Back before the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson and made him Major League Baseball’s first African-American player, the team owners in the Negro League believed that one day Monte Irvin would be the one to break baseball’s color barrier.
Even though Robinson made the big leagues first, Irvin came to MLB two years later. He started what would be a Hall of Fame career with the New York Giants and went on to lead the league in RBIs in 1951. That was also the year Willie Mays came to the big leagues and the Giants picked Irvin to show a 20-year-old Mays the ropes.
Monte Irvin, circa 1952. (AP)
[Elsewhere: New MLB rule will require teams have full-time Spanish translators]
If nothing else, those anecdotes tell you two very important things about Monte Irvin: He was a talented baseball player and he was a man of high character. He’s remembered as such now, as news became public that Irvin has died peacefully Monday night at age 96 in his Houston home.
If you were forced to pick Irvin’s lone great achievement, it would be impossible. He was a mentor to Willie Mays, sure, but he was also the fourth African-American player in Major League Baseball. He won two penntants with the Giants. He was later a scout and worked in the Commissioner’s Office for 17 years. He had his number retired by the Giants. He was the fourth player from the Negro League to make the Hall of Fame, having been elected in 1973.
In his early years, Irvin’s baseball career was interrupted when he was drafted into the Army for three years as an engineer. His unit was deployed to the famous Battle of the Bulge. After World War II, Irvin returned to the Negro League, where he won the batting title the following year and then helped his team win its World Series. After he came to the big leagues, it wasn’t just Mays that Irvin mentored. He helped numerous African-American players in the early years of integration. That, as much as talent on the field, helped the game enter into a new era.
Jeff Idelson, the president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, remembers Irvin this way:
“Monte Irvin’s affable demeanor, strong constitution and coolness under pressure helped guide baseball through desegregation and set a standard for American culture,” Idelson said in a statement. “His abilities on the field as the consummate teammate are undeniable, as evidenced by World Series titles he contributed to in both the Negro and Major leagues, and a richly-deserved plaque in Cooperstown. He was on the original committee that elected Negro Leagues stars to the Hall of Fame, something for which the Museum will always be grateful.”
As for Mays, he called Irvin a second father in a statement released by the Giants:
“Today is a sad, sad day for me. I lost someone I cared about and admired very, very much; someone who was like a second father to me. Monte was a kind of guy that you had to be around to get to know. But once you became friends, he always had your back. You had a friend for life. Monte Irvin was a great left fielder. Monte Irvin was a great man. I will miss him. There are no words for how I feel today. I could say so much more about Monte, but this is not so easy to do right now.”
Irvin lived, undoubtedly, a full and purposeful life. He was the type of man who seemed destined to leave his mark on the world one way or another. Baseball, as it turned out, was how it happened.
Posted by Photojournalist James P. Grierson