A mere seven years after his major league debut, Monte Irvin was without a job in the major leagues.
Despite posting an impressive .296/.389/.477 batting line over his Giants career, socking 84 home runs, and garnering a third-place MVP finish in 1951, the New York Giants did not renew the left fielder’s contract for the 1956 season, after seven years roaming the Polo Grounds. They had demoted Irvin to the Minneapolis Millers, their top minor league squad, midseason 1955, and he remained there until season’s end, his major-league future very much in doubt.
At the winter meetings in December 1955, the Cubs nabbed Irvin in the minor league draft —sort of equivalent to today’s Rule 5 Draft—for a fee of $10,000, ahead of reported competition from the Tigers (for whom he would have been the first black American player) and the Reds.i Irvin went on to hit .356 at Minneapolis, and major league clubs clamored for a shot to add him to their big-league rosters,ii hoping for the Irvin who averaged a .302/.394/.495 line from ’50-’54 and not the player who slipped to a .767 OPS in 1955.
Irvin was 36 when the Cubs acquired his services via the draft, and part of the reason they were able to get him was that the Giants doubted his ability to rebound from a poor 51 games in 1955. But how was he so worn out, already, after a brief seven-year stint in the majors? The short answer: as a black player in the 1940s, Irvin was shut out of the major leagues by a color barrier, ultimately “broken” by Jackie Robinson in 1947. The longer answer, however, is worth revisiting.
Before beginning his major-league career at age 30 in 1949, Monte Irvin was a standout Negro League star. During a college career at Lincoln University, where he lettered in four sports, Irvin caught on with Effa Manley’s Newark Eagles of the Negro National League. For a decade, he stayed with the Eagles, foraying briefly into the Mexican League with Veracruz for a winter stint, also missing all of two seasons and part of two more while serving in the military during World War II.
At every turn, Irvin and his fellow black players faced the harsh reality of white supremacy. Jules Tygiel’s 1983 book, Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy, focuses not only on Robinson’s own journey, but on the banal, daily, and personal racism that black Negro Leaguers, minor leaguers, and eventual major leaguers experienced, Irvin among them.
Irvin later contrasted his time in Mexico with his career as a Negro Leaguer and major leaguer in no uncertain terms, calling it “the first time in his life that he felt free.” Whereas in the United States he and his teammates were restricted to particular hotels, restaurants, playing fields, and leagues designated for black Americans due to white supremacist codes and culture, in Mexico, Irvin reminisced that “we could go anywhere we wanted, eat anywhere we wanted, do anything we wanted, and not have to worry about anything.”iii
As political and journalistic pressure and economic incentives made the integration of the major leagues more likely, and as black players’ skills made them harder to ignore, Irvin attracted quite a bit of attention from major league scouts and executives who sought a pioneering black player. Newspaper columnists, notably those writing for black periodicals like the Pittsburgh Courier, Chicago Defender, and New York Amsterdam News, frequently cited Irvin as a top candidate for the major leagues. Manley, later, spoke effusively of her star player: “Monte was the choice of all the Negro National and American League club owners to serve as the number one player to join a white major league team… 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 [Moses “Fleetwood” and Weldy] back in the 1880s.”iv
Note that Manley focused primarily on Irvin’s character and comportment, only tacking on at the end an oblique reference to his prodigious skill in her reference to “physique.” Irvin’s uniquely stoic demeanor, even more so than his remarkable hitting ability, made him the prime candidate for integration in the eyes of many power brokers. In his exceptional eulogy for Vice Sports, Steven Goldman deconstructed the Irvin-as-dignified-black-man mythos in an effort to recast Irvin as a great player first and foremost, who is unduly ignored due to a short major league career. The fact is, white executives, including Branch Rickey, wielded “character” as a gatekeeping tactic, and as justification for passing over scores of talented black players.
In terms of on-field skill, many major league clubs furnished tryouts for standout Negro Leaguers, but most tryouts were orchestrated to placate activist journalists and not as an earnest appraisal of black talent.v These tryouts did little to change the course of integration. Irvin and fellow black players rumored to be considered for the theretofore lily-white major leagues continued to be spurned by the institution. And although Manley and the other Negro League owners saw Irvin as the best candidate, they wielded no power in actually setting into motion Irvin’s prospective major league career. That was the domain of the few white men who owned major league teams, and Commissioner Kennesaw Landis.
