His nicknames are “Black Jesus” and “Earl The Pearl”; he is an NBA Hall of Famer and was one of the key pieces to an NBA championship 40 years ago, the last one in New York. So in terms of sports, Earl Monroe’s first love was...baseball?
That's one of the many facts that come out in the upcoming bio Earl the Pearl: My Story, written with Quincy Troupe and slated for release on April 24.
Monroe tells tales of growing up in Philadelphia with Patti LaBelle, a brush with porn star Linda Lovelace in a New York bar, chance meetings with the KKK and hoops tales from his native Philly, his first NBA home in Baltimore and his last stop on the world championship Knicks. He also discusses his love for the diamond, which he discovered at an early age and carried all through his life.
“I started playing baseball and soccer. Those were my sports on the streets and in school when I was growing up. I didn’t even start playing basketball until I was 14,” Monroe said in a recent interview.
He filled his early days with games in the Philly sandlots, playing on integrated industrial league teams as a catcher—without a face mask.
“The face mask we had was too bulky, so I didn’t use it; I’d get behind the plate without one,” he said. “I caught a few foul tips, but it wasn’t until I was hit in the eye twice in a row that I realized it was time to try something different.”
The young Monroe moved to first base and retained his solid hitting while becoming a fan of the hometown Phillies: “We all knew about the Phillies. That’s what baseball was all about for us. We thought those teams were the best.”
As a boy, the solid-hitting future NBA star rarely made it into Connie Mack Stadium to see the hometown Phils, but everyone followed the team on the radio. It was just after baseball integrated, and although he did not have a full appreciation of Jackie Robinson (honored by MLB this week for his achievements), he was well aware of those heroes who followed behind the Dodgers star.
“I loved watching Hank Aaron as he came into his own as I started to grow up, and as I got older and experienced some racism myself when I went to college (at Winston-Salem State), I certainly had a much deeper appreciation for what Jackie Robinson had done for all of us in every sport,” Monroe said.
Monroe was not the only star on the baseball field at the time. One of his teammates was Al Goldis, who ended up with a brief playing career before becoming one of baseball’s premier scouts, helping scout and sign players like Robin Ventura, Frank Thomas and Kerry Wood before his induction into the Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame.
Although Monroe admits to only going to a handful of MLB games in his life (including seeing Sandy Koufax one-hit the Phils), he always followed the game, including when he made it to the NBA in Baltimore, a golden age for sports in the city.
“Baltimore was like a small town when I got there—the Colts, the Orioles, guys like Frank Robinson, we all knew and respected each other,” he said. “Everyone would cross paths at one point at Lenny Moore’s Sportsman’s Lounge, trading stories and having some fun. The baseball players—Paul Blair, Don Buford—we all had some great times together, and of course the Orioles were at the top of their game then.”
Of course, few at the time, or even now, knew of Monroe’s passion for baseball, especially since he was now the headliner for Gene Shue’s Bullets, annually locked head-to-head in battles with rivals like the New York Knicks and the dominant Boston Celtics teams of the era.
He then came to New York and helped lead the Knicks to their second championship in 1973, teaming with Walt Frazier to form one of basketball’s greatest backcourts on the way to being named one of the 50 greatest NBA players of all time.
Those years in New York were dark ones for New York baseball fans, although things started to change when the Mets made an improbable run to the 1973 World Series. Then George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees and helped usher in free agency and the re-establishment of a dynasty in the Bronx.
Those changes came as Monroe took his curtain call around the NBA, finishing up a legendary career.
Could it have all been different had he worn that catcher’s mask and not found his way to the basketball court in high school? “Maybe,” he said. “I loved to hit and loved to run the bases, but in the end things had a way of working themselves out, but for a long time it was baseball that was my game.”
One of Monroe’s Knicks teammates, Dave DeBusschere, made it to the pros in both baseball (with the Chicago White Sox as a pitcher) and basketball, and another NBA legend (Michael Jordan) pursued the horsehide during a self-imposed retirement for a few years, so maybe “Earl the Pearl” could have done the same.
We will never know now, but what we do know is a jewel of a hoops player also loved the diamond, one of many stories unearthed in a fresh new look at life and sport from a golden era through the eyes of one of its transcendent stars.
Jerry Milani is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted.