These Men Changed Baseball: Monte Irvin
Moving to the co-integrator of the New York Giants, we move to a different sort of ballplayer than all who have gone before. Irvin fits into the mold of players like Satchel Paige, that is, players who reached the major leagues at such an advanced age that they have unnaturally short careers. Nevertheless, Irvin went on to the Hall of Fame for some combination of his Negro League and major league play. So who was he?
Irvin was born in 1919 in Alabama, one month after Jackie Robinson. He moved to New Jersey while young, and he came up with the Newark Eagles in 1938, at age 19. He played 5 seasons for Newark, then he served 3 years in the military. In 1946 he returned to the Eagles, playing there through 1948. He was approached by Branch Rickey in 1945 as a possible first black major leaguer, but the position went to Robinson. The two years Irvin lost mattered, as he came up at age 30 instead of 28. He played his first game on July 8, 1949, pinch-hitting against Don Newcombe and the Dodgers in a 4-3 loss.
Irvin only played 36 games his rookie season, hitting a mere .224. After lighting up the minors in early 1950, he was called up for good. (Check his 1950 minor league numbers. He hit .510 with a 1.216 slugging percentage in 51 at-bats!) Irvin then became one of the best players in baseball for the next 5 years, his age 31-35 seasons. He stuck up OPS+ of 131, 147, 120, 141, and 108 from 1950 to 1954. He finished 3rd in the MVP voting in 1951, trailing Roy Campanella and Stan Musial. He followed up the regular season by hitting .458 in the World Series in a loss to the Yankees. While doing that, he, Hank Thompson, and Willie Mays formed the first all-black outfield in MLB history. He missed most of the 1952 season due to injuries. By the end of 1954, age caught up to Irvin.
In 1955, he shuffled between the majors and minors, playing in only 51 big league games while hitting .253. In the offseason, he was picked up by the Cubs and spent his last season in Chicago, at age 37. For his career, Irvin played 8 seasons hitting .293 with 99 home runs and 443 RBI’s. He led the league in RBI’s in 1951, was twice in the top 5 in OBP, twice in the top 10 in batting average, and once in the top 10 in home runs. Irvin did all of this despite not debuting before his 30th birthday. He was a 5-time Negro League All Star and made the MLB All Star game once.
Irvin is a great might-have-been. Irvin was a fantastic player, no matter where he had to play. He could have been a great MLB player if he had the chance. Debuting at 19 is not unheard of in the major leagues, so it is likely that Irvin lost 8 full seasons to segregation, excluding his military service but including most of his prime. Regardless, Mays considered Irvin an essential mentor, and in 1951 he was the best player on a Giants team that went to the World Series. Unfortunately Irvin is largely forgotten. He did not last as long as Robinson or Larry Doby, he did not break barriers in the same way as Robinson, and he did not dominate his league like Mays or Ernie Banks. We should not forget Monte Irvin, though. He was crucial in paving the way for the younger players, like Mays, Banks, and Aaron, who would move on to superstardom. Happily, he was honored with the Hall of Fame in 1973, yet his number has not been retired by the Giants. For that there is no excuse.