Monte Irvin, a Hall of Fame outfielder who helped break down baseball's racial barrier, died of natural causes Monday night in Houston. He was 96.
Monte Irvin's affable demeanor, strong constitution and coolness under pressure helped guide baseball through desegregation and set a standard for American culture. 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 League stars to the Hall of Fame, something for which the Museum will always be grateful.
Irvin was the fourth African-American to play in Major League Baseball, joining the New York Giants in 1949. He played the next seven seasons in New York, making one All-Star team (1952) and helping lead the Giants to a 1954 World Series championship. In 1951, Irvin also helped push New York to a National League championship by leading MLB with 121 RBI as the team came back in the second half to overtake the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Irvin's career would end following a one-year stint with the Chicago Cubs in 1956. He hit .293 with 99 home runs and 443 runs batted in overall. While those numbers wouldn't allow him to sniff the Hall today, he was one of many African-American players who were robbed of opportunities to play their full prime on the biggest stage.
Irvin spent his entire 20s with the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues, making five All-Star teams and emerging as one of the best outfielders of his time. Even Irvin's time in the Negro Leagues was cut somewhat short by his service to the United States military during World War II.
By the time he reached the Giants, he had already played nine full seasons of baseball and fought three years in a war. That military service ultimately cost Irvin a chance to predate Jackie Robinson in breaking baseball's color barrier. Branch Rickey of the Dodgers had approached Irvin about signing with the club in 1946, a year before Robinson made his official debut. (Robinson signed with the Dodgers in 1945 but spent the 1946 season in the minor leagues.)
"I don't have any regrets," Irvin said in 2010, per Justice and Haft. "I couldn't aspire to becoming a major leaguer because the door was closed. Jackie Robinson is the real hero and the real pioneer. I was just so happy he was successful, and it made it much easier for all of us who came after him."
Irvin was nevertheless a pioneer and a mentor in his own right, taking a number of black athletes who came after him under his wing. He played an integral role in the development of Willie Mays, who began his career with the Giants in 1951. Mays and Irvin shared an outfield together for four seasons in New York, and Mays was on hand when the club retired his mentor's number in 2010.
Irvin was elected to the baseball Hall of Fame in 1973. He spent most of his post-baseball career working for MLB behind the scenes, first in public relations under Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and then in a more overarching consultant role after his retirement.
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