Monte Irvin, one of Major League Baseball’s first black players and the second-oldest living Hall of Famer, died Monday at his home in Houston. He was 96.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum made the news of Irvin’s death public on Tuesday.
“Monte Irvin’s affable demeanor, strong constitution and coolness under pressure helped guide baseball through desegregation and set a standard for American culture,” said Jeff Idelson, president of the Hall of Fame. “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.”
Jackie Robinson, of course, broke the color barrier in 1947 with the Dodgers, but Irvin could have been that trailblazer, according to the 2001 book, “The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture,” by William M. Simons and Alvin L. Hall.
According to the book, Irvin, a five-time Negro League all-star, was approached by the Dodgers’ Branch Rickey in 1945. The Newark Eagles’ business manager, Effa Manley, would not let Irvin leave without compensation.
“… from a purely business standpoint, Mrs. Manley felt that Branch Rickey was obligated to compensate her for my contract. That position probably delayed my entry into the major leagues … Mrs. Manley told Rickey that he had taken Don Newcombe for no money but she wasn’t going to let him take me without some compensation. Furthermore, if he tried to do it, she would sue and fight him in court … Rickey contacted her to say he was no longer interested released me … the Giants picked up my contract …,” Irvin said, according to the book.
In 1949, the New York Giants paid $5,000 for his contract, making him MLB’s fourth black player. He reached the majors that season and was there for good in 1950. In 1951, Irvin finished third in the MVP vote with his best overall season, posting an OPS of .929 and a OPS+ of 147 with a league-leading 121 RBIs as the Giants rallied to overtake the Dodgers in the famous 1951 pennant race which culminated with Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round The World.” Irvin batted—and popped out—before Thomson’s homer off Ralph Branca.
He also batted .458 in the World Series against the Yankees, although the Giants lost in six games.
Irvin played on that 1951 team with Willie Mays, who offered condolences in a statement.
“Today is a sad, sad day for me,” Mays said. “I lost someone I cared about and admired very, very much; someone who was like a second father to me. Monte was the kind of guy you had to be around to get to know. But once you became friends, he always had your back. … Monte Irvin was a great man.”
Irvin played eight seasons in the majors for the Giants and Cubs and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1973. Irvin later became a scout for the Mets and then spent 17 years in the commissioner’s office.
The Giants retired his uniform No. 20 in 2010.
“Monte was a true gentleman whose exceptional baseball talent was only surpassed by his character and kindness,” according to a statement from the Giants. “As the first Giant and one of the first African-American players to help integrate Major League Baseball, he served as a role model and mentor to so many who followed in his footsteps—including Willie Mays.”
Bobby Doerr is the oldest living Hall of Famer.
Commissioner Rob Manfred also offered his condolences.
“Monte Irvin was a true leader during a transformational era for our game,” Manfred said in a statement. “A longtime member of the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues in his native New Jersey, the All-Star slugger made a seamless transition to the New York Giants in 1949. With the Giants, he played a key role on two National League pennant-winning clubs and befriended fellow Hall of Famer Willie Mays. Monte remained an exceptional ambassador for the National Pastime long after his playing career concluded in 1956. He spent 17 years working under Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and long maintained a close association with the Giants franchise.”