After baseball’s color line was broken in 1947, Monte Irvin was one of the first black players signed by the Giants. He could run, throw, field, hit, and hit with power, all brilliantly. He earned 16 letters and all-state honors in four sports at East Orange (NJ) High School. His outstanding athletic career was almost prematurely ended in 1938 when he scratched his hand in a basketball game; the resulting infection kept him near death for seven weeks. He recovered and returned to the Orange Triangles, a semi-pro team that he had joined in 1932. He began playing for the Newark Eagles on weekends under the name “Jimmy Nelson” to protect his amateur standing, a practice he continued while attending Lincoln University.
Irvin became one of the brightest stars in the Negro Leagues, playing in four East-West all-star games. After hitting league highs of .422 in 1940 and .396 in 1941, he won the triple crown in Mexico with a .398 average and 30 home runs in 68 games. Many Negro League owners felt Irvin was the best-qualified candidate to break the major league color line, but Irvin was drafted in 1942 and spent the next three years in the army.
Upon his return from the service, Irvin was tentatively contacted by the Dodgers’ Branch Rickey, but felt he needed to play himself back into shape. He earned MVP honors in the 1945-46 Puerto Rican Winter League. He then led the Negro National League in RBI and hit .389, taking the Eagles to a victory over the Kansas City Monarchs in the 1946 Negro World Series. Irvin hit .462, slammed three HR, and scored the winning run in the seventh game. He was ready for the majors, but Rickey did not want to pay Eagles owner Effa Manley for the rights to Irvin’s contract. Irvin remained with the Eagles and proceeded to lead the NNL in HR and RBI.
After Irvin spent the 1948-49 winter in Cuba, Rickey relinquished his claim, and the New York Giants paid Manley $5,000 for Irvin’s contract. Assigned to Jersey City (International League), he batted .373. He debuted with the Giants on July 27, 1949 as a pinch hitter. Back with Jersey City in 1950, he was called up after hitting .510 with 10 HR in 18 games. He batted .299 for the Giants that season, playing first base and the outfield. In 1951 Irvin emerged as a star, hitting .312 with 24 HR, leading the National League with 121 RBI, and finishing third in MVP balloting. He hit .458 in the 1951 World Series and stole home off Yankee pitcher Allie Reynolds in the second game.
During an exhibition game in April 1952, Irvin broke his ankle sliding into third. He reinjured the leg in August 1953 and never regained his earlier form. He was sent down in mid-1955, and spent his final ML season with the Cubs. He scouted for the Mets in 1967-68, then joined the Commissioner’s office as a public relations representative. The Committee on Negro Baseball Leagues elected him to the Hall of Fame in 1973; he later became a member of that body and of the Hall of Fame Committee on Baseball Veterans.