. It was the first time in major-league history a black pitcher faced a black hitter.
In 1951, when he led the National League with 121 RBI, finished second with 11 triples and led the Giants with a .312 batting average, Irvin was part of the first all-black outfield, with Thompson in rightfield and Willie Mays in centerfield.
"Facing Newcombe wasn't a big deal to me, but it was to everybody else," Irvin said. "And in '51, we didn't realize we were the first all-black outfield. It's just not the kind of thing we thought about."
"It was just him in a Giants uniform and me in a Dodgers uniform," Newcombe agreed. "We were in the bigs, and that was all that mattered."
Irvin batted .299 in 1950, his first full season in the majors, and .312, .310 and .329 the next three years. He played in two World Series, entering the record book in 1951 with four hits in one game and 10 singles in a six-game series.
After seven seasons with the Giants and one with the Chicago Cubs, Irvin retired in 1956. He was a special assistant to the baseball commissioner from 1968-84 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1973. For 18 months, Irvin has run the Monte Irvin Baseball Group, a baseball memorabilia shop in Crystal River.
More important to him than acclaim as a major-leaguer, Irvin said, was the influence the desegregation of baseball had on the desegregation of the United States.
"It made things better for all blacks, for everybody, from secretaries to the average Joe. It opened up a whole new world," Irvin said. "And kids. Kids finally saw that if they worked hard, they could do something great. Baseball was great for the world, athletically, politically and socially. And in every other way, too."
Irvin's and Robinson's career stats
YEARS G AB H 2B 3B HR SB BA
Negro Leagues 1945 47 163 63 14 4 5 13 .387
Major leagues 1947-56 1382 4877 1518 273 54 137 197 .311
MONTE IRVIN YEARS G AB H 2B 3B HR SB BA
Negro Leagues '39-42, '46-48 245 850 293 44 7 33 22 .345
Major leagues 1949-56 764 2499 731 97 31 99 28 .293
_ Not including post-season games