The Chicago Cubs, The San Francisco Giants, and baseball lost a legend as Monte Irvin passed away of natural causes in his Houston home on Monday night. Irvin was the oldest living player to have played in the Negro Leagues, as well as the oldest living veteran of both the San Francisco Giants and the Chicago Cubs, the oldest living player to have won a World Series Championship, and the oldest living African American to play in the major leagues. He spent the first seven years of his MLB Hall of Fame career with the Giants, and ended it by playing a single year in Chicago.
Monte Irvin was born in Alabama, but raised in New Jersey, where he was a stand-out high school athlete. He excelled in four sports, and set a state record in the javelin throw, but his love at the time was football. While still in high school, he played baseball with a local semi-professional team, the Orange Triangles, an activity he claims helped to keep him off the streets and out of trouble.
He attended Lincoln College, where he played football, but that was short-lived. He left football behind when he learned that he could not continue to study pre-dentistry and retain his athletic scholarship. It was around this time that interest in the young athlete began to percolate in the Negro Leagues.
Monte Irvin played for the Newark Eagles in 1938 alongside Larry Doby, who would go on to become the first player to break the American League color barrier. Irvin killed it with his bat in 1940 and ’41, putting up batting averages of .422 and .396 repspectively, before moving to the Mexican League, where he hit .397 and added 20 home runs to become that league’s MVP.
After serving in WWII from 1943-1945, Irvin returned to the Eagles and won another batting title, hitting .401 and leading the Eagles to a win in the Negro League World Series, where he batted .462 with three home runs. Irvin was a Negro League All-star five times. Irvin’s is one of those careers that make you wonder – during that period so many years were lost to the war, so many players went, came back, were never the same, or had abridged careers. If he’d not been drafted, it might well have been Monte who broke the color barrier – he only missed it by two years.
In 1945 Branch Rickey of the then Brooklyn Dodgers tried to sign Irvin to an MLB contract, but Irvin didn’t feel ready, and the Eagles manager wasn’t about to let him go without compensation. The Dodgers lost interest, and Irvin went on to win the Puerto Rican Winter League MVP in the 1945-46 season. He also spent time playing in Cuba, before being called up to the Giants in 1949.
The Giants assigned the young Irvin to the International League Jersey City team, but called him up to pinch hit on July 8, 1949. He returned to Jersey City briefly, but when he batted .510 with 24 homers and led the league with 121 runs that season, he was called back to the majors to stay. He played 1B and OF for the Giants, hitting .299 that season.
Irvin’s career with the Giants was spectacular. In 1951 he hit .312 with 24 home runs and led the league with 121 RBIs. He finished third in the MVP voting, and with Hank Thompson and Willie Mays became one third of the first all-black outfield in MLB.
He went on to pile on crazy batting statistics, played in the All-Star game in 1952, won a World Series Championship ring in 1954, was the NL RBI leader in 1951.
Irvin’s career ended when he suffered a back injury in spring training with the Cubs. He went on to scout for the New York Mets in ’67 and ’68 and to become the first black executive in professional baseball when then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn appointed him to the position of MLB Public Relations Specialist.
Monte Irvin was inducted to the Mexican Professional Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972, and in 1973 was voted into the MLB Hall of fame by the Negro League Committee, based in large part on his five time All-Star status in the Negro Leagues while playing with the Eagles. In 2010, the San Francisco Giants retired #20 for good.
The world has lost a great ballplayer, and a wonderful man who saw and remembered more about the game than most will ever even dream.