Thursday, January 14, 2016

Monte Irvin and the Miracle of Coogan's Bluff

As we remember Monte Irvin, who passed away this week just a month-and-a-half shy of his 97th birthday, it is worth considering the decisive role he played in the New York Giants' epic comeback from 13½ games behind the Brooklyn Dodgers on August 11, 1951, to the National League pennant. On account of his dramatic bottom-of-the-ninth three-run home run off Ralph Branca to “win the pennant! win the pennant!” Bobby Thomson is of course the ultimate hero of the "Miracle of Coogan's Bluff." Monte Irvin, however, was the Giants' best player, their most valuable player, and arguably should have been the National League MVP in 1951.

Monte Irvin and The Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff

Monte Irvin is honored in the Hall of Fame as a star player in two separate baseball universes—the Negro Leagues and the Major Leagues, where he did not get the chance to play until he was 30 years old in 1949 because black players were not allowed. Irvin was among the trailblazers following in the footsteps of Jackie Robinson, and many Negro League players believed he should have been the one to integrate major league baseball. He and infielder Hank Thompson were called up by the Giants as their first black players on July 8, 1949.

Irvin had an outstanding Negro League resume and was hitting .373 for Triple-A Jersey City when he was called to New York. With Bobby Thomson, Willard Marshall, and Whitey Lockman all hitting over .300 in the Giants’ outfield, however, there was little reason for manager Leo Durocher to make a change; Irvin played in just 36 of the 81 games the Giants had left on their schedule; he started in just 19 and came to the plate only 93 times.

Durocher, however, certainly knew the quality player he had. After starting the 1950 season with Jersey City, where he hit .510 in 18 games (yes, .510 is correct), Irvin was back in New York, in the starting line-up—first in right field, then at first base—and hit .299 in his first substantive year of major league baseball. The next year Monte Irvin began at first base, finished up in left field, and validated that he was not merely a legitimate major league player, but an elite player. 

Bobby Thomson is the hero remembered, but there would have been no Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff without Monte Irvin in the Giants’ line-up. Moreover, the legitimacy of Thomson’s “shot heard round the world” has since been somewhat tarnished, or at least called into question, by the revelation that he may have had help—Bobby Thomson always denied this was so—from spying eyes beyond center field at the Polo Grounds. 

The story well told in his book, The Echoing Green, Joshua Prager relates how Giants batters benefited at home when Durocher sent coach Herman Franks to spy on opposing catchers' signs through a powerful telescope from the Giants' center field clubhouse at the Polo Grounds, beginning on July 20. It was from that point that Thomson, who had been in a season-long batting funk that forced him into a platoon situation, came alive at the plate. He also resumed playing regularly on that very day as a replacement for Hank Thompson at third base after Thompson suffered a grievous injury that sidelined him for virtually the entire rest of the season.

Monte Irvin's hitting, however, carried the Giants at least as much as Thomson's. And Irvin had been hitting all year. At the time Durocher's spy operation went into effect, Irvin was batting .302, had 12 home runs, and his 61 runs batted in led the team. He finished the year with 24 home runs—second on the Giants to Thomson—121 RBIs to lead the league, and a .312 batting average.

When Durocher was canvassing his clubhouse to get his team's buy-in, quite likely making the point as an offer they could not refuse, Monte Irvin, according to Prager, had the temerity to tell his manager he didn't need extra help to be a dangerous hitter. Irvin proved his point, less by continuing to hit well at home (3 home runs,16 RBIs, and a .300 batting average from July 20 till the end of the season), than by going into other team's ballparks and tearing the place apart. 

In 39 road games after July 20, Irvin hit .340 with 9 home runs and 44 runs batted in. Irvin's productivity in road games was critical because not only did the Giants play more away games after July 20 than at home, all but seven of their scheduled games in the final month were on the road—where they did not have their unique Polo Grounds advantage—and they still had to make up a big deficit to catch the Dodgers.

In the three-game playoff to decide the pennant with the Dodgers, Irvin had one hit in each game, including a home run in the first game when the Giants got the jump on Brooklyn by beating them in Ebbets Field. So dramatic were the Giants' pennant drive and the Thomson home run to win it all that the ensuing World Series against the all-mighty Yankees was almost an afterthought. The Giants lost in 6 games, but Monte Irvin hit .458 (11 hits in 24 at bats) to lead both teams, got on base in exactly half of his plate appearances (also the best on both teams), and stole two bases—including home with guardian Yogi Berra making a desperate lunge to tag him out. Unlike Mr. Berra's insistence till the end of his days that Jackie Robinson, in another World Series steal of home plate against the Yankees, was out—OUT! OUT!—Yogi did not say the same about Monte Irvin's theft.

Based on the wins above replacement metric, Monte Irvin was only the fourth-best position player in the National League in 1951, after Jackie Robinson, Stan Musial, and Ralph Kiner. But especially given his clutch performance in the final two months of the season—Irvin hit .338 with 11 home runs and 49 runs batted in—when his team had to make up a seemingly insurmountable deficit against the Brooklyn Dodgers, a strong argument can be made that Monte Irvin was the Most Valuable Player in the National League. The Giants surely would not have won without his exceptional productivity.

Monte Irvin wound up with only five first-place votes for MVP, second-most in the balloting, and finished third overall in the voting. Brooklyn's Roy Campanella, who had 33 home runs, 108 RBIs, and a .325 average, won the award by a land slide, getting 11 first-place votes. Stan Musial finished second overall.

Through no fault of his own, Monte Irvin did not have the major league career that by rights should have been his. That does not change that he was one of the greatest players of his generation, and one of the best of all time.

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