Sincere maneuvers toward integration came from the Brooklyn Dodgers’ camp, however. Rickey, the Dodgers president who signed Robinson in 1945, had tried to persuade Effa Manley to relinquish Irvin that same offseason, but Manley balked at Rickey’s proposal.vi To Manley, Rickey was an enemy to black baseball: he had not compensated Robinson’s Negro League team, the Kansas City Monarchs, and Manley feared the precedent set by the signing. Irvin remained a rumored Dodgers target for the rest of his time in the Negro Leagues.vii
The Dodgers didn’t sign Irvin, as Irvin was unsure about his skill level following several years away from playing due to his military service, and he remained with the Eagles until his signing with the Giants. Other players soon departed the Eagles for the majors, including Don Newcombe, prompting Manley to publicly scold Rickey, who she saw as a threat to the health of black baseball as an institution due to his cavalier raiding of Negro League teams. Irvin would excel for four more seasons in Newark before departing for the Polo Grounds at age 30. Manley received $5,000 from the Giants.
Although Irvin’s Newark teammate Larry Doby would debut in 1947 as the American League’s first black American player, Irvin’s 1949 debut marked the Giants’ integration, a landmark event that ushered in an era of exceptional Giants teams featuring a host of African-American and Afro-Latino players. Over the next two decades, Willie Mays, Hank Thompson, Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda and others starred for the Giants in New York and San Francisco.
“He looks like a rookie,” a teammate expressed in Cubs Spring Training, relaying the zeal with which the 37-year-old Irvin brought to his opportunity with his new team.viii Manager Stan Hack implored fans to recall Irvin’s magnificent performance in the 1951 World Series, the capstone on a season in which he hit .312/.415/.514 with 24 home runs and 121 RBI, both career highs. “Monte is a long way from being washed up.”
While he didn’t reprise his MVP-caliber peak—most of which had passed even before his major league debut—in his final season, Irvin hit 15 home runs with a .271/.346/.460 line, a minor resurgence in his lone year with the North Siders. He ranked 35th in position player BWARP that year, leading Cubs position players with a total production similar to that of teammates Walt Moryn and Ernie Banks. The man who had unjustly fallen out of the graces of the team perhaps most proactive in signing black players in the 1950s rounded out a Cubs lineup featuring the ascendant Banks at shortstop and Banks’ fellow integration pioneer Gene Baker at second base.
Prior to the season, legendary sportswriter Wendell Smith praised the Cubs for their acquisition, calling it “the best news that came out of the minor league meetings in Columbus.”ix Smith recounted the already-complicated contextualization of Irvin’s talents, reminiscing about Irvin’s sky-high Negro Leagues peak—batting titles, championships, a cannon of an arm—while effusively writing about the man’s character. “Whether he makes good again isn’t important,” he wrote. “He’s been through a lot… He deserves a lot.”
Irvin suffered a back injury in Spring Training the following year, and his career ended too quietly for a player who appeared to have mileage left. The skilled slugger eventually gained entry to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973 as a selection by the new Negro Leagues Committee. A few years prior, he had become the first black executive in major league history, as he took a position in the commissioner’s office.
Remembrances of Irvin have focused on Irvin’s status as one of the greatest players of the 1940s, and the shame of his shuttering from the majors. While Irvin’s time with the Cubs was short, it is perhaps a reminder of the transcendent player Irvin was that most never got to see. Just as the Cubs enjoyed only a taste of Irvin’s tremendous skills in the man’s final season, so too have baseball fans missed Irvin’s legacy as one of the all-time greats. Smith’s article captures this spirit, and so does Goldman’s. As Irvin himself said, “If the majors would have taken or accepted the black player ten years before, they would have gotten the real stars.”
iAssociated Press. “Cubs Get Irvin’s Power as Majors Draft 10 Men.” Christian Science Monitor. Nov. 29, 1955.
iiDrebinger, John. “Giants Get Ridzik and Cubs Obtain Irvin in 10-Player Major League Draft.” New York Times. Nov. 29, 1955.
iiiRuck, Rob. Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011). 69-70.
ivQuoted in Muder, Craig. “Monte Irvin Signs with the Giants.” National Baseball Hall of Fame. January 2015. http://baseballhall.org/discover/inside-pitch/monte-irvin-signs-with-giants.
vTygiel, Jules. Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983).
viLacy, Sam. “Report Roy Campanella Headed for Dodgers Farm.” Baltimore Afro-American. April 6, 1946.
viiLacy, Sam. “Looking ‘Em Over.” Baltimore Afro-American. March 9, 1946; Graves, Jr., Lem. “From the Press Box.” Norfolk New Journal and Guide. Aug. 24, 1946.
viii“Monte Irvin Seeks Big League Comeback with Chicago Cubs.” Atlanta Daily World. March 7, 1956.
ixSmith, Wendell. “A Wonderful Guy Gets Another Chance.” Pittsburgh Courier. Dec. 10, 1955.
Lead photo courtesy Geoff Burke—USA Today Sports.