After Jackie paved way, Irvin made a legacy

April 15th, 2021

"A version of this story was originally published in April 2020."

SAN FRANCISCO -- Jackie Robinson will forever be remembered as one of the foremost civil rights pioneers in American history.

Since 2004, Major League Baseball has celebrated Jackie Robinson Day on April 15, an event to commemorate the day Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and became the first African-American player to appear in the big leagues in the 20th century.

This monumental moment nearly had a different namesake, though. Before signing Robinson, Dodgers executive Branch Rickey considered another player to integrate baseball: fellow Hall of Famer and New York Giants great Monte Irvin.

In the 1940s, Irvin starred for the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues, earning four selections to the East-West All-Star Game. His all-around talent and graceful demeanor made him a natural candidate to break the color barrier, but he was drafted into the Army in 1943 and spent three of his peak years serving in a segregated unit overseas during World War II.

Rickey tried to sign Irvin after he returned home in 1945, but Irvin felt he wasn’t ready for the Majors after his extended layoff from baseball.

"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,” Newark Eagles owner Effa Manley once said. “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 1880s. Of course, Branch Rickey lifted Jackie Robinson out of Negro ball and made him the first, and it turned out just fine.”

Irvin later said he didn’t second-guess his decision to turn down Rickey’s offer.

"I don't have any regrets," Irvin said in 2010. "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 rejoined the Eagles and led Newark over the Kansas City Monarchs in the 1946 Negro World Series. He signed with the New York Giants in 1949 and integrated the club along with Hank Thompson later that year.

Irvin may not have been the first player to break the color barrier, but he was a trailblazer in his own right. He became only the seventh African-American player to appear in the Majors, following Robinson, Larry Doby, Thompson, Willard Brown, Dan Bankhead and Satchel Paige. Irvin took it upon himself to mentor the next wave of African-American players, most notably Willie Mays. In 1951, he joined Mays and Thompson to form the first all-African-American outfield in Major League history.

"In my time, when you were coming along, you had to have some kind of guidance, and Monte was like my brother," Mays once said. "I couldn't go anywhere without him, especially on the road. I think he helped me to understand that when you play in New York, you have to understand where to go, how to dress and all that. Monte would bring me to his house in Orange, N.J., and his wife Dee would cook me greens and cornbread and all that kind of stuff."

Irvin was 30 years old by the time he made his Major League debut, but he still enjoyed a successful career as a left fielder for the Giants, batting .296 with a 127 OPS+ and 84 home runs over seven seasons in New York. He emerged as a key catalyst in 1951, hitting .312 with 24 home runs and an NL-high 121 RBIs to help the Giants overtake the Dodgers for the NL pennant. Irvin finished third in NL MVP Award voting and batted .458 in the 1951 World Series, though the Giants lost to the Yankees in six games.

Irvin earned an All-Star nod in 1952 and won a World Series with the Giants in '54. He retired after the 1957 season and was elected to the Hall of Fame in '73.

“It was a dream come true,” Irvin said in an interview with the Hall of Fame in 2006. “I only wish I could have spent those first 10 years in the Majors, because my numbers would have been so much better. After I got there, I gave it everything I had. When I was giving my induction speech, I almost broke up because it was an unbelievable dream that had come true, and I couldn’t believe it was happening to me.”

After his playing career ended, Irvin served as a scout for the Mets and later spent 17 years as a public relations specialist for the Commissioner’s Office under Bowie Kuhn.

Irvin died in 2016 at 96, but he remains immortalized at Oracle Park. In 2010, the Giants honored Irvin by retiring his No. 20, erecting it next to Mays’ No. 24 high above left field.

"Now, I feel like my life in baseball is complete," Irvin said at the ceremony.