I realize that Monte Irvin died a couple of weeks ago, but I wanted to save my few comments on him until Black History Month. Considering his pioneering position it seemed appropriate.
I remember Irvin slightly. I don’t recall his glory years in either the Negro Leagues (that was before my time) or while he starred with New York (the Giants, not the Yankees) but I remember seeing him on TV as his Giants career was closing and I remember the Cubs year. He was never a favorite of mine. I was more interested in Willie Mays and Al Dark, Sal Maglie and Johnny Antonelli on that 1950s Giants team than I was in Irvin. I don’t think I ever had an Irvin baseball card (but I did have all the others I mentioned).
As I got older and he was long retired I began to understand the tragedy of the segregated Negro League stars and guys like Irvin, guys who actually got to play in the white Major Leagues but did so after their greatness was diminished by age or by the catcalls and slights of the earliest integration period. I found out later that many people thought Irvin would be the man to finally break down the “color barrier” and integrate the Major Leagues. He supposedly had all the right qualifications. He was a good player, he was quiet, he didn’t showboat, but he was 26 in 1946 and people were beginning to think he’d missed his chance. Jackie Robinson was about a month older than Irvin, both born in 1919 (Robinson in January, Irvin in February). So it seems it came down to Branch Rickey’s preference for Robinson over Irvin and he never got to be “the one.”
He won a Negro World Series (1946) with the Newark Eagles while playing shortstop with Larry Doby at second and Hilton Smith pitching. All three, along with owner Effa Manley and manager Biz Mackey, made the Hall of Fame. When the Giants picked him up they didn’t need a shortstop (there was Al Dark), but they needed outfield help. Irvin went to the outfield and roamed it with Mays and with Don Mueller (in the 1954 squad). They lost a World Series in 1951, won another in 1954. He hit .293 in the regular season but was a .394 hitter in the Series. For his career he managed 99 home runs, peaking at 24 in 1951, led the National League in RBIs in the same year with 121 and every year of his career he walked more than he struck out (except his final season when he broke even with 41 of each). His OPS+ is 125 and he ended with 21.3 WAR.
He made the Hall of Fame in 1973 as a Negro League inductee. He only had eight years in the Major Leagues so it was the only way he could go in. In retirement he did some scouting for the Mets and became the man for public relations in the Commissioner’s Office in 1968. It made him the highest black officer in Major League Baseball. He retired in 1984 and died at 96.
We are, as fans, better off because Monte Irvin graced a baseball diamond. He gave us a lesson in class and in dignity. Rest in Peace, Monte.