By In 100 Greatest, Baseball

No. 71: Monte Irvin

“Sometimes,” Monte Irvin once told me, “I would think: ‘Nobody saw me when I could really play. … I’ve tried not to think about it. But sometimes you can’t help it.”

We were sitting at a ballpark with Buck O’Neil, and what I remember is the way Buck was looking at his old friend. Buck, somehow, had overcome his bitterness. He had found a way to look back at a time when he was prevented from playing and later managing in the Major Leagues … and yet he would see mostly joy and wonder. “I was born right on time,” he used to say. This sort of triumph over the poison of the past was his gift. At one point the two men were talking about Negro Leagues busses, and Irvin was remembering how old and bumpy and broken down those busses were. Buck, meanwhile, remembered them as luxurious rides.

Monte Irvin would admit that he could not quite see the past the way Buck did.

Then again, Buck O’Neil would admit: He wasn’t the ball player Monte Irvin had been.

Maybe nobody was.

One powerful way to tell how good Negro Leagues players were is to look at the early days of baseball integration. In the first few years of integration — just the first few years — Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella, Minnie Minoso, Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks and Elston Howard all came over from the Negro Leagues. There has never been an influx of talent like that. Ever. Any reasonable look at the list of all-timers should leave no doubt just how good Negro League stars were in the years before Jackie Robinson crossed the line.

In a way, you can work backward like that with the amazing career of Monte Irvin. When he was 17, Irvin was an athletic phenom at East Orange High School in New Jersey. He played four sports, all brilliantly, but especially baseball. One of his teachers wrote to New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham. “We’ve got a player here,” the teacher wrote, “you would not even believe.”

Stoneham was still a young man, still somewhat idealistic — this was before he moved the Giants to San Francisco and became utterly detested in New York — and he sent at least two scouts to see Monte Irvin play. Years later, Irvin would ask Stoneham what the scouts said. “They told me,” Stoneham said sadly, “that you were the next Joe DiMaggio.”

This was 1938. Stoneham, like a few other owners and executives, would tentatively tiptoe to the edge of the color line. But they always turned back. Stoneham was no different. “I only wish I had been braver than that,” Stoneham would tell Irvin many years later. The Giants put the Irvin scouting reports into the files. And Irvin went to play in the Negro Leagues.

How good was he? Irvin is not a boastful man, but he says that he played the outfield like Willie Mays. And he could run. The tattered statistics that have survived tell how good a hitter he was. In 1941, for the Newark Eagles, he hit .400 against the highest level competition. In 1942, he played in the Mexican League and hit .397 with 20 homers in just 63 games. And then he went to war.

When he came back, Branch Rickey tried to sign him — this was at the same time that Rickey signed Jackie Robinson — and Irvin would remember telling him that he wasn’t ready, wasn’t the same player he had been in the war. There’s reason to believe that it was more complicated than that, that Effa Manley, who was running the Newark team, apparently refused to let Irvin go without compensation. Rickey was, of course, a pivotal figure in integration and he has been deservedly celebrated for that. But it’s often overlooked that he did not respect the Negro Leagues as a fully organized league and did not believe he should compensate Negro Leagues owners for their players. Kansas City Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson let Jackie Robinson go without compensation because he believed it was the right thing, but he reportedly did resent Rickey for just taking his players as if the Monarchs were not a real team.

In any case, Irvin played in the Negro Leagues for another three seasons. He was 30 years old when he finally signed with the Stoneham’s Giants.

And now we can start working backward. At age 30, his body beaten down by all those games (sometimes three a day), all those bus rides, his time at war, was sent to Jersey City. In 63 games there, he hit .373/.519/.642 with 55 runs scored, 52 RBIs, 14 stolen bases and 32 extra base hits. He basically could do everything.

The Giants, though, didn’t believe. They sent him back to Jersey City and, at age 31, he had 18 games for the ages. In those 18 games, he hit .510 and hit 10 home runs. Yeah. ten. His slugging percentage was better than 1.200. The Giants really had no choice. They called him up and he hit .299/.392/.497 with 15 homers the rest of the way.

