When Monte Irvin entered baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1973, his induction speech was brief but poignant. He referenced his nine seasons in the Negro Leagues, where he and many other African-Americans played before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947 for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Irvin joined the Giants in 1949 and became a star outfielder.
“Overworked, underpaid, but somehow now this does not seem to be in vain,’’ Irvin — who died last Monday at his home in Houston at the age of 96 — said in Cooperstown. “And I hope my induction will help to ease the pain of all those players who never got a chance to play in the majors.’’
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Irvin, who was 30 when he made it to the big leagues, said in a later interview, “I wasted my best in the Negro Leagues. I’m philosophical about it. There’s no point in being bitter. You’re not happy with the way things happen, but why make yourself sick inside? There were many guys who could really play who never got a chance at all.”
Irvin concluded his eight-year major-league career with the Cubs in 1956. Hall of Fame outfielder Billy Williams became friends with Irvin after he retired. “I’ve had many conversations with him, many times,’’ Williams, 77, said from Chicago. “He said when Jackie got a chance to play in the major leagues, that made all those guys happy. But he expressed, ‘Why can’t we all play in America’s pastime?’ ”
Entering Cooperstown validated Irvin’s career. “It told him that he could compete on a major-league level, not just in the Negro Leagues,’’ Williams said. “It exposed his talents in all of baseball. I say all those guys were trailblazers because they made it possible for myself and all those individuals that came after them. It told America that this could happen. Monte said, ‘We just want to play baseball.’ This was the case of all the individuals that played in the Negro Leagues.’’
Irvin’s former Cubs teammate, catcher Hobie Landrith, 85, said, “I remember him more for his character than his skills. But he was still a great player. Billy Williams-like.’’
The path to Cooperstown for former Negro League stars was made possible in 1971 when then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn, in conjunction with the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, announced formation of a special commission, chaired by Irvin, to evaluate worthy players. “It was very important to him,’’ Stephen Kuhn said of his late father. “He was delighted when Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Judy Johnson, Buck Leonard and others were inducted. We were at all of those induction ceremonies in Cooperstown.’’
Irvin, whose No. 20 is retired by the Giants, became the first black executive to work in the commissioner’s office when William Eckert hired him in 1968. His duties were expanded during Kuhn’s tenure. “What bigger honor than working for the commissioner?’’ said 97-year-old Chuck Stevens, who played for the St. Louis Browns in 1941, 1946 and 1948 and knew Irvin.
Irvin was humbled by making the Hall and working in Major League Baseball. “You would never have known he was anybody famous,’’ said Katy Feeney, the senior vice president in the commissioner’s office.
Her late father, Charles, was president of the National League and was in the Giants’ front office when Irvin arrived in 1949. There were establishments that would not serve black players. “My father made sure he ate,’’ Feeney said.
In Game 1 of the 1951 World Series, Irvin teamed with Hank Thompson, who started his Giants career in the same game as Irvin, and a rookie named Willie Mays to form the first all-black outfield in Series history.
Mays, who had been mentored by Irvin and knew his teammate had eased the way for him, did not view the moment as having that much historical significance. “It wasn’t anything different,’’ Mays said this past week on National Public Radio. “It made me proud to be part of that particular unit at that particular time.’’