Monford Merrill “Monte” Irvin
Professional baseball player and executive
Born: Feb. 25, 1919 in Haleburg, Alabama
Raised in: Orange, New Jersey
Died: January 11, 2016, in Houston, Texas
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2021: Sports
One of the first African-Americans to play in baseball’s major leagues, Monte Irvin became an All-Star and a World Champion with the New York Giants after first attracting attention for his stellar play with the Newark Eagles in the Negro National League.
The future baseball Hall of Famer was born Monford Merrill Irvin in rural Alabama, but moved as a child with his family to Orange, New Jersey. He was a four-sport athlete in high school, setting the state record in the javelin throw. He received an athletic scholarship to attend Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he starred on the football field. But when Negro League recruiters came around, he left college to play baseball.
Irvin signed to play shortstop with the Newark Eagles in 1938 and achieved a batting average above .400 in 1940—a rare feat. Denied a raise after another stellar year in 1941, he jumped to the Mexican League in 1942, where he topped all players in batting average, home runs and runs batted in.
Drafted into the military during World War II, Irvin was deployed as an Army engineer in England, France and Belgium, serving at the Battle of the Bulge. After the war, he returned to the Newark Eagles and again hit over .400 in 1946, winning his second batting title and leading his team to the Negro League championship.
Many experts considered Irvin a good choice to break baseball’s color barrier, but that distinction—and burden—went instead to Jackie Robinson in April 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Two years later, Irvin joined the New York Giants organization, playing first for Jersey City in the International League and breaking in as the Giants’ first African-American player in July 1949.
Irvin became a fixture in the outfield for the Giants, helping lead the team to the World Series in 1951, when he batted .312, topped the National League in runs batted in with 121, and finished third in the voting for Most Valuable Player. The Giants lost the championship to the New York Yankees, but Irvin batted an impressive .458 in the six-game series. That year, Irvin also served as a mentor to a promising Giants’ rookie, a fellow African-American from Alabama named Willie Mays.
Irvin was named to the National League’s All-Star team in 1952 and again reached the World Series with the Giants in 1954. This time the Giants won over the Cleveland Indians. After a back injury, Irvin retired as a player in 1957.
By the 1960s, Irvin was back in baseball as a scout for the New York Mets. In 1968, the baseball commissioner’s office hired Irvin as a public-relations specialist, making him Major League Baseball’s first African-American executive. He served as an MLB executive until 1984.
Irvin was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame in 1973. Throughout his sport, Irvin was respected not just for his skills on the field, but as a pioneer, a gentleman and a loyal teammate.