Irvin earns immortality with Hall of Fame election
Monte Irvin didn’t break baseball’s color line, even though he might have been the best player of his era.
But what Irvin did – on and off the field – changed the game and made him a legend. And on Feb. 7, 1973, Cooperstown came calling.
Irvin became the fourth player elected by the Special Committee on Negro Leagues, following Satchel Paige in 1971 and Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard a year later. Jackie Robinson, who became the first Black player in modern NL or AL history in 1947, and Roy Campanella had previously been elected by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.
“Jackie going up gave everyone hope that (they) might be next,” Irvin told United Press International after being elected. “I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to make the majors when I was 18 or 19. I thought I was ready. When I finally did come up, I was way over my peak.”
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An exceptional all-around athlete in high school while growing up in New Jersey, Irvin debuted with the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League at the age of 19 in 1938. By 1940, Irvin was a star – and the following year he led the league in RBI with 48 and in batting average with a .395 mark.
After playing most of the 1942 season with Veracruz of the Mexican League following a salary dispute, Irvin served in the Army for three years before picking up where he left off with the Eagles in 1946, winning another NNL batting title. Playing shortstop while teaming with second baseman Larry Doby for a Hall of Fame double play combination, Irvin led the Eagles to the Negro League World Series title.
“Monte is the most cool guy I’ve ever met in my life,” Doby told UPI. “He was my idol.”
Signing with the New York Giants following the 1948 NLL season, Irvin debuted in the National League on July 8, 1949. By 1950, he was a regular – hitting .299 with 15 homers and 66 RBI in 110 games.
Irvin’s best season game in 1951 when – at the age of 32 – he hit .312 with 24 homers and a league-best 121 RBI to power the Giants to their improbable comeback in the NL pennant race. He batted .458 in the Giants’ six-game loss to the Yankees in the World Series and finished third in the NL Most Valuable Player voting.
“He was a second father to me,” Willie Mays, who was a 20-year-old rookie with the Giants in 1951, told UPI. “We roomed together, and he’d tell me the places to go and where not to go. He’d actually see that I was in bed by 10 o’clock every night we weren’t playing.”
A broken ankle suffered in the spring of 1952 limited Irvin to 46 games that season, but he returned to a starring role in 1953 when he hit .329 with 21 homers and 97 RBI in 124 games. The next year, Irvin hit .264 with 19 home runs and 64 RBI to help the Giants win another NL pennant. This time, New York swept Cleveland in the World Series.
Irvin battled injuries in 1955 before finishing his playing career in 1956 with the Cubs. He soon became a scout for the Mets before embarking on a long career in the Commissioner’s Office. He passed away on Jan. 11, 2016.
“If they ever decide to start the Hall of Fame all over and place decency above all else,” Commissioner Bowie Kuhn once wrote, “Monte would be the first man in.”
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum