A Five-Tool Talent
By Andrew Simon | @AndrewSimonMLB
Unlike many other stars of the Negro Leagues, Monte Irvin did get his shot in the Majors. However, he didn’t get that shot soon enough to put his substantial talents on full display on the biggest stage.
Irvin, who died at age 96 in 2016, lived a full life – much of it baseball. He was a four-sport phenom in high school, dominated the competition in the Negro Leagues and in Latin America, had his career interrupted by war, and later became one of the first African-Americans to play in the Majors. By that time, he was in his 30s and past his physical prime, but Irvin still shined in the big leagues, over seven seasons with the New York Giants and one with the Cubs. Afterward, he worked as a scout and in the Commissioner’s Office, helping break more ground as a black executive.
• Had circumstances been just a bit different, Irvin may well have been the man who broke baseball’s color barrier. The talent certainly was there. Fellow Negro Leagues star and Hall of Famer Cool Papa Bell called Irvin the Negro Leagues’ best young player at the time, one who “could do everything” on the field. Effa Manley, owner of Irvin’s Newark Eagles club, said he was the top choice of Negro Leagues owners, who believed Irvin “was the best qualified by temperament, character, ability, sense of loyalty, morals, age, experiences and physique” to take on the responsibility.
“I think most people who know the story of Jackie Robinson have heard that he was not the best player in the Negro Leagues when he broke into Major League Baseball in ‘47,” official MLB historian John Thorn told MLB Network. “If [Dodgers general manager] Branch Rickey had wanted to get the very best player, he would have gotten Monte Irvin or possibly Sam Jethroe, both of them better all-around players than Robinson at that point.”
But it didn’t work out that way, despite interest from the Dodgers. Manley’s desire for compensation from Rickey’s club may have played a role. But Irvin also had spent three years away from baseball (1943-45), serving with the Army in Europe during World War II, a difficult experience that he later said “affected me both mentally and physically.” When Irvin returned from the war, he wasn’t ready. It wasn’t until July 8, 1949, that he made his Major League debut with the Giants, about four months after his 30th birthday.
• Statistics from the Negro Leagues are incomplete, and verified data is limited. But there is no doubt that Irvin was a standout with the Eagles, winning a batting title at age 22 in 1941, when the available numbers show him hitting .400 in 130 at-bats. The next year, he took his talents to the Mexican League, where he nearly won a Triple Crown, before the military came calling.
“I could do the five things pretty well before the war,” Irvin said in an oral history conducted on behalf of the Hall of Fame in 1988. “It was run, hit, field, throw and hit for power. There wasn’t too many people who could beat me playing.”
• Another place Irvin played before reaching the Majors was in Cuba, where he went for winter ball. There he met an aspiring pitcher by the name of Fidel Castro. The future leader of Cuba would work out with Irvin’s team, throwing batting practice.
“He could throw pretty hard, but his control was off,” Irvin recalled in an interview with the Hall of Fame.
• Irvin’s 1951 season with the Giants – his only MLB season with more than 512 plate appearances – provides a tantalizing clue about what he could have accomplished if given the chance earlier. At age 32, Irvin came to the plate 657 times and ranked fifth in the National League in batting (.312), fourth in OBP (.415), seventh in slugging (.514), sixth in OPS+ (147), third in triples (11), 10th in home runs (24) and first in RBIs (121). His 6.9 WAR, per Baseball Reference, ranked fifth. It was a superstar season for a “Miracle” Giants team that badly needed it. For his efforts, Irvin placed third in a competitive NL MVP race, behind Roy Campanella and Stan Musial.
“Monte was the best all-around player I have ever seen,” Campanella later said. “As great as he was in 1951, he was twice that good 10 years earlier in the Negro Leagues.”
• Speaking of 1951, Irvin played a major role in one of the most memorable pennant races of all-time. After losing on Aug. 11 that year, the Giants trailed the crosstown rival Dodgers by a whopping 13 games. But the Giants won 37 of their next 44 – Irvin batted .335/.423/.604 over that stretch, with nine homers and 37 RBIs – to tie the Dodgers at the end of the regular season. In the ensuing three-game tiebreaker series, Irvin homered to help win the first game, and doubled and scored off Don Newcombe to tie the decisive third game in the seventh inning. Two innings later, Irvin watched as Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” won the pennant for the Giants.
“We would not have made that huge comeback in 1951 and won the pennant at the end, if it weren’t for Monte,” Thomson later said.
• Irvin ultimately won a ring with the Giants in 1954, but the ‘51 World Series did not go their way, as they lost to the Yankees in six games. Yet Irvin had the best series of any player on either team. He cracked four hits and stole home in his World Series debut and finished the Fall Classic 11-for-24 (.458) with a 1.042 OPS. That remains tied for the 10th-highest batting average in a single World Series (minimum 20 at-bats).
• It wasn’t Irvin’s only great championship performance. In his first season back from the war, in 1946, he helped lead the Eagles to a seven-game Negro Leagues World Series victory over Satchel Paige’s Kansas City Monarchs. Irvin batted .462 with three homers and eight RBIs.
• Irvin’s rise with the Giants coincided with the arrival of a certain 20-year-old phenom. Willie Mays, the 1951 NL Rookie of the Year, was Irvin’s roommate, and the older Giant took him under his wing.
“In my time, when you were coming along, you had to have some kind of guidance, and Monte was like my brother,” Mays 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 only got to play eight seasons and 764 games in the Majors, but his production when he was on the field was impressive. Irvin generated a career line of .293/.383/.475, good for a 125 OPS+, or 25% better than the league average when adjusting for ballpark. That’s comparable to many other Hall of Fame outfielders at the same age (30-37), including Ken Griffey Jr. (124). But there’s no need to imagine Griffey’s big league career before he turned 30.