Hall of Fame center fielder Willie Mays was once quoted as saying, “I think I was the best baseball player I ever saw.”
But when it came to life off the field, the legendary player credits his former teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Monte Irvin with being his teacher. Irvin died Monday at his home in Houston at the age of 96. Mays, now 84, spoke to NPR’s Kelly McEvers about the man he described as a father figure.
“He taught me a lot things about life,” Mays said. “I already knew how to play the game, but sometimes you need a little more. You need to know how to treat people. You need to know how when you hit a home run, you run around the bases — you don’t stop and show anybody up. Thinking was more important to him than just playing the game.”
For much of his career, Irvin played in the Negro Leagues with the Newark Eagles. When he finally reached Major League Baseball in 1949, two years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, he was already 30 years old. Still, his skill was undeniable.
“He had what I call a very good arm, ran very good, good hitter and most of all thinking,” Mays said. “He was a good thinker in the outfield and that sometimes is overlooked.”
When Mays entered MLB in 1951, he joined Irvin on the New York Giants, where, he said, the older man’s guidance was invaluable.
“When I came up in ’51, Monte taught me a lot of things about life in the big city — well, I call it the Big Apple, New York. I learned very quickly because I had to play the games in the Polo Grounds,” he said. “So Monte was there playing alongside of me at all times, and it was just a wonderful feeling to have someone in the outfield with me to make sure I didn’t make a lot of mistakes out there.”
Mays, Irvin and Hank Thompson went on to form the first all-black outfield in Game 1 of the 1951 World Series against the Yankees. It was a huge moment for baseball. For Mays? Not so much.
“To me it wasn’t, because I knew those guys … it wasn’t anything different. It made me proud to be a part of that particular unit at that particular time.”
When Irvin was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1973 he acknowledged that he “wasted [his] best years in the Negro Leagues.”
But he added: “I’m philosophical about it. There’s no point in being bitter. You’re not happy with the way things happen, but why make yourself sick inside? There were many guys who could really play who never got a chance at all.”
It was this thoughtfulness that stuck with Mays. When asked about what he will miss about Irvin, Mays said simply, “the man.”
“He was a guy that was sort of like my father. … There was a park by his house there, we would go out and just talk, nothing specific, just talk, mostly about life.”