Monte Irvin was honored by the Giants a weekend ago as the first black player in Giants history, but he could have been even more. He could have been the one who broke the color line.
Irvin explained what happened on the June 25 Comcast sports show. In 1945, he was interviewed by Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Irvin was 26, at the peak of his ability, and acknowledged to be the best player in the Negro League.
But Irvin was just coming off military duty in World War II. “I didn’t feel my skills were where they should be,” he said, “so I shouldn’t be the one to lead the way.”
So, Rickey chose Jackie Robinson. “Jackie was a great choice,” said Irvin. “He was not only a great player but he handled himself very well.”
It wasn’t until 1949 that Irvin finally made it to the Giants. His best year was 1951, when he hit .312 with 24 home runs and a league-leading 121 RBIs.
Irvin is in the Baseball Hall of Fame, more from what he did in the Negro League and Mexican League than in his relatively short major league career. Originally, many in baseball scoffed at the statistics from the Negro League, but it became impossible to support that position after black players such as Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Frank Robinson, Don Newcombe and Campy Campaneris — along with pioneers Robinson and Irvin — dominated the National League in the ’50s.
Only one professional league was integrated before baseball. In 1946, when the NFL’s Rams wanted to move from Cleveland to Los Angeles, the L.A. Coliseum commissioners refused to allow it unless they integrated their team. So, the Rams signed Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, who had been teammates of Robinson’s on the 1939 UCLA football team.
But the NFL wasn’t baseball, which was by far the No. 1 sport at the time. So, the integration of baseball was a huge story, and one whose implications are still being felt.
Most of the black baseball pioneers are dead now, but Irvin is still here, and he can be rightfully proud of the movement of which he was an important part.