Then, in 1951 — he was now 32 years old — he hit .312, hit 11 triples, slugged 24 homers, stole 12 bases, led the league with 121 RBIs and was the best player on the miracle Giants team that won the pennant by going 39-8 after August 12. During that stretch, Monte Irvin hit .330/.416/.602. He was otherworldly.

Then, in the World Series — though the Giants lost to the Yankees in six games — Irvin hit .458.

Irvin was playing at that level again in 1952 when he was hurt. At age 34, he hit .329 and slugged .541. He declined in 1954 at age 35 but still hit 19 homers and played a role in the Giants World Series championship.

So how good was Monte Irvin as a young man? Let’s put up a few age 32 seasons:

Player A: .312/.415/..514, 24 homers, 94 runs, 121 RBIs, 147 OPS+
Player B: .278/.356/.549, 44 homers, 117 runs, 127 RBis, 142 OPS+
Player C: .304/.371/..510, 26 homers, 100 runs, 87 RBIs, 145 OPS+
Player D: .329/.374/.490, 19 homers, 104 runs, 110 RBIs, 139 OPS+
Player E: .308/.411/..541, 25 homers, 94 runs, 78 RBIs, 176 OPS+.

Player A, of course, is Irvin. Player B is Henry Aaron. Player C is Ryne Sandberg. Player D is Kirby Puckett. And Player E is Al Kaline.

So, working backward, you might say that Irvin was in the range of those Hall of Fame players.

But, of course, none of those players had gone through what Irvin went through. He would always say that by his amazing 1951 season, he wasn’t half the player he had been.

After he finished playing, Irvin worked for Major League Baseball. He was a quiet and strong presence but had the unfortunate task of representing Bowie Kuhn at the game where Henry Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record. It was unfortunate because he was booed — though, of course, the boos were for the absent commissioner who had an almost magical ability to do the wrong thing. Irvin was the voice of the Negro Leagues inside the commissioner’s office and the shame of it was that too often people just didn’t listen.

“Why did they think we could not play?” he asked. “That’s always been my question when I think back to the Negro Leagues. The ball was the same size. The bats weighed the same. The fields were no smaller. Why did they think we could not play?”

26 Responses to No. 71: Monte Irvin

  1. Scott says:

    I will admit I have not listened to every minute of every Poscast. But I have listened to nearly all of the Poscasts (in all of their incarnations). How is it possible that you have apparently failed to discuss the amazing fact that I just learned: Michael Schur’s father-in-law is . . . Regis Philbin!!

  2. Chofo says:

    I must admit, I didn’t fully realized how good some of this Negro League players were. Great series

  3. Matt Vandermast says:

    Great as always, Joe. “She declined in 1954 at age 35…” is a typo you’ll probably want to fix.

    I liked the Irvin chapter of Soul of Baseball a lot; it helped show how truly exceptional Buck’s sense of joy and wonder was.

  4. doncoffin64 says:

    They didn’t think that players from the Negro Leagues *couldn’t* play; they thought they *should not be allowed* to play. That’s much, much worse.

    • buddaley says:

      I think there was also a view in some quarters that the Negro Leaguers did not have the “intangibles” necessary to weather the stresses of major league play. The bigotry infested rationalizations in many ways.

  5. royalsblues says:

    I enjoyed this entry very much, so I “googled” Monte Irvin. He’s 94 years old and still with us. Amazing. He’s the second oldest living member of the hall of fame.

  6. Carl says:

    Hi Joe,

    Thank you. What a GREAT way to demonstrate statistically what a tremendous ballplayer Monte Irvin was. Did not appreciate him fully until your post here. Thank you.

  7. Tom Pareti says:

    Thanks Joe. I knew some about this great player but you definitely enlightened me although I now find it hard to believe that there are/were seventy players better than Monte Irvin!

  8. SBMcManus says:

    I’m a little embarassed to say that the name Monte Irvin meant very little to me prior to reading this. I had a vague awareness of him as part of the integration period of baseball but hadn’t really given it much more thought. What a nice Xmas present to get a little more insight on his career – thanks so much Joe, keep ’em coming.

  9. Damon Rutherford says:

    This series needs to at least be compiled into a PDF/e-book! I’d even buy a hard cover copy and hand it over to my two young boys.

  10. johnq11 says:

    I grew up not far from where Monte Irvin and Larry Doby lived and sadly few if anybody under the age of 70 knows who or how good they were.

