SportsJam with Doug Doyle (2008) Monte Irvin and Jimmy Heath Talk Sports, Music & Segregation

Jan 20, 2020

Jimmy Heath on SportsJam with Doug Doyle in 2008
Credit Terry Sheridan for WBGO News

In 2008, SportsJam host Doug Doyle brought two legendary figures together to talk about how they dealt racial segregation in the Jim Crow Era and well as the synergy between music and baseball.

The late baseball Hall of Famer Monte Irvin joined the conversation from his home in Houston, Texas while iconic saxophist, arranger, composer and 2003 NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Heath spoke from his home in New York City.

Jimmy Heath and Monte Irvin shared a great mutual respect for each other, celebrity performers who both faced racism during their respected road trips, especially in the South.  Heath recalled when he was a teenager in North Carolina.

"I went to school in Wilmington, that's where I experienced most of my segregation.  I remember going from Philadelphia on the train and when you got to Washington, D.C., the nation's capitol, you had to get out of the integrated coach and get in the black coach, they had one coach for black people to go on down to Wilmington.  Those were indignities that we had to suffer.  I went to about the sixth grade in Philadelphia and then when I went to Wilmington in the winter to go to school there, I found out even much later that the white high school went to the 12th grade.  The black high school that me and Coltrane, Coltrane was in Hamlet, North Carolina and I was in Wilmington.  We were both the same age.  We both graduated in 1943 from high school and that was in the 11th grade.  That was a state law of North Carolina.  We never had any higher forms of math."

Baseball great Monte Irvin grew up in New Jersey and died at his home in Houston, Texas in 2016.
Credit Irvin Family

Monte Irvin died in 2016.  Irvin was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973.  He was a superstar with the Newark Eagles (Negro League), New York Giants and Chicago Cubs.  Many people thought Irvin should have been the player to break the color barrier in the Majors because of his temperament, character ability, sense of loyalty, morals, age and experience.  However, Jackie Robinson was selected by Branch Rickey to be the first black player to join a Major League team since the Walker Brothers in the 1880's.

Irvin grew up in New Jersey and was a standout football player at Lincoln University.  Irvin says much like musicians of color at the time, he and his black teammates had to stay in black hotels.

"It was of necessity that we did this because the other hotels were not accommodate us.  We had to patronize the hotels where we stayed.  In Birmingham, Alabama I remember we checked in, just coming in and one of the big bands was just leaving so the reason why we met (musicians) was because we had to meet, it was the only place we could stay.  And that of course not only happened in Birmingham, Alabama but all over the country at that time.  That was a common bond.  We wanted to be comfortable so we patronized the negro hotels."

Heath says the only good thing about staying in the black hotels was that it helped blacks who owned businesses.

"It was a two-edged sword.  We couldn't get in the real luxury hotels.  And eventually there were times when they put us right by the elevators in the white hotel, and they put you right near the noisy part.  But eventually we were able to come out of that."

Heath, the middle brother of the famous Heath Brothers, says it was common for him to face racism on the road.

"I experienced playing in Iowa or Wichita, Kansas where we had to play two or three different audiences, play for the white audience and then play for the black audience and that kind of thing.  I experienced the prejudice, but now I just want more to move on and want the African American youth to realize how the struggle that we went through to make and open the doors for them and they won't step in." 

During this early edition of SportsJam with Doug Doyle, both Heath and Irvin shared their praise for legendary jazz singer Sarah Vaughan.

Click above to hear the entire conversation with Jimmy Heath and Monte Irvin.