I saw the movie “42” last weekend, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It seemed pitched just perfectly for my daughters, 12 and 11, who were with me. Heroes were pretty unambiguously heroes, and villains even less ambiguously villains. The movie gets its share of facts wrong, but I’ve become accustomed to that in films “based on true events.” It’s pretty hard to tell any complicated history in just two hours. So while flawed, “42” tells the story about as well as we could have hoped. At any rate, I’m not here to critique “42,” but to look at the integration of the New York Giants, which took place two years (yes, that’s right, two whole years!) after Jackie Robinson broke in the Dodgers in April 1947.
Upon learning of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ October 23, 1945 signing of Jackie Robinson to play on their Montreal farm team, major league executives, concentrated in media centers and vulnerable to criticism, displayed caution in their reactions. Only Giant owner Horace Stoneham, under pressure from New York politicians, including Mayor La Guardia, to integrate, gave even a qualified endorsement of the Dodger action. “It is a fine way to start the program,” he stated. “But we have hundreds of returning servicemen and only if they fail to make the grade will we have room for new players.”
By 1948 in both the Brooklyn and Cleveland organizations, the introduction of African-American players had produced indisputable stars, championship teams and attendance records. Brooklyn had won the National League pennant in 1947, Robinson’s first year with the big club; and Cleveland, with the American League’s first African-American player, outfielder Larry Doby, defeated the Boston Braves in the 1948 World Series. Yet through the end of the 1948 season, the anticipated scramble for Negro League players failed to materialize. After watching Doby perform against his Braves, Lou Perini, unlike other owners, announced that there would be a “delegation of Negro players” in his training camp the next spring.
Stoneham’s Giants, now long embattled by New York pressure groups, took the fateful step in January 1949. The Giants signed Monte Irvin of the Newark Eagles and pitcher Ford Smith of the Kansas City Monarchs. Several weeks later they added Hank Thompson, an infielder who had briefly appeared with the St. Louis Browns of the American League in 1947. The Giants assigned the trio to their Triple-A farm club in Jersey City. Ford would not work out, but the other two players would.
Henry Curtis “Hank” Thompson, who stood five-nine, and weighed 170 pounds, was a man with a troubled background. He had been arrested when he was only eleven years old for truancy. He was drinking heavily by the time he was fifteen, and his father sometimes beat him. After he was released by the Browns for “failing to play up to major league standards” (hardly an indictment since almost no one on the Browns did), he played for the Kansas City Monarchs, where he started to carry a gun. In Dallas one night, he got into an argument in a bar, pulled out his .32, and killed Buddy Crow, a man who had played sandlot ball with Thompson years before.
Thompson was arrested on a murder charge. Since Thompson claimed that Crow had come at him with a knife, his lawyer argued it was justifiable homicide. Thompson, released on $5,000 bond, joined the Monarchs for spring training. Two years later, with the help of the Giants, the case against Thompson was dismissed. The Giants knew about this killing, of course, when they signed Thompson, but what they didn’t know was that Thompson had an alcohol problem.
Thompson, not notably bright, proved pleasant enough, except when an occasional rage gripped him. Baseball integration was proceeding at a lethargic pace, but just two years after Robinson’s first Brooklyn season, the hurdles were coming down: like any white player, Thompson could bomb out in his first stint in the majors and yet rate a second chance. In addition, the stern character barriers to African-Americans — no drinkers, no rowdies — were coming down. Henry Curtis Thompson was both.
Along with Thompson, the Giants signed an African-American of faultless character and keen intelligence, Monford Merrill Irvin, an outfielder who had attended Lincoln University, a small African-American college in Pennsylvania, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church. Irvin was thirty years old; racism kept him out of the major leagues during most of his prime playing seasons. Irvin was courteous, thoughtful, soft-voiced. To Robert Creamer of Sports Illustrated, perhaps unconsciously voicing some prejudice of the time, “Monte Irvin sounds like a Latin professor.”
Irvin was born in Columbia, Alabama, in 1919. His family, sharecroppers unable to make a decent living, moved to New Jersey when he was eight. Young Monte proved to be a star in every sport he played, and had a wide reputation by the time he finished high school. (Despite that, he and his date were turned away from a restaurant two blocks from the school on the night they graduated.)
Abe Manley, co-owner of the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League, had heard about Irvin and came to take a look. He liked what he saw, and signed Irvin to a contract. There was of course no bonus. So Irvin began play with the Eagles in 1937, under an assumed name and only on the road because he was attending college. In 1939, Irvin left college and his hope to be a dentist behind him, becoming a fulltime member of the Newark Eagles.
A number of people in baseball, including even Branch Rickey himself, thought Irvin might have been the superior choice to be baseball’s pioneer black player, for Irvin’s temperament was less explosive than Jackie Robinson’s. Irvin was a man of consummate dignity, gentleness and composure; it was his way to avoid confrontation. Cool Papa Bell, a great outfielder who played in the Negro Leagues with Irvin, said that “most black players thought Monte should have been the first in the big leagues . . . . He could do everything.” But the Dodgers decided Irvin was too old. (By the time 1949 rolled around, Rickey, still being to urged to sign Irvin, said he hoped the Giants would do so so that a second National League team would be integrated.)
Irvin could hit balls on a line to all fields, with scorching power. For a big man, he was surprisingly quick on the bath paths (he would steal home in the 1951 World Series); in the outfield he was more than acceptable. with a strong throwing arm. Had Irvin not lost so many precious playing years to prejudice, he might well have become one of the most productive major league hitters of his time. From 1950 to 1953, he hit .314/.403/.511 for an OPS+ of 139. In 1951, he led the National League in runs batted in. His last year as a New York Giant was 1955. He put in one year with the Cubs and then was finished as a major leaguer. “My career was condensed,” said Irvin. “I started late and finished early. He, and many others, still wonder what he would have accomplished had he had a full shot as a major league ballplayer.