Obituaries

Monte Irvin, 96; Hall of Famer starred in majors, Negro leagues

After starring in the Negro leagues, Monte Irvin helped lead the New York Giants to two pennants in the 1950s.
Associated Press/file 1952
After starring in the Negro leagues, Monte Irvin helped lead the New York Giants to two pennants in the 1950s.

NEW YORK — Monte Irvin, the New York Giants outfielder who was one of the first outstanding black players in the major leagues and a Hall of Famer for his brilliance in the Negro leagues, where he spent most of his prime years before baseball’s color barrier was shattered, died on Monday night at his home in Houston. He was 96.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame announced his death. Mr. Irvin was voted into the Hall in 1973 after it was opened to Negro leagues stars.

He also became the first black executive in Major League Baseball’s hierarchy, assigned to promote a game that had once barred him because of his race.

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From the time he was growing up in New Jersey, Mr. Irvin could do everything: In high school he was an all-state performer in baseball, basketball, football, and track and field.

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On the baseball field, he could hit both for average and for power, as well as steal bases and cut down a runner with his howitzer of a right arm.

Yet by the time he played his first game for the Giants, in 1949, after years as a star for the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League — having endured the long bus rides, the run-down hotels, and the precarious paydays of black baseball — he was already 30, two years older than Jackie Robinson had been when Robinson broke the color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

Mr. Irvin knew his best years were behind him. “I was way past my peak then,” he later said. “My only regret is that I didn’t get a shot at 19, when I was a real ballplayer.”

When the Giants overtook the Dodgers in the storied National League pennant race of 1951, Mr. Irvin, playing in his first full Major League season, provided a glimpse of what he could have done to big league pitching during all his years of waiting. He batted .312 with 24 home runs and a league-leading 121 runs batted in during the regular season, and he hit .458 and stole home in the Giants’ World Series loss to the New York Yankees.

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“Most of the black ballplayers thought Monte Irvin should have been the first black in the major leagues,” Cool Papa Bell, a Negro leagues star and Hall of Famer, was quoted as saying in the book “Baseball for the Love of It” (1982). “Monte was our best young ballplayer at that time. He could hit that long ball; he had a great arm; he could field; he could run. Yes, he could do everything.”

But in 1945, when Branch Rickey signed Robinson to the Dodgers’ organization, Mr. Irvin was returning from Army service. He did not make it to the majors until July 8, 1949, when he and Hank Thompson became the Giants’ first two black players.

Mr. Irvin played on two pennant winners with the Giants: the 1951 team, remembered for Bobby Thomson’s playoff home run off Ralph Branca, and the 1954 club, which swept the Cleveland Indians in the World Series.

A thick-bodied right-handed batter, Mr. Irvin had a career average of .293 with 99 home runs over seven seasons with the Giants and one with the Chicago Cubs, despite his belated arrival and a severe ankle fracture he suffered in 1952.

He became baseball’s first black executive in 1968, when he was named to handle promotion and public relations for Commissioner William D. Eckert. He remained in the commissioner’s office, as an aide to Eckert’s successor, Bowie Kuhn, until 1984.

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In 1971, Mr. Irvin was appointed to a committee created to open the Hall of Fame to Negro leagues stars. He was voted into the Hall by that unit two years later, following Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Buck Leonard to Cooperstown, N.Y.

Monford Merrill Irvin was born in Haleburg, Ala., one of 11 children raised by Cupid Alexander Irvin, a sharecropper, and his wife, Mary Eliza. When he was 8, he and his family moved to New Jersey, eventually settling in Orange. He developed a powerful physique by climbing on and off a horse-drawn wagon that his father and his brothers were using to deliver milk for a dairy.

While playing for the Newark Eagles, he was a teammate of Larry Doby, another future Hall of Famer who became the first black player in the American League when he joined the Cleveland Indians in 1947.

Signing with the Giants in 1949, Mr. Irvin became a key figure in the 1951 pennant drive, which came to be known as the Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff. With more than a decade of professional experience, he also served as a mentor to a raw but immensely talented rookie center fielder named Willie Mays.

‘‘I lost someone I cared about and admired very, very much; someone who was like a second father to me,’’ Mays said Tuesday. “Monte Irvin was a great left fielder. Monte Irvin was a great man.’’

Mr. Irvin was philosophical about not being in his prime when playing in the major leagues. “ There’s no point in being bitter,’’ he said of being named to the Hall. “You’re not happy with the way things happen, but why make yourself sick inside? There were many guys who could really play who never got a chance at all.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this obituary.