    You would play a game at “Larry Doby” or “Monte Irvin” field and it was usually something like, “who?” “Oh yeah, that black guy from the Negro Leagues.”

  11. NormE says:

    Growing up in NYC I was privileged in the late ’40s and 1950s to get all the home games of the Dodgers, Giants and Yankees on TV. I remember Monte Irvin and realized he was one of the better players on my screen. However, it’s only it my later years did I realize just how good he was. Reading about Monte Irvin and such others as his teammate Hank Thomson, brought home the great injustice of racial segregation.
    I would point out that most New Yorkers of the time did not “detest” Horace Stoneham. Most of their bile was used up on Walter O’Malley.
    The great regret NYers had about the Giants’ move was the loss of Willie Mays. But the fans recognized that the Polo Grounds was a weird, rundown ballpark and attendance had dwindled greatly.
    Some of the other Negro League players who came up at that time included Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, Sam Jethroe and Joe Black.
    Great series, Joe.

  12. Wilbur says:

    If I recall correctly, Stoneham was considering his own move, independently, to Minneapolis, where the Giants had their AAA team. When the Dodgers decided to move to LA, they couldn’t do it unless some other team went to the West Coast with them.

    They both profited from doing so. The Dodgers were not drawing well in Brooklyn, despite having such a great team for so many years.

  13. johnq11 says:

    Wilbur, yeah you’re right, Stoneham wanted to move to Minneapolis because they owned the territorial rights and most of the owners were shocked and envied the money the Braves started to make when they moved to Milwaukee.

    Overall Stoneham got screwed in the deal and O’Malley made out like a bandit. I think they sold him the land in Chavez Ravine for $1 and he was in the second largest media market in the U.S. Stoneham was tricked into building Candlestick park in that location. In reality Stoneham would have been better off to stay in the NYC area and look for some kind of sweetheart deal from Queens or New Jersey or some other part of NYC or Long Island.

  14. tombando says:

    Guys like Biz Mackey and Mule Suttles belong here. But Monte Irvin? Harry Heilmann, Earl Averill and Bill Terry ain’t gonna see the light of day, they’re at least Irvin’s equals. Shame on ya Memphis Bill, ya ain’t up to Poz’ standards. Gee.

  15. Andrew says:

    Fabulous article. I really hadn’t heard much about Monte Irvin until I read this, so thank you for giving me a reason to look into his baseball career and life.

  16. Ericc22 says:

    I’ve been a long-time lurker to this series and can no longer hold off on commenting. Just a fabulous series – probably the best series I’ve encountered on the web.

    Like a previous poster, I live very close to where Monte Irvin grew up. I also am surprised/disappointed at how little people in this area know about him. And yes, he is still alive. My kids wrote him a letter a year or so ago and he was kind enough to sign their ball for them and send it back.

    I always enjoy looking at the similar players on baseball-reference for players. For Mr. Irvin, this doesn’t work as his MLB career was brief. Does anyone know what his similarity, or WAR, might project to? For example, if you take his career from age 31 forward, then regress it backwards, who might that compare to? This assumes his early years would match players who have a career similar to his MLB career, from 31 on. (Hope that makes sense….)

  17. Chad Meisgeier says:

    Wow. Another excellent work. Agree with the previous poster that this must be compiled into a coffee table book at some point. I think I know a fair amount about baseball but I am embarrassed by how little I know of Monte Irvin.

    For my No. 71, I would say Carl Hubbell.

  18. […] due to his military service in World War II.  Further reading on his life and career can be found here, here, and […]

  19. […] Irvin returned from the war, Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey tried to sign him to become the player who would break the majors’ color line. “Monte was the choice of all Negro […]

  20. […] Irvin returned from the war, Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey tried to sign him to become the player who would break the majors’ color line. “Monte was the choice of all Negro […]

  21. […] Irvin returned from a war, Dodgers ubiquitous manager Branch Rickey tried to pointer him to turn a actor who would mangle a majors’ tone line. “Monte was a choice of all Negro National […]

  22. […] Irvin returned from the war, Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey tried to sign him to become the player who would break the majors’ color line. “Monte was the choice of all Negro […]

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