His big league career consisted of just five full seasons – all of which came after he was 30 years old – so the baseball world will never know exactly how good Monte Irvin could have been.
But in those five seasons, along with his time in the Negro Leagues and the Mexican League, Irvin left an indelible mark on baseball -- one that resulted in a plaque in Cooperstown.
On Jan. 28, 1949, the 29-year-old Irvin signed with the New York Giants. Jackie Robinson had just wrapped up his second season in the big leagues, and Irvin was the first African-American player – along with pitcher Ford Smith, who also signed that day – to join the Giants.
Many had assumed that Irvin – a star in the Negro Leagues with the Newark Eagles – would be the African-American player who would break baseball’s color barrier. That assignment went to Robinson, but Irvin quickly traveled the same path Jackie did.
Starring in both the National and Negro National leagues, Hall of Famer Monte Irvin straddled the pre- and post-integration eras. After nine seasons in the NNL, Irvin joined Ford Smith as the first black ballplayers to sign with the New York Giants. (Osvaldo Salas / National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)
"Monte was the choice of all Negro National and American League club owners to serve as the No. 1 player to join a white major league team,” said Newark Eagles owner Effa Manley, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2006. “We all agreed, in meeting, he was the best qualified by temperament, character ability, sense of loyalty, morals, age, experiences and physique to represent us as the first black player to enter the white majors since the Walker brothers back in the 1880’s. Of course, Branch Rickey lifted Jackie Robinson out of Negro ball and made him the first, and it turned out just fine.”
Irvin was assigned to the Giants' Minor League team in Jersey City, N.J. but quickly surfaced in New York, making his Giants debut on July 8, 1949. By 1950, Irvin was a regular for the Giants, hitting 15 homers and driving in 66 runs in 110 games while splitting time between the outfield and first base.
In 1951, Irvin helped the Giants rally to tie the Brooklyn Dodgers in the season's final month, hitting .312 with 24 homers and 121 RBIs in 151 games and finishing third in the National League Most Valuable Player voting. In the three-game NL playoff series against the Dodgers, Irvin had a hit in each game, including a home run in Game 1. Then, in the World Series against the New York Yankees, Irvin hit .458 (11-for-24) with three runs scored and two RBI in the Giants' six-game series loss.
“I always respected Monte Irvin as much as any player I played with,” said Giants teammate Bobby Thomson, whose Game 3 home run propelled the Giants to a win in the 1951 NL Playoff. “He would show up and do the job every day; one of the strong guys on the ball club.”
Irvin was limited to just 46 games in 1952 due to a broken ankle but was still named to the All-Star team. In 1953, he hit .329 with 21 homers and 97 RBIs, and the next season Irvin had 19 homers and 64 RBIs while helping the Giants to another pennant. Irvin was 2-for-9 with two RBIs in the Giants' four-game World Series sweep of the Cleveland Indians.
Irvin retired after the 1956 season but remained in baseball and later worked in the Commissioner's office. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1973 by the Committee on Negro Baseball Leagues.
Irvin passed away on Jan. 11, 2016.
Craig Muder is the director of communications at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum