Monte Irvin, Part of Baseball’s First Black Outfield, Dies at 96

Monte Irvin, who in 1949 became the fifth black player to cross the color barrier into Major League Baseball and who roamed the outfield with Willie Mays for the New York Giants, has died. He was 96.

He died Monday at his home in Houston, the National Baseball Hall of Fame said on its website. No cause was given.

One of the great stars of baseball’s Negro leagues, Irvin was 30 when he was accepted into the long-segregated Major Leagues, his greatest years as an athlete behind him.

“My only regret is that I didn’t get a shot at 19, when I was a real ballplayer,” he said in 1973, according to the New York Times.

He did help the Giants win two National League pennants, in 1951 and 1954, and the 1954 World Series. In seven seasons with the Giants and a final year with the Chicago Cubs in 1956, Irvin hit a total of 99 home runs and batted .293. He also formed, with Mays and Hank Thompson, Major League Baseball’s first all-black outfield, in game one of the 1951 World Series between the Giants and the New York Yankees.

“I played in the bus leagues for many years -- overworked, underpaid -- but somehow now this does not seem to be in vain,” Irvin said in his National Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech in 1973, using a phrase that describes the travel associated with the minor leagues. “And I hope my induction will help to ease the pain of all of those players who never got a chance to play in the majors.”

Number Retired

The Giants, who moved from New York to San Francisco following the 1957 season, retired his jersey number, 20, in

2010.

Montford Merrill Irvin was born Feb. 25, 1919, in Haleburg, Alabama, one of 11 children of Cupid Alexander Irvin, a sharecropper, and the former Mary Eliza Henderson.

His given name at birth, Hubert, was changed when he was about 8 to Montford, a nickname coined by a sister that stuck, according to a chapter he contributed to the 2007 book “Before the Glory: 20 Baseball Heroes Talk about Growing Up and Turning Hard Times Into Home Runs,” by Bill Staples and Rich Herschlag. Irvin’s first name is Monford, according to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum website.

Also when he was about 8, the family moved to New Jersey, settling in Orange, near Newark. At Orange High School, he won 16 letters in football, baseball, basketball and track.

He studied history for two years at Lincoln University near Oxford, Pennsylvania, then joined the all-black Newark Eagles baseball team in 1939.

He played the 1942 season in the Mexican League, then spent three years with the U.S. Army’s engineering corps during World War II, building bridges in Europe with a racially segregated unit.

Color Barrier

In 1949, the Eagles sold his contract for $5,000 to the Giants, who assigned him to their top farm team, in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Robinson had broken baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers two years earlier, in 1947. He was followed later that season by Larry Doby with the Cleveland Indians and Hank Thompson and Willard Brown with the St. Louis Browns, the franchise that is today’s Baltimore Orioles.

On July 8, 1949, Irvin became Major League Baseball’s fifth black player when he pinch-hit for the Giants in a game against Robinson and the Dodgers.

When Giants manager Leo Durocher called him to bat, “my knees started knocking and they wouldn’t stop,” Irvin wrote in a foreword to the 2003 paperback edition of Harvey Frommer’s “Rickey and Robinson: The Men Who Broke Baseball’s Color Barrier:”

“I called time, stepped out, and stepped back in. I worked the count to 3-2 and then walked. I was so excited, I ran all the way to first base. It was a great feeling just to get there.”

MVP Vote

In 1951, his first full season, he hit .312 with 24 home runs and 121 runs batted in, finishing third in National League Most Valuable Player voting to Roy Campanella and Stan Musial. With Irvin in left field and Mays, a rookie, in center, the Giants won the pennant on Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ’round the world” against the Dodgers.

In the World Series, which the Giants lost to the Yankees in six games, Irvin batted .458 and stole home in the first inning of game one, a Giants win.

The Giants won the World Series three years later, sweeping the Cleveland Indians in four games. Irvin had two hits in nine at-bats.

Irvin and his wife, Dorinda Otey Irvin, who died in 2008, had two daughters, Pamela and Patti